How Long Does Postpartum Depression Last?

Pregnancy and childbirth are beautiful things. They’re also times of great change in a woman's body and brain. Within only the first 24 hours after giving birth, estrogen and progesterone fall down to pre-pregnancy levels.

This hormonal shift causes many women to feel sad and empty. These feelings are known as "baby blues," commonly lasting a few days to a couple of weeks. However, if sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness worsen or last longer than two weeks, it may be postpartum depression.

In this article, we will cover the signs and symptoms, and how long postpartum depression can last.

What is postpartum depression?

Postpartum depression is a feeling of emptiness or sadness after giving birth. Some women feel flat, a sense of nothingness. Others might feel disconnected from their baby as if the infant is not theirs. These feelings are not a healthy part of motherhood. They are symptoms of a serious, but common mental illness that affects between 10% and 15% of new mothers¹.

Here are some terms often used to talk about symptoms of postpartum depression:

Postpartum depression (PPD)

The word postpartum refers to the period after pregnancy. PPD is depression that begins after giving birth. Nationally, PPD affects about one in nine women¹.

Perinatal depression

The term perinatal depression can sometimes be interchangeable with postpartum depression. “Peri” means around and “natal” means birth. Accordingly, this term describes depression that occurs during and/or after pregnancy.

Baby blues

It is very common for women to have some level of sadness or anxiety after giving birth. If these baby blues last longer than two weeks or the feelings get worse, it may be postpartum depression. At least 70% - 80% of women will get the baby blues within a couple of days of giving birth².

Postpartum psychosis (PPP)

Women with a history of mental illness are at a higher risk of this severe type of postpartum condition. It affects up to two women out of 1,000. Alarmingly, about 10% of PPP cases end in suicide. Signs include visual and audible hallucinations, suicidal thoughts, fear, and sadness³.

Symptoms of postpartum depression

Postpartum depression may appear a little differently in every woman. Some symptoms can be severe, while others may go unnoticed for a while. After giving birth, many mothers can feel overwhelmed, not just from the hormonal changes, pain, and recovery from birth or surgery, but also from the added responsibilities that come with a new baby.

The signs and symptoms that may indicate postpartum depression include:

  • Feeling sad, restless, or moody

  • Feeling completely overwhelmed or anxious

  • Crying frequently and/or uncontrollably

  • Lack of motivation and/or energy

  • Eating too little or too much

  • Sleeping too little or too much

  • Difficulty with memory, focus, or concentration

  • Feeling like a bad mother

  • Self-isolating 

  • Loss of interest in hobbies, friends, and/or family

  • Thoughts of hurting your baby

  • Thoughts of self-harm

  • Feeling disconnected from your baby

  • Feeling the baby is not yours

Many women are embarrassed by these feelings and choose to hide or ignore them. If you have signs and symptoms of postpartum depression, it is important to know that you are not alone and it's not your fault. It is a medical problem and mental illness that can be treated with help from your doctor.

These feelings will not go away by themselves and the duration of postpartum depression depends on how soon it's treated¹.

Risk factors for developing postpartum depression

Figuring out how long postpartum depression may last can depend on certain risk factors¹. Some women are at higher risk of developing postpartum depression than others. Here are some risk factors that can result in a longer period of illness:

  • Personal or family history of depressive or bipolar disorder

  • No support from family and friends

  • Depression during pregnancy

  • Difficulty breastfeeding

  • Younger than 20 years of age

  • Pregnancy being unplanned or unwanted

  • The baby having special needs or abnormalities at birth 

  • A history of substance misuse or abuse

Not all women who develop postpartum depression will have these risk factors and, similarly, suffering from any of these risk factors does not automatically mean you'll develop PPD¹.

When can postpartum depression start?

Although postpartum traditionally refers to the time after giving birth, this is not the complete story.

As our understanding of postpartum depression has grown, healthcare professionals have realized that this type of depression can begin before birth. Some have even started referring to the condition as perinatal depression to more accurately address the timeline.

There is no hard rule on when symptoms of depression may start. In most cases, the symptoms begin within the first three weeks of birth. However, postpartum depression can start as late as a year after childbirth⁴.

How long does postpartum depression last?

Determining the period that postpartum depression will last is an impossible task. Unfortunately, just as there is no way to predict who will get PPD or when it will start, no one can say for sure how long it will last.

Many studies have observed the symptoms and severity of postpartum depression improving over time and that the majority of cases resolve three to six months after they started. However, some women still show signs of depression as much as three years after diagnosis⁵.

While duration can vary, what is known is that treatment helps speed up the process for most women. No two women are the same, and neither are their recovery times.

What can I do if I think I have postpartum depression?

The first step to feeling better and protecting yourself and your baby is to make an appointment with your doctor. It may sometimes be difficult to ask for help, but your doctor is there to support you.

After a consultation with your healthcare professional, they will be in a position to recommend treatments that are right for you and your baby. Commonly prescribed treatments include:

Therapy

Sometimes, as part of postpartum depression treatment, women need to talk with a therapist. Therapy can be done in a group setting, one-on-one, or both. The most common types of therapy used for depression are as follows:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

When it comes to depression, CBT can be a powerful treatment. Not only can CBT help you recognize what is triggering the feelings of depression, but it can also teach you different ways to reframe how you think, behave, and react to those feelings.

Interpersonal therapy (IPT)

If postpartum depression is related to interpersonal skills, IPT can help. The goal is to help new mothers improve communication skills within relationships with those around them. 

Group therapy

Sometimes, the best type of therapy is being around others that understand what you're going through. Group therapy can be helpful alone or in addition to other treatments. Many groups offer meetings online and in person. Here you can share your feelings and struggles while meeting other women who want to support your journey.

Medications

There are several different types of medicine that a doctor can prescribe. People who have moderate to severe symptoms of depression can benefit from medication, either alone or in combination with therapy. The most common type used is called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

These medications should be used as prescribed and may take up to four weeks to build up in the body for their effects to become noticable¹. If you are breastfeeding, tell your doctor.  Several antidepressant options are found in low amounts in breast milk and are safe to take while breastfeeding⁸.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT)

If the postpartum depression is severe enough and there is a clear threat to the baby or mother, electroconvulsive therapy may be recommended¹. Patients usually only progress to ECT due to the failure of other methods. This type of treatment involves using electricity to reset the electrochemical signals in the brain.

Although ECT has been used for severe depression since the 1950s and is considered a safe option overall, it’s not without its risks. Therefore, it is not a first-line therapy⁷.

Can you reduce the duration?

While there are plenty of self-care steps you can take to reduce how long postpartum depression may last, you should still seek medical care first. This is because most studies show that symptoms start improving when the patient talks to their doctor and begins treatment.

Here are other ways you can reduce the duration of depression¹:

  • Sleep when your baby does to get more rest

  • Ask for help with chores so you can focus on your baby and rest

  • Make time to be with your partner, friends, and family

  • Be honest about your feelings

  • Talk with other mothers who have had postpartum depression

  • Ask your healthcare team about support groups near you

  • Create a daily schedule with meals, naps, showers, and whatever else you need

  • Alone time is okay! Ask your partner, a friend, or a family member to watch the baby for a bit.

Can postpartum depression lead to other mental health disorders?

If you have a personal or family history of mental health disorders, there is an increased risk for future mental health illnesses if you develop PPD².

When should you see a doctor?

If you or those around you notice signs of postpartum depression, you should contact your OBGYN or primary care physician. You should not wait to see what happens.

Postpartum depression is a serious medical and mental health disorder. Your doctor will know what to ask to help determine if what you’re experiencing is postpartum depression or something else. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you will receive treatment.

Postpartum depression and fathers

Postpartum depression may not be limited to mothers. According to one study, 4% of fathers experience depression sometime within the first year of the baby’s birth⁶. Some research shows that if the mother develops postpartum depression, the father also has a higher risk of feeling depressed².

The lowdown

Postpartum depression is a serious mental health disorder. In severe cases, the mother may try to harm themselves or their baby.

How long postpartum depression lasts will depend on each individual’s set of risk factors and when treatment starts.

Fathers can also be affected by depression and may also need treatment and support.

  1. Postpartum depression | OASH: Office on Women's Health

  2. Postpartum Depression Statistics | Postpartum Depression

  3. Postpartum Psychosis | Postpartum Depression

  4. Postpartum Depression FAQs | The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

  5. The Course of Postpartum Depression | Harvard Review of Psychiatry

  6. Depression Among Women | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  7. Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) | Mayo Clinic

  8. Breastfeeding and Psychiatric Medications | MGH Center for Women’s Health


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