New Health Test for Pregnant Women and New Moms

New Health Test for Pregnant Women and New Moms

You’ve probably heard of postpartum depression, even if you haven’t experienced it yourself. But now a new set of guidelines targets mommies-to-be as just as susceptible to serious bouts of depression and related symptoms as women who’ve recently had a baby.

The United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) has, for the first time in its history, updated its recommendations for depression screening. These new guidelines make it clear that healthcare providers should be screening women both during pregnancy and after their little one is born. But this isn’t news for some OBGYNs.

“I think that the USPSTF is catching up with what we as OB-GYNs have known for a long time,” says Sz-Min Harley, MD, of the Medical Center of Aurora in Colorado.

“The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has long recommended screening women in the perinatal period, because this is a particularly vulnerable time.”

Also, she adds, “fewer than 20 percent of women with perinatal depression self-report their symptoms. So this routine screening helps to catch the women who may fall through the cracks.”

Here’s what you need to know.

Maternity and mental health
Maternal mental illness and postpartum depression are more common than you might think, affecting as many as 1 in 7 expectant and new moms. And during the postpartum period, it’s estimated that up to 85 percent of women will experience some type of negative mood.

Experts believe that women are more susceptible to mental health issues during and right after pregnancy because of rapid shifts in hormones. Estrogen and progesterone levels can fall quickly, leading to potentially severe mood changes.

And while any woman can experience depression during this time, Dr. Harley says that women with a history of psychiatric disorders—including previous postpartum depression, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or schizophrenia—are at higher risk.

Seeing the signs
It’s completely normal to feel emotional and overwhelmed after having a baby. That's why many health professionals think of maternal mental health on a continuum—from mild “baby blues,” to postpartum depression, to more severe postpartum psychosis.

According to Harley, it can be difficult to tell the difference between depression and a simple case of baby blues, but you should keep an eye out for these signs in the first couple of weeks following delivery:

  • Sadness
  • Unexplained crying
  • Impatience or irritability
  • Restlessness or lack of concentration
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Sleeping too much or too little

If the symptoms don’t go away after one to two weeks or if, in addition, you start to experience any of these symptoms, it could indicate more serious postpartum depression:

  • Feelings of anger
  • Withdrawing from friends, family and your baby
  • Feeling numb or disconnected from your baby
  • Fear that you could hurt your baby
  • Worrying about your ability to take care of your baby
  • Feelings of apathy about being a mom
  • Persistent problems with recalling details or making decisions
  • Overeating or loss of appetite
  • Aches and pains that don’t go away
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or suicide

Postpartum psychosis is much more rare—affecting only one or two out of every 1,000 new moms. Still, it’s important to be aware of the signs, which often mimic those of bipolar disorder:

  • Manic episodes of high energy and rapid, muddled thinking that interfere with your ability to sleep, followed by periods of total exhaustion
  • Hallucinations—seeing and hearing things that aren’t there
  • Feelings of suspicion or paranoia—thinking that someone is trying to harm your baby

If you’re concerned about any of these symptoms or their potential impact on your new little bundle of joy, it’s important that you speak to your OBGYN or mental health professional right away. That way you can be screened and provided with the right level of care, says Harley.

“Women should seek professional help if they’re having persistent or extreme anxiety or guilt, insomnia, feelings of hopelessness, loss of pleasure in doing fun activities more days than not or any thoughts of hurting themselves or their baby.”

How depression affects the baby bond
“Mothers with untreated depression have a harder time bonding with their children,” says Harley.

“Women with depression also perform less self-care and have a more difficult time meeting the needs of their newborn. They have a lower threshold for stress, which increases the risk of the mother harming the child.”

In extreme cases, it can also lead to maternal suicide.

Luckily there are several things that new moms can do to ensure that both she and baby stay happy and healthy.

First, let go of the need to be perfect. Between physically healing after giving birth and emotionally adjusting to new schedules and routines after baby arrives, it can take some time to start feeling like yourself again. And that’s okay.

Here are a few more ways to adjust to your new role:

  • Talk to close friends and family about how you’re feeling, or vent those feelings in a journal.
  • Practice self-care. Nourish your body with a healthy diet and doctor-approved exercise.
  • Ask for help. It’s easy to try and take on the role of Superwoman after your little one arrives, but calling on friends and family when you’re overwhelmed can make a huge difference and give you that much-needed break.
  • Seek treatment. If your symptoms are putting you or your baby at risk, or impacting your ability to care for yourself and your child, talk to your OBGYN or mental health professional immediately.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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