Baby Blues vs. Postpartum Depression: How to Determine the Difference
Pregnancy and birth are two of the most intense physical and emotional experiences a body can endure. Then, once you finally welcome your baby into the world, your whole life becomes different. Your hormones shift rapidly, your body is still changing, your sleep patterns are all over the place—and you’re learning how to raise a new human in real-time. It’s no wonder that so many parents develop postpartum blues.
According to Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Center for Women’s Mental Health, postpartum blues or baby blues affect 50-85% of all parents who give birth. Still, the symptoms of postpartum blues—namely mood changes, tearfulness, anxiety, and irritability—often catch new parents by surprise, leading many people to wonder if they are experiencing the blues or a more serious mental health issue like postpartum depression. Read on to learn about baby blues, postpartum depression, and the importance of addressing your mental health without shame.
What Are Baby Blues?
Baby blues are considered a common postpartum symptom, not a psychiatric disorder. Peaking on the fourth or fifth day post-delivery, the blues may last for a few days, but they usually go away on their own, and they should not interfere with your ability to care for yourself and your baby.
If baby blues symptoms persist for longer than two weeks, however, you should call your doctor to rule out a more serious case of depression, especially if you have a history of depression or bipolar disorder.
What Causes Baby Blues?
Here are a few factors that may lead to postpartum blues:
Extreme Hormone Changes
During pregnancy, your estrogen and progesterone levels skyrocket. Then, within 24 hours of giving birth, your sex hormone levels plummet back to their pre-pregnancy state, and your lactation hormones—prolactin and oxytocin—rise rapidly.
All these shifting hormones dramatically transform the chemical makeup of your brain and body in a very short time frame, which can intensify emotions.
Loss of Identity
When you have a baby—especially your first child—you go from being independent and having agency over your life choices… to being beholden to a tiny, crying human’s every need and whim. In our culture, we often don’t give new parents enough space to grieve that loss, but it is a loss.
We get it: Waking up every couple of hours to feed your baby can leave you feeling depleted, disoriented, and grumpy. Simply put, sleep deprivation messes with your mood, and adjusting to a new schedule takes time.
As a new parent, the self-care practices that once kept you sane may not fit into your day right now. This can throw your whole demeanor out of whack, especially in the early days of your child’s life.
Coping with Postpartum Blues
Just because postpartum blues are common and understandable doesn’t mean you should have to suffer through them! Try these simple supportive tools to get you through this rough patch:
- Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is normal, natural, and nothing to be ashamed of.
- Cut yourself extra slack with housework and chores: You just had a baby, no one expects you or your home to be presentable!
- Talk about your feelings with a loved one, or connect to other new parents who understand.
- Prioritize sleep however and whenever you can, whether that means having a family member hold your baby so you can take a quick nap or sleeping when your baby sleeps.
- Limit visitors and overwhelming situations
- Try to eat regularly and make sure you’re consuming enough protein.
Postpartum Blues Versus Postpartum Depression
Remember, baby blues do not last longer than two weeks, and symptoms are milder. When you have postpartum blues, you can still function and take care of your baby.
Postpartum depression—which affects between 10-15% of postpartum parents—does not go away on its own, and symptoms are usually more intense. Anger, restlessness, excessive crying, decreased appetite, low energy, insomnia, feelings of worthlessness and disconnection from your life, withdrawing from loved ones, racing thoughts, and suicidal ideation are the grave, urgent symptoms associated with postpartum depression. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact one of these organizations for emergency support. If you or a loved one is in immediate danger, call 911 right away.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE
National Postpartum Depression Warmline: 1-800-PPD-MOMS
Getting Help for Postpartum Depression
If you’re experiencing postpartum depression symptoms, call your doctor right away. Even if you’re still within the two-week time frame where you might have baby blues—call anyway. You know yourself best, and it’s vital that you receive the mental health care you need during this time. Postpartum depression is common, and it’s your doctor’s job to help you feel better, whether through therapy or medication.
It’s crucial to learn the difference between postpartum blues and postpartum depression and seek medical care if you suspect a postpartum mood disorder. No matter which mental and emotional changes you face as a new parent, there is nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about. You can’t be a perfect parent, but you can be an excellent example of someone who takes vigilant care of their mental health.
*Illustrations by Jesse Zhang