What Causes Postnatal Depression?

Postnatal depression, also known as postpartum depression, is a type of mood disorder that can affect women after childbirth. It’s estimated that 10-15% of new mothers experience postnatal depression*, and it can occur anytime within the first year after giving birth. In this article, we’ll discuss the definition of postnatal depression, its symptoms, causes, treatment options and ways to support someone who is experiencing it.

What is postnatal depression and what are the symptoms?

Postnatal depression (PND) is a type of clinical depression that can affect women after they have given birth (usually in the first three to six months¹). It’s thought to occur in up to one in seven women who give birth each year, although the exact figure is difficult to determine as many cases go unreported.

Symptoms of PND can vary from woman to woman, but may include:

  • Feeling sad or low
  • Tearfulness
  • Anxiety/panic attacks
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty bonding with your baby
  • Feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
  • In severe cases, women may also experience thoughts of self-harm or suicide

How does postnatal depression differ from “baby blues”?

It’s important to distinguish between PND and the “baby blues”, which is a much more common and less serious condition that affects up to 80% of new mothers. The baby blues usually starts a few days after childbirth and lasts for no more than two weeks, with symptoms including mood swings, crying, irritability and anxiety.

While the baby blues is a normal and common reaction to the physical and emotional stress of childbirth, PND is a more serious condition that can have a profound effect on a woman’s mental and physical health, as well as her relationship with her baby.

What are the causes of postnatal depression and why does it occur after childbirth?

The causes of PND are not fully understood, but it’s thought to be caused by a combination of physical, psychological and social factors. After childbirth, a woman’s hormone levels drop sharply, which can lead to a feeling of sadness and low mood. This may be why postnatal depression is more common in women who have had a previous history of depression.

Of course, it could also be brought on by external factors, such as a lack of support from family and friends, relationship problems, financial stress, or a history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How can postnatal depression be treated?

The most common form of treatment is psychological therapy, which can help to address the underlying causes of PND and provide practical tools for coping with the condition³. Group therapy can also help, as it opens up opportunities for support and advice from other women who are experiencing similar problems.

If you’re worried that a friend or family member is suffering from postnatal depression, the first and foremost thing you can do is offer your support and encouragement. Let her know that she’s not alone, and that help is available. You could also offer to help with childcare, housework or shopping, to give her some time to rest and recuperate.

How can pregnant women and new mothers prepare for postnatal depression?

There are a number of things that can be done, including:

  • Seeking early help if you’re struggling to cope with the demands of motherhood
  • Building a support network of family and friends
  • Taking care of your own physical wellbeing by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly

Seek postnatal counselling at the Centre for Clinical Psychology in Melbourne

If you or your partner are exhibiting signs of postnatal depression, it’s important to seek help sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, PND doesn’t simply ‘get better’ with time, so effective treatment is essential to overcoming the hurdles that are stopping you from living a happy, healthy life with your family.

To book a postnatal counselling appointment with one of our mental health professionals, simply give us a call on 03 9077 0122 or book online using our contact form. We can also assist with perinatal mental health, anxiety counselling, PTSD therapy and more.


¹ Anokye, R., Acheampong, E., Budu-Ainooson, A., Obeng, E. I., & Akwasi, A. G. (2018). Prevalence of postpartum depression and interventions utilized for its management. Annals of general psychiatry, 17, 18. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12991-018-0188-0

² Vliegen, Nicole PhD*; Casalin, Sara PhD*; Luyten, Patrick PhD. The Course of Postpartum Depression: A Review of Longitudinal Studies. Harvard Review of Psychiatry: January/February 2014 – Volume 22 – Issue 1 – p 1-22

doi: 10.1097/HRP.0000000000000013 https://journals.lww.com/hrpjournal/Fulltext/2014/01000/The_Course_of_Postpartum_Depression___A_Review_of.1.aspx

³ Stamou G, García-Palacios A, Botella C. Cognitive-Behavioural therapy and interpersonal psychotherapy for the treatment of post-natal depression: a narrative review. BMC Psychol. 2018 Jun 18;6(1):28. doi: 10.1186/s40359-018-0240-5. PMID: 29914574; PMCID: PMC6006956. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6006956/