What Causes Postpartum Depression?

Postpartum depression is a serious condition that close to 15% of mothers experience during their first year after having a baby. While many women will go through the typical Baby Blues (the normal dip in mood, increased tearfulness, irritability, and weepyness that peaks around 5 days postpartum) some will also develop more persistent and disruptive symptoms that may be depression.

But what causes postpartum depression? Why is it that some women seem to cruise through pregnancy and postpartum with little emotional challenge and then others slip into a debilitating depression?

Like most challenges, there’s often many different factors that could lead to depression. In other words, there is no single reason that a woman develops depression after having a child. There are, however, several factors that increase a woman’s likeness to develop postpartum depression. Let’s take a look at each one:


1. Previous Experiences of Depression (Especially During Pregnancy)

Research studies show that women who have experienced depression in the past are more likely to develop it again during their postpartum days. And more specifically, women who have untreated depression during their pregnancy are 7 times more likely to develop postpartum depression!  

Given that having a baby places incredible stress on a woman’s physical and emotional systems, it’s not surprising to learn these statistics. If a women is starting off with a vulnerable emotional foundation, then it’s understandable that she would struggle even more once the demands of motherhood ramp up.


2. Family History of Depression or Other Mood Disorders

We also know (thanks to many research studies) that having a family history of depression or other mood disorders (such as anxiety or bipolar disorder) is related to women’s increased likelihood of developing postpartum depression. There seems to be some genetic link, so be curious about your family members’ experiences with depression. 

Also know that it’s common for people to experience a combination of anxiety and depression. So for example, you might have more regularly felt anxious in the past, but depression may be a new experience. It’s common for these two to show up together, sometimes simultaneously, and other times spaced apart.

3. Intimate Partner Violence

Any kind of violence in a mother’s intimate relationship (including emotional, physical, verbal, financial) is significantly related to higher levels of postpartum depression. Having a new baby is an incredibly stressful time for a woman and simultaneously enduring an abusive relationship is usually destabilizing.

Mothers with new babies need support, care, love and encouragement from those around them. No person, no matter what, deserves to be abused in any way.  If you are concerned about your own safety, or the safety of your child, it’s imperative that you get support right away (call a crisis line in your area, 911, or a victims assistance worker).

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4. Lack of Social Support

    The first year after having a baby can be a lonely time for a mother. Some people assume that mothers who are at home with their new babies are enjoying an extended holiday, but this is quite far from how most mothers experience this time. The demand of being a mother never ends, there are no days off, no calling in sick, no breaks. For women who do not have family, friends, or other supports nearby, this time as a new mother can be excruciating. Lack of social support (in the form of friends/family, social activities, + community resources) is linked to increased risk of postpartum depression.    

5. Stressful Life Events

    Stressful events (such as a loved-one dying, moving, changing jobs, relationship changes) are associated with increased rates of depression. While human beings are incredibly resilient and capable of managing adversity, there’s a point for most of us where stress becomes too much to manage and overwhelm sets it. Given that having a baby is considered a stressful life event, there’s not much wiggle room for a mother to manage more stress on top of caring for a new baby.      

“But what if none of those reasons apply to me?”

    You may read this post and say to yourself, “none of these apply to me…so why am I depressed?”  What I want you to remember is that you are a complex and being, and sometimes you can’t pinpoint exactly what has caused your emotional challenges. And this is ok!  It could be your situational context, your physical response to stress, your hormonal changes, or many other combinations of possibilities. What’s most important to take away is that you don’t have to know the exact cause of your depression (no one really knows this, by the way) in order to get better. The strategies to overcome postpartum depression will help you regardless of why you are in this position to begin with. I also want you to know that postpartum depression is a treatable condition, one that most therapists and doctors are familiar with. You are unique, but you are most certainly not alone.  I encourage you to try the self-help strategies that I’ve offered here in this post, and connect with your doctor about how you are feeling. All my best,