Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: It's been two weeks since our son was born, and my wife seems to be having a hard time. She cries easily and has a lot of anxiety. Is this just baby blues, like my mother says, or is it postpartum depression?

Dear Reader: Congratulations on welcoming a new baby! Your lives have undergone an enormous change, and that's at the heart of your wife's difficulties. Both in the short-term disruption of the so-called "baby blues" and the more serious struggle of postpartum depression, the physical, emotional and hormonal changes a woman goes through after she gives birth can often pose challenges.

First, let us reassure you that at two weeks postpartum, it's perfectly natural for a new mother to feel overwhelmed. Up to 80 percent of new mothers report symptoms of mood swings, anxiety, mild depression, weepiness and negative thoughts or feelings in the first few weeks after the baby arrives.

Your wife's body is not only recovering from the physical and emotional rigors of the birth process, but it is also now returning to its pre-pregnancy state. That means she is experiencing a sudden drop in hormone levels -- estrogen and progesterone in particular -- which have been at record levels during her pregnancy. Add in sleep deprivation and the seismic changes to her daily routine as she learns new tasks and takes responsibility for a new life, and it's little surprise that she feels overwhelmed.

When these symptoms don't go away after several weeks, or if they become more severe, then postpartum depression becomes a possibility. When this is the case, seeing a primary care physician is vital.

Symptoms of postpartum depression mirror those of major depression. These include a sad or empty feeling that won't go away, feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness, pervasive pessimism, a change in sleeping or eating habits, withdrawal from loved ones, and often a lack of connection to or interest in the new baby. Between 11 and 18 percent of new mothers experience postpartum depression. Fortunately, most women who seek treatment for postpartum depression will recover.

Meanwhile, there's a lot that you can do to help your wife right now. Simply listening is important. Get her to talk about how she's feeling and what she's going through so she knows that you care and understand. It's quite likely you both have some of the same feelings, and sharing them can help build up your bond.

Help around the house without being asked. Make a meal, do housework, arrange for her to have some time to herself. Something as simple as getting outside can make a big difference. A daily walk will be good for both of you. Even a drive through the neighborhood just to look around can bring welcome distraction.

The baby blues are an isolating experience that comes at a time of life when women are told they should be happiest. By stepping up to lend a hand, you're not only helping your wife recover, you're also setting the foundation to a parenting partnership.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095.)

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