Baby Blues: Mood Swings or More Serious?

Are mood swings after giving birth merely a passing case of the blues? Or are they a sign of something more serious, such as postpartum depression?

For many women, the "baby blues" pass quickly. They appear just after childbirth, and are characterized by mood swings—from feeling very happy to feeling very sad. A woman may cry for no reason, or feel impatient, irritable, restless, anxious or lonely. These feelings may last only a few hours or for a week or two after delivery.

For some women, however, the feelings do not ease with time and may become worse. A woman with postpartum depression (PPD) may have lasting feelings of sadness or unworthiness, reduced concentration or loss of memory, and listlessness. The feelings may be similar to those of baby blues, but they are more intense. Some women also feel guilty for not bonding instantly with their baby.

Postpartum depression can appear just after birth or several months later. PPD can occur not only with the first child born, but also with subsequent children. When a woman's ability to deal with everyday activities is affected by these feelings, she may have PPD.

Researchers believe that changes in hormone levels after birth play a role in the development of PPD. Thyroid hormone levels also may fall after birth and bring on symptoms similar to PPD. Postpartum depression can be treated with counseling and medication. Thyroid problems also can be treated with medication.

The baby blues also are likely caused by changing levels of hormones, but they may be brought on by the demands of motherhood and the reality of pregnancy ending, or a combination of all three factors. Unlike postpartum depression, the postpartum blues are fairly common and don't require treatment.

A third type of postpartum phenomenon to consider is postpartum psychosis. Postpartum psychosis, although less common, is a serious mental illness. It occurs within a few days to three weeks after birth. It can occur as long as three months after birth. A woman with postpartum psychosis loses touch with reality, often having hallucinations or delusions. This illness can be treated with medication.