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Melancholy Baby

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Spring 2001
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For many women, the joy that follows the birth of a child is overwhelmed by crippling anxiety and depression. At UCLA, researchers are finding ways to help.
by Nancy Sokoler Steiner '85
Illustration: Ester Watson

As an expectant mother, I knew the birth of my first child would bring boundless challenges along with boundless joys. I did not, however, anticipate that by the time my son turned a month old, I would believe that having a baby was the biggest mistake of my life. Yet soon after giving birth, I grew increasingly anxious and despondent, and felt little connection to my child.

While I didn't realize it at the time, my negative feelings weren't confined to the baby; I had stopped laughing, stopped being affectionate and lost all desire to participate in the activities I normally enjoyed.

I was suffering from postpartum depression (PPD), a physical illness affecting about 10 percent of women following childbirth. A type of clinical depression, PPD is much more severe than the baby blues, a sometimes-tearful two-week period experienced by many new moms. Women with PPD feel sad, anxious and hopeless, often suffering difficulty sleeping, appetite changes, anxiety and feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Some have thoughts of suicide. Without intervention, PPD can last months or even years.

Fortunately, with treatment, most women who suffer from PPD will feel like themselves again within two months. However, because expectant mothers seldom receive information about PPD, those who experience symptoms often feel too ashamed or guilty to seek help. Doctors who are unfamiliar with the condition misdiagnose others.

Scientists don't know the cause of postpartum depression, but they suspect it results from a dramatic drop in estrogen, which peaks at 200 to 300 times its normal rate during pregnancy and then plummets to its pre-pregnancy level within the first two days after childbirth.


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