Postpartum depression is a depression which extends past the point of days or even weeks after giving birth.
The physiological changes associated with postpartum depression are very real. They reinforce each other in a cyclical way. Stress causes high corticosterone, which results in lower levels of oxytocin. As a result, these low levels make mom feel worse and more stressed, and so the cycle continues.
Postpartum depression is not something to be dismissed or belittled.
Our own societal standards often make new moms feel inadequate and unable to ask for help. Most of our early check-ups and check-ins with medical professionals are completely focused on physiology and not at all on psychiatry. This is a difficult conundrum for human mothers, who are tasked with doing the “most natural” thing in the world in the most unnatural set of circumstances.
There are at least as many changes taking place in a new mom’s brain as there are in the rest of her body, and so her mental health and the possibility of postpartum depression should be as highly prioritized as her physical health.
Types of Depressive Behaviours
There are three categories of depressive behaviours that are potentially experienced by new moms.
1. The Baby Blues
This generally occurs around the fifth day after giving birth and is a response to the rapid fall in progesterone. This fall can be steeper for some moms than for others. Those who experience the baby blues have a greater chance of developing symptoms in the second category.
2. Pospartum Depression
The incidence of developing PPD is higher for new moms who have experienced the baby blues. In fact, it occurs in around 25% of women who have experienced severe symptoms of the latter. Moms are over twenty times more likely to develop the third category of depression during the first month after giving birth than they are at any other time of their lives.
3. Postpartum Psychosis
Our culture expects new moms to be thrilled, bonded, euphoric, and over the moon about having had a healthy baby. However, this can actually create a sense of inadequacy and stress in new moms that they somehow aren’t right. As a result, this stress then creates a vicious cycle of elevated corticosterone that reinforces the tencencies toward symptoms of PPD. In other words, this makes the depressive feelings even worse. Mothers experiencing postpartum psychosis may be at risk of physically abusing or even killing their infants.
Customs That Protect New Mothers
It is a Chinese custom for new mothers to “do the month” after giving birth. They do not bathe or leave the home. They are taken care of by their own mothers and are isolated to spend time in peace with their newborns and their family. Although there are many stipulations about what a postparturient mother can and cannot do at this time, the bottom line is that she is taken care of while she rests.
Similarly, in Nepal, women remain in their maternal homes and are secluded from general life and society for up to two months. Mothers are cared for and even fed a specialized diet for purification and milk production. Again, the main point is that the mothers themselves are taken care of. As a result, they can use their own energy to heal and focus on the baby.
Perhaps the most important aspect of customs like these is that new moms are allowed to be removed from the world and all of its extenuating stressful circumstances.
Limiting the level of external stress on new moms is a critical point that many of us in the Western world seem to have missed.
This post is an adapted excerpt from my book “Wild Moms: Motherhood in the Animal Kingdom“