The baby blues are a mild form of depression and anxiety that can occur early in the postpartum period.1 Around 50 to 80% of women experience the baby blues in the first few weeks after giving birth. Most women recover from the baby blues fairly quickly and do not require professional treatment. However, a portion of women may go on to develop a more severe perinatal mood or anxiety disorder (PMAD). Women who do not recover from the baby blues can benefit from treatment options, like medication and talk therapy.
Signs & Symptoms of the Baby Blues
A large portion of new mothers experience the baby blues, which are changes in mood that happen during the first 10 days postpartum.1 During this time, women describe feeling more sad and worried than usual, tired, and just not themselves. Knowing the signs of the baby blues and how common they are can help women feel less distressed by them.
Common symptoms of the baby blues include:1,2
- Mild sadness
- Crying spells
- Mild anxiety
- Feeling more emotional than usual
- Difficulty sleeping
- Poor appetite
It is important to note that symptoms of the baby blues are mild. If a new mother is experiencing severe anxiety or depression, suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of harming her baby, this is a sign of a more serious postpartum condition. Women experiencing these symptoms should seek help or treatment right away.
The Baby Blues vs Postpartum Depression
The main difference between the two conditions is that symptoms of the baby blues are much milder than symptoms of postpartum depression.3 While the baby blues often go away on their own, postpartum depression tends to last longer and usually requires treatment. The timelines for the baby blues and postpartum depression also differ.4
The baby blues typically begin within a few days of giving birth and resolve on their own within a few weeks. Postpartum depression, on the other hand, usually begins within the first month of giving birth, but can develop at any point within the first year, and lasts for more than two weeks. If you are experiencing sadness that is severe enough to interfere with your life and lasts more than two weeks, this may be an indication that you are dealing with postpartum depression rather than the baby blues.
Postpartum depression involves symptoms like sadness, irritability, loss of interest or pleasure in things that were once enjoyable, postpartum anger, and changes in sleep and appetite.3 It can cause a woman to doubt her ability to care for her baby and make it difficult to form a healthy attachment to the new baby. In severe cases women may even experience suicidal thoughts. Postpartum depression affects around one in nine new mothers.4
What Causes the Baby Blues?
Professionals are unsure exactly why so many women develop the baby blues after giving birth. While there is no single known cause for the baby blues, it is believed that they are related to hormonal changes, stress due to caring for a newborn, and sleep deprivation during the postpartum period.1
Changes in hormone levels during pregnancy and shortly after giving birth are one explanation for why some women experience the baby blues.5 During pregnancy, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis experiences changes that affect levels of the corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). At birth, changes in CRH levels and the HPA-axis can induce symptoms of the baby blues. Studies on rats suggest that experiencing a rapid rather than slow change in hormone levels may explain why some women develop the baby blues and others do not.6
Stress of Caring For a New Baby
The stress of adjusting to motherhood and caring for a newborn also explains why women may feel more sad or anxious during this time.1 Having a baby is a significant life change and can cause a range of emotions like worry, fear, and doubt in her ability to meet the demands of this new role. These are all common concerns. Postpartum women need to be reminded that these feelings are normal and supported throughout the transition.
Lack of sleep during the postpartum period is also believed to be related to why some women develop the baby blues.7 Studies have found that postpartum women who experience less sleep are more likely to feel depressed. Poor sleep during the third trimester of pregnancy is also related to a higher likelihood of developing the baby blues after birth. Getting adequate rest during pregnancy and after giving birth is therefore important for helping to prevent and cope with the baby blues.
Risk Factors that Increase the Likelihood of the Baby Blues
Certain risk factors are associated with a more intense reaction to the baby blues, and include feeling disappointed in your childbirth experience, a lack of support, and low self-image.
Risk factors for the baby blues include:1,8,9
- Having an unwanted pregnancy
- Low self-esteem
- Not having a partner
- Feeling disappointed or dissatisfied with one’s partner
- Fear of childbirth
- Having a caesarean delivery
- Experiencing anxiety and stress at birth
Women giving birth to their first baby also have a higher likelihood of developing the baby blues compared to women with more than one child.
Experiencing the baby blues shortly after giving birth is also a risk factor for developing postpartum depression.10
Other risk factors for postpartum depression include:11
- History of depression or anxiety
- Experiencing a risk pregnancy delivery, or postpartum complications
- Lack of social support
- Deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals
- Sleeping problems
- Younger age of the mother
If you have one or more risk factors for the baby blues or postpartum depression, there are actions you can take to help prevent them from developing.
Can the Baby Blues Be Prevented?
There is no way to guarantee that you will not develop the baby blues. However, there are steps you can take to help yourself cope during the first few weeks of motherhood. Finding positive ways to care for yourself during this time can also decrease the likelihood of the baby blues developing into postpartum depression.
Take Care of Yourself Physically & Mentally
Taking care of your physical and mental health is important for helping to prevent the baby blues. To care for your physical health, try to eat well and rest when you can. This can be challenging while caring for a newborn. If possible, ask a friend or family member to watch the baby for a few hours so that you can rest or try to sleep when the baby sleeps. This may mean letting household chores go until you have more time to devote to them. Try not to put pressure on yourself to accomplish too much during this time.
Lean on Your Support System
Social support is a protective factor when it comes to the baby blues.9 This means that having a good support system can help protect against or prevent the baby blues. Make an effort to remain connected with your support system and accept help and support when it is offered. If your support system is limited, consider ways to increase it. For example, you can join a support group or mommy-and-me class or even start your own mother’s group. These options provide opportunities to meet and connect with other mothers who may be experiencing similar struggles.
How Long Do the Baby Blues Last?
The baby blues are a brief period of mild anxiety and depression.1,2 They usually begin within one to five days of giving birth and resolve within 10 days. If a woman’s symptoms continue beyond that point, then she is most likely suffering from another perinatal disorder, like postpartum depression or anxiety.
If you continue to feel anxious or depressed after the baby blues should be over, you may want to think about getting further help. If your symptoms continue to be mild, you may try to deal with them on your own. However, if your symptoms are moderate to severe and interfering with your life, then you can benefit from treatment. There is no reason to continue to suffer when help is available.
When & How to Get Professional Help for the Baby Blues
The baby blues usually go away on their own within a few weeks of giving birth. However, some women may find that their symptoms get worse during this time, rather than better. This can be a sign of another perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, like postpartum depression or anxiety. If your symptoms do not improve within the first month postpartum and seem to be increasing, then you can benefit from getting professional help.
If you feel like you could benefit from help, you can start by discussing your concerns with your doctor, OBGYN, or midwife. They will be able to assess you further and provide you with a recommendation or referral for treatment. You can also contact your health insurance company and request a list of local mental health providers that specialize in perinatal mental health issues. Another option is to conduct an search of providers in your area using an online therapist directory and look for one that seems to be a good fit for you.
Choosing a therapist can feel a little daunting, but there are many therapists who specialize in working with new moms and you’re bound to find the right fit for you. Therapy options for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders include individual, group, and couples or family therapy.
If you are interested in medication, then you should seek a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner. Your doctor or OBGYN should be able to offer a referral.
Treatment can be helpful even if your symptoms are mild. Catching the baby blues early on and taking action can decrease the likelihood of developing a more severe postpartum condition.
Six Ways to Cope With the Baby Blues
Whether or not you choose to get treatment, you can still benefit from taking active steps to cope with the baby blues. These proactive measures can help you feel better physically and emotionally. Getting support and taking care of yourself is essential for helping you recover from the baby blues and preventing more severe symptoms from developing.
Here are six ways to recover from the baby blues:
1. Take Care of Your Health
Taking care of your health by exercising and eating well can help you deal with the baby blues. Eating a healthy diet is linked to lower levels of depression and anxiety among postpartum women.12 When possible, choose healthy fats, whole grain carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables and avoid processed and high sugar foods. You can also ask your doctor to test you for any vitamin or mineral deficiencies, since low levels of vitamin D, iron, zinc, selenium, folic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids are linked to depression.
While exercise can be good for your mental health, you should wait to be cleared by your doctor before resuming or starting a postpartum exercise routine.13 Once you are cleared to exercise, professionals recommend around 150 minutes of exercise spread throughout the course of a week. For example, you can aim for 30 minutes of exercise five days per week or 50 minutes of exercise three days per week. Postpartum women can benefit from walking, aerobics, stretching, strength training, and pelvic floor exercises.
2. Reach Out For Help
Having a good support system is important for preventing and coping with the baby blues.9 If you are struggling after giving birth, do not hesitate to speak up. Sharing how you are feeling will alert people in your life that you need more support. You can start by talking with your doctor, midwife, family and friends, and/or therapist if you have one.
If your support system is limited, consider joining a postpartum support group. Support groups allow you to connect with other new mothers who are going through the same struggles. Having a community to talk through the stresses of motherhood and the the general burnout new moms can experience is import
3. Don’t Take on Too Much
The first few weeks of motherhood can be an overwhelming time. Limiting your stress and not taking on more than you can handle can help you recover from the baby blues. To reduce stress, delegate household chores when possible. Ask for help with laundry, cleaning, running errands, and cooking meals. If you must do these things on your own, prioritize what is most important and avoid putting unnecessary pressure on yourself.
Try to accept your new limits and the fact that things will not get done as quickly as before. The demands of caring for a newborn will not last forever, so try to enjoy this time and remember that you will be able to resume your normal responsibilities as your baby grows older.
4. Rest When You Can
Sleep deprivation is a risk factor for the baby blues and postpartum depression.14 Getting enough rest can help you cope with the baby blues and prevent them from developing into another mental health condition. This is difficult with a newborn baby and requires some flexibility, but is not impossible. Some ways to improve sleep during the postpartum period include sleeping when the baby sleeps, asking for help with childcare, and having your partner take over at least one night-time feeding so you can get a longer stretch of sleep.
In some cases a postpartum woman’s sleeping problems may be unrelated to her baby. If you find yourself struggling to fall asleep or waking up often even when your baby is sleeping, this may be a sign of a sleeping disorder. Be sure to practice good sleep hygiene, including having a consistent bedtime, avoiding electronic devices, caffeine, alcohol, and large meals before bedtime, and creating a dark, quiet space in your bedroom.15 If you continue to struggle with sleep while practicing good sleep hygiene, be sure to bring this up with your physician. They may recommend a sleep study, medication, or other alternatives to further help you.
5. Get Fresh Air
Finding time to spend in the outdoors provides opportunities for exercise, socialization, and relaxation. Sunlight also stimulates vitamin D production, which is an important nutrient for mental well-being. In fact, low levels of vitamin D are linked to postpartum depression.16 When possible, take the opportunity to go for a walk or sit outdoors, which are great activities to do with a newborn. Getting fresh air will not only increase your levels of vitamin D, but also provide you with a fun activity to do with your baby.
6. Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a powerful practice for calming the mind, reducing anxiety and depression, and improving overall mental well-being. Studies have found that practicing mindfulness can even help with postpartum depression and anxiety.17,18 If you have practiced mindfulness in the past, you may find that it is more challenging with a new baby. While it may be harder to find time for a formal meditation practice, remember that any activity can be turned into a mindfulness exercise. You can try to find a few minutes during your baby’s nap or practice mindful awareness while nursing, bottle feeding, or holding your baby.
If you are new to mindfulness, you can start by finding a few quiet moments to close your eyes and tune into your breath. Allow all distractions, including thoughts, feelings, sounds, and sensations, to go away. As thoughts come up in your mind, acknowledge that they are there and gently tell yourself to release them and return your attention to your breathing. Thoughts will continue to arise, but as long as you are returning your attention to your breath, you are practicing mindfulness. With time, mindfulness will become easier and you will begin to experience the benefits of this powerful practice. There are many great apps for guided meditation to help you pick up the practice.