Feeling low after giving birth is not only normal, it’s common. But telling the difference between postpartum depression and general baby blues after pregnancy can be difficult. Learn the signs of postpartum depression and baby blues and what you can do about each.

Postpartum Depression & the Baby Blues

“Sounds like you have a case of the baby blues.” This is something new moms who reported feeling depression symptoms after pregnancy might hear from doctors and well-meaning family members decades ago. We now understand that postpartum depression (also called perinatal depression1) is a genuine medical condition that requires treatment.

But how can new moms who are feeling low tell the differences between signs of postpartum depression and more general baby blues?

Signs of the Baby Blues

Between 50% and 85% of new moms2 (and some new dads, too3) will experience the baby blues shortly after the birth of their little one, particularly with the sleep deprivation that comes with the demands of a newborn.

Most often the symptoms of the baby blues are mild, but they still put a damper on daily life with your new baby. Signs of baby blues can include:

  • Feeling anxious2

  • Feeling overwhelmed4

  • Irritability and moodiness2

  • Crying easily and often5

It’s important (and perhaps relieving) to know that the baby blues are common and normal. The above symptoms typically peak around four or five days after giving birth, lasting for a few hours to a few days at a time, and subside within two weeks of birth.2

Signs of Postpartum Depression

Postpartum depression affects between 10% and 15% of new moms in Canada.6 The signs and symptoms of postpartum depression closely match the symptoms of major depressive disorder, and can include:

  • Feeling depressed

  • Feeling tired all the time

  • Feeling guilt

  • Feeling incompetent

  • Loss of self-worth

  • Anxious thoughts

  • Disinterest in usual activities2

  • Not bonding with the new baby4

  • Change in sleep (too much or too little)

  • Change in appetite (too much or too little)

  • Trouble concentrating or remembering details

  • Thoughts of suicide*

There’s a third, very rare type of postpartum psychiatric illness called postpartum psychosis; this only affects one or two women out of 1,000 new mothers.2It’s unlikely that new moms will develop postpartum psychosis, especially if you don’t have a previous diagnosis of bipolar disorder—with which it shares similarities.2

Differences between Baby Blues & Postpartum Depression

It can be hard to recognize the differences between signs of the baby blues and postpartum depression while experiencing them, but there are three large telltale signs:

  • Feeling moodiness rather than feeling sadness

  • Short-term effects (around two weeks) rather than persistent

  • Uncomfortable but not disruptive to day-to-day functioning

If a new mom experiences the former rather than the latter, it’s likely the baby blues.

There is a standardized test used to evaluate new moms for postpartum depression: the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS).2 While postnatal moms will likely receive this screening during their follow-up appointments, this ten-question scale is also available online.7 However, it’s important to remember that an online questionnaire isn’t a substitute for a doctor visit and you should discuss your symptoms and concerns with a healthcare professional.

Treatments & When to Seek Help

The baby blues should be discussed with your healthcare provider, as they can be early warning signs of developing postpartum depression or another mood disorder. Additionally, new moms should do their best to focus on caring for themselves to help get through what can often be a difficult time:8

  • Get more sleep—sleep when the baby sleeps, and more often than that if possible

  • Eat healthfully

  • Exercise when possible—even a walk (with or without baby) can help

  • Ask for help—from your partner, from your family, and from your friends

  • Focus only on caring for yourself and your baby—the rest will still be there later

Postpartum depression, however, does require medical intervention since it is a psychological condition. All of the above still apply, though additional help is available and may be appropriate, depending on your symptomology:

  • Therapy—this includes social modalities such as counseling and support groups, and traditional psychological interventions.

  • Antidepressants—there is mixed evidence about the effectiveness of antidepressants in treating postpartum depression; discuss appropriateness of this treatment method with your general practitioner or a psychiatrist who knows how to treat postpartum depression.

  • Hormone therapy—since there is a significant drop in estrogen and progesterone once a new mom delivers, limited studies suggest that replacing these hormones may ease postpartum depression symptoms, but it is not appropriate for everyone—your doctor will let you know if this treatment approach is appropriate for your case.9

Some online resources—and perhaps friends and family—suggest that massage therapy, light therapy, acupuncture, and omega-3 supplements may help, but there’s no conclusive proof that any of these are medically effective in managing symptoms.10

If your symptoms persist for more than two weeks without any sign of improvement—and you haven’t yet been formally diagnosed with postpartum depression—start talking to your doctor about your symptoms and which treatment options may be right for you.

*If at any time you have thoughts of suicide, self-harm, or infant harm, don’t wait—seek medical help immediately.