Claire Kerr-Zlobin was confused. Her daughter’s birth was a happy, exciting time, but weeks later, she felt unhappy and isolated. A visit with a public health nurse, then a family doctor, led to a diagnosis: postpartum depression. “I was shocked to realize you can have an amazing connection and attachment to your child and still have postpartum depression,” says Kerr-Zlobin, the founder and program director of Healthy Start, Healthy Future, a national charity that provides support to moms.

Kerr-Zlobin realized that her intense feelings of sadness were the result of having been cooped up all day with an infant: “Being at home alone with baby day after day and not having any other peers, or moms with kids to connect with created this illusion that I was alone and I was the only one feeling this way — which made my depression worse.”

She tried everything — “medication, mindfulness, exercise groups” — but discovered that joining a support group made the difference. After three months, she started feeling like her old self again. She now recommends that all women who’ve had a baby do the same: “Even if you think you are fine, connect with a group. Parenting is a journey and we all need support along the way.”

More than depression

While Kerr-Zlobin had a textbook case of postpartum depression, a condition in which a person feels sad and isolated, cries frequently, has trouble sleeping or eats too much or too little, there are other, less-known conditions that can be just as challenging. Known as perinatal mood disorders, they can occur before and after delivery, and include:

  • Anxiety: Symptoms include irritability, irrational worries, sleeping disturbances and fearful thoughts about the baby.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD): Symptoms include constant anxiety about harming the baby or frequently imagining the baby in danger (the most common of all the perinatal mood disorders after having a baby).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): A condition in which a stressful or traumatic event can lead to a person replaying the event mentally and reliving the same anxiety-inducing emotions.
  • Psychosis: A severe form of mental illness in which a person hears and sees things that aren’t there, and can have suicidal thoughts (fortunately rare among new and expectant mothers)  

“Women don’t suffer just from depression, and postpartum is a lot longer than a few months,” says Tascheleia Marangoni, founding executive director of Perinatal Mood Disorder Awareness Limited. She says the lack of awareness around these conditions — and the stigma associated with them — means women are not getting help.

Help is out there if you need it

Perinatal mood disorders can be brought on and aggravated by sleep deprivation, hormone changes, changes in brain chemistry and the depletion of nutrients throughout pregnancy. “Throw all of that together and you could have a very unwell mother,” says Marangoni.

She says that if you’re suffering from a perinatal mood disorder, you need to focus on the following:

  • Rest. Get as much as possible.
  • Exercise. Even a walk around the block helps.
  • Proper nutrition. Talk to your doctor about supplementing your diet with mood-stabilizers such as B vitamins, zinc and magnesium.
  • Exposure to sunshine. Sunshine can ward off seasonal affective disorder, which causes sadness, sleepiness and irritability when days grow shorter and darker in fall and winter. Exposing yourself to sunshine can boost your levels of the “happy” hormone serotonin, raising your spirits.

Marangoni says that if at any point in the first few years of your child’s life you feel that something really isn't right for longer than a few weeks, listen to your intuition and investigate. “You have to have a conversation about what you’re experiencing with someone, whether it is a doctor, psychologist or family member.” Marangoni says antidepressants should not be the first choice for perinatal mood disorders, “unless the mom is having problems functioning on a day-to-day basis.”

“If you address the issue and look for help, help is out there, but the solution is different for everyone,” says Marangoni. “If you don’t, it can spiral out of control.”