We’re Finally Getting to the Bottom of Postnatal Depression

For a long time, postnatal depression wasn’t taken seriously, but now scientists are finally uncovering what might be a driving factor in this mood disorder. 

Often referred to rather flippantly as the “baby blues” and dismissed as a passing phase, postpartum or postnatal depression impacts between one in five to one in 10 women within a year of giving birth, and the effects for new mothers can be devastating.

There are so many pressures on new mothers to be the perfect caregiver to their infant, and if postnatal depression is preventing a mother and child from forming the bond the mother expected, it can lead to rapidly worsening symptoms like significant low mood, loss of sleep, altered eating patterns, thoughts of self harm or even suicidal ideation.

Despite this, for a long time the medical community wrote off postnatal depression as a minor complaint. This may have partly been down to a general lack of understanding about mental health, but there may have also been an all too familiar sexism at work that rendered research into women’s health particularly lacking. Thankfully, that is changing.

Now, scientists from Tufts University School of Medicine are busy exploring what exactly might be going on with a new mother’s brain when she has a child. By looking at preclinical models of postpartum depression they were able to show that a key component of postnatal depression may be what’s known as the neuroendocrine system. This system is responsible for attempting to mediate how we deal with stress, but the researchers observed that this system is suppressed during pregnancy and for a time after. This might explain why new mothers can feel overwhelmed by low mood in the short period after birth as their bodies are literally not functioning in the way that they normally would. 

Research into what is known as the HPA axis‘ role in postpartum depression has been hampered by the fact that no scientific models for research exist. The development of a workable model so that scientists can see what is occurring at this deep level could pave the way for future, preventative treatments for at-risk mothers, and better targeted treatments following birth. 

“Pregnancy obviously involves great changes to a woman’s body, but we’re only now beginning to understand the significant unseen adaptations occurring at the neurochemical and circuitry level that may be important to maintaining mental health and maternal behavior in the first few weeks to months following delivery,” Laverne Camille Melón, Ph.D., primary author on this research.

Melón continues: “By uncovering the role for stability of KCC2 in the regulation of CRH neurons, the postpartum stress axis, and maternal behavior, we hope we have identified a potential molecular target for the development of a new class of compounds that are more effective for women suffering from postpartum depression and anxiety.”

The researchers are clear that they believe there are likely several other factors at work that lead to postnatal depression and that no one finding will be the magic bullet, but with every new insight they grow closer to understanding what might be behind this deceptively complex disorder.

It is worth mentioning that scientific studies support that fathers too can suffer from post-birth depression, though the exact causes aren’t yet understood. Theories suggest that while men do not experience the same physiological changes that women must go through, fathers can experience changes in their biochemistry as they prepare for and adjust to fatherhood, something that can also leave them vulnerable to low mood during the often stressful times after their baby is born.

What all this research confirms for us though is that we ignore postnatal depression at our peril, and that screening to ensure the mental health of new parents is holding up is crucial.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

53 comments

Lesa D
Lesa D4 months ago

thank you Steve...

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Paulo R
Paulo Reeson5 months ago

ty

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Ann B
Ann B5 months ago

so very sad that it took all these years to notice it...what about the moms in the 40's 50's 60's????

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Angela K
Angela K5 months ago

noted

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell5 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda McConnell5 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Mike R
Mike R5 months ago

Thanks

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Son Y.
Son Y.5 months ago

I'm sure this happens even to mothers with extended families, but the difference with extended families is that there is more support to share the load and make the unfamiliar worries less burdensome. A new baby is no easy thing! Personally, even just helping secondhand was exhausting, and I can totally see how it could become depression.

Also, grandparents are awesome -- I don't think our parents could have raised us otherwise, and I don't think my siblings would have managed as well without knowing that our own parents were available as a support, to ask for advice and reassurance (and as an audience to show off the babies, of course).

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Angela J
Angela J5 months ago

Thank you.

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Irene S
Irene S5 months ago

Interesting, thank you!

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