The following insights for this article have been provided by New York City-based reproductive psychiatrist Dr. Carly Snyder, who offers comprehensive reproductive psychiatry & women’s mental health services.
Childbirth and the months that follow it are not easy and can be understandably traumatic for women for a variety of reasons. The fact is that most women will go through extreme highs and lows many times a day after childbirth, including mood swings, paralyzing fatigue and tearfulness. In more serious cases, this is known as postpartum depression.
What is Postpartum Depression (PPD)?
PPD is a depressive disorder experienced by women post-childbirth and can cause sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, exhaustion and, occasionally, numbness. While the “baby blues” are common for women who have recently given birth, PPD is considered to be a longer-lasting and more serious condition which has more obviously detrimental effects on a woman’s state of mind.
It is estimated that PPD is experienced by about 11.5 to 20.1 percent of the population, depending on location, and it can be experienced as anxiety, impatience, overeating or loss of appetite, anger, worthlessness, feeling distant from your baby, paranoia, a loss of energy and withdrawal from society and family.
What causes PPD?
- History of depression or anxiety
While this is by no means a cut-and-dry rule, women who have historically suffered from depression or anxiety may find themselves more pre-disposed to PPD on varying levels. While PPD can be entirely non-discriminatory, childbirth and feelings of pressure and overwhelming responsibility, exacerbated by exhaustion, may reignite some tendencies towards depressiveness and anxiety.
- External stresses
Dr. Carly Snyder says that PPD is multifactorial, and that some women develop mood symptoms as a result of the dramatic drop in estrogen and progesterone that occurs in the days following delivery. There is no individual cause of PPD, but certain factors cause increase a woman’s risk. If a woman has a history of mood disorders such as depression and/or anxiety, or if she experiences changes in mood during her pregnancy, she may be predisposed to experiencing these similar symptoms after the baby is born.
Other risk factors include existing stresses such as financial trouble or domestic abuse and childhood trauma such as sexual abuse or neglect. But it’s important to note that in no way do these factors guarantee that a woman will experience PPD after giving birth.
- Sleep deprivation
Understandably, sleep is a major factor in the development of PPD. We all know that functioning in our day-to-day lives is almost impossible without sleep, let alone functioning at optimum to ensure the survival of a newborn. A new mom who wakes up at all hours of the night and day will likely feel disoriented and sometimes even distant from reality.
Exhaustion can also exacerbate feelings of sadness and hopelessness, meaning adequate rest really can make all the difference in alleviating or even eliminating PPD all together.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Some even say PPD could be linked to a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The Birth Trauma Association suggests that over 10,000 women in Britain are treated for childbirth-related PTSD every year, and that 200,000 more women could be untreated for forms of PTSD. Furthermore, AIMS Ireland estimates that about 18% of women have varying symptoms of PTSD, but just don’t meet full diagnosis.
For many women, if a pregnancy or previous pregnancies have been fraught with complications such as premature birth, and perhaps even tragedy such as a miscarriage, they may be more likely to develop PPD. These events understandably cause extreme anxiety and feelings of guilt. Sometimes these emotions can be compounded as women who miscarry are at a greater risk of premature birth. Approximately 12% of babies are born prematurely, which may provide some insight as to why so many women are literally worried sick in the starter months.
How do the Winter months affect PPD?
- Anxiety about crowds
The winter months are not fun and games for all of us, especially not for new moms experiencing PPD. Spending time with loved ones, family and friends is usually prescriptive for overcoming feelings of depression. However, PPD reacts slightly differently.
Many people, even family members, simply do not understand the extreme stress and uncertainty a new mother could be struggling with. Fear of being judged too harshly or anxiety about a baby’s welfare around certain people can also heighten symptoms of PDD.
- Holiday pressure
Spending time to create the perfect Christmas meal or a color-coordinated table setting is unfortunately often still seen as a woman’s duty. A new mom with family meals to prepare and people to please on one of the most important family days of the year is undoubtedly going to experience increased stress.
Some women can feel overwhelmed with checklists and gift requests, as well as bearing the burden of financial preoccupation.
- Self-expression and loneliness
PPD is exceptionally sinister because of its alienating effect. Winter months can be the catalyst for PPD to develop or worsen because new mothers are often thrust into the limelight, so to speak, as well as their babies. Everybody wants to meet the new baby and ask the mother how she’s doing, but often, the period of time directly following childbirth is one in which a new mother would prefer to have privacy and peace.
People also tend to expect a new mother to be elated over the birth of her little one. If a new mother doesn’t feel as if she is enjoying motherhood as much as everyone says she should, she is far less likely to confide in other people about negative feelings she may be having.
Self-expression can become limited and loneliness can ensue at a time where everyone is hyped up about the holidays, and this can worsen the effects of PDD.
How is PPD treated during Winter months?
PPD sufferers should seek help immediately, as early treatment can make both the mother’s and her baby’s life easier. Bonding will seem to be more forthcoming and feelings of alienation, anxiety and low self-esteem will dissipate quicker with recognition.
The various treatments include psychotherapy, antidepressant medication and self-management, and should be explored if a new mother is going through symptoms of PPD.
During the winter months especially, family members should be aware that PPD could affect anyone, and new mothers should be treated with the utmost respect, care and sensitivity. Shopping, cleaning and cooking should be shared with loved ones and partners, and it is recommended that mothers be reassured by those close to them that nothing is expected of them.
Noise should be kept to a minimum to ensure a new mother gets all of her rest, and perhaps visiting family members or friends should stay overnight with others to lessen the burden. Find out ways to maximize the new mom’s self-esteem, avoiding criticism and reassuring with praise instead. Walks, beauty treatments, museums and luncheons are encouraged.
PPD is a serious condition and, like almost any condition, can be worsened by the changing of the seasons and weather. While the winter and holiday months can be fun, they can also make many medical symptoms worse. Educating family members, partners and friends can go a long way to protecting the wellbeing of your loved ones.