Risk Factors for Postpartum Depression

Woman holding her newborn babyPostpartum depression is a serious and potentially life-threatening issue that may occur up to a year after a woman gives birth. It can interfere with a woman’s ability to bond with or care for her baby and, like other forms of depression, may lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Some women with postpartum depression think about or attempt suicide. In rare cases, postpartum depression can cause postpartum psychosis, which may lead women to hurt their babies. Andrea Yates, a Houston mother who drowned her five children, was treated for postpartum depression and psychosis shortly before she killed her children.

Researchers still aren’t sure what causes postpartum depression. It’s likely a combination of genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors, and women who have experienced depression are at an increased risk of developing postpartum depression. If you’re pregnant or have recently given birth, knowing the risk factors for postpartum depression can help you prepare your support system and detect the signs that you need help before your depression gets out of control.

Pregnancy-Related Stress and Trauma
Women who experience extreme stress or trauma during pregnancy are more likely to develop depression. The death of a loved one, a divorce, or a lost job can increase the risk. But birth-related trauma can also play a role. Women whose babies are physically ill, who are taken to the neonatal intensive care unit, or who have developmental delays may experience more depression. And women who have negative experiences during childbirth—such as an emergency C-section or a hostile doctor—may also be at risk.

When pregnancy is unplanned, it can greatly increase the stress of planning and caring for a baby. Women whose pregnancies were unplanned, particularly those who feel ambivalent about their pregnancies, are more likely to develop symptoms of postpartum depression. Some medical professionals believe that a C-section is in itself a risk factor because of the increased recovery time and stress of major surgery.

Low Levels of Support
The first few weeks with an infant can be exhausting, even under the best circumstances. A strong support system, including helpful friends and family and an involved partner, can greatly reduce the risk of postpartum depression. But women who live away from family and friends, or whose partners don’t help them care for the baby, may also struggle more.

Difficulty accessing resources such as medical care can play a role, and women living in poverty and dangerous or abusive environments also tend to have more difficulties adjusting to motherhood.

Genetic and Life-History Issues
Depression tends to run in families, and women whose mothers experienced depression or whose immediate family members struggled with mental health issues are generally at an increased risk. Previous episodes of depression, bipolar, or anxiety—particularly during or immediately prior to the pregnancy—also greatly increase the risk of developing depression.

A history of substance abuse, particularly among women who continue to smoke, drink, or use drugs after the birth of their babies, can also increase the risk. Even among women who stop abusing substances during pregnancy, withdrawal and the struggle to stay clean can spark depression.

Although postpartum depression can be daunting, particularly among women who are breastfeeding and who are concerned about taking medications, it is highly treatable. An increasing number of therapists and other mental health professionals specialize in postpartum depression, and early intervention is key for preventing the most challenging symptoms.


  1. A.D.A.M. Editor Board. (2012, September 19). Postpartum Depression. PubMed Health. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0004481/
  2. Mann, D. (2008, September 4). C-Section affects moms’ response to baby. WebMD. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com/baby/news/20080904/c-section-affects-moms-response-to-baby

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  • kathy w

    February 28th, 2013 at 12:15 PM

    If I had to hedge a bet I would be willing to go out on a limb and say that lack of spousal and family support play a much larger role in this occurring than anything else does. When you feel like you have others in life that you can depend on, they can kinf of become a lifeline for you and that is so helpful especially when you are a new mom and feel like you have no idea what you’re doing! But those who have to go it alone and do not have that help from others, that can make being a new parent so difficult. It is nice to have someone that you can call on and cry with and that is important for anyone who has just had a baby.


    February 28th, 2013 at 10:41 PM

    Fact is : There is help

    Not realizing this simple fact can often exacerbate depression and this along with ignorance and lack of attention to an impending danger is what usually causes the falling off the cliff.

  • SAM

    March 1st, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    This is not the time where we should be placing blame.
    These are women and families who need help, not someone telling them what they or someone close to them did wrong and caused them to have this.
    It’s kind of like choosing to blame the victim instead of helping them.
    And what good is blame going to do in this situation?

  • tiffany

    March 1st, 2013 at 11:27 PM

    when I was pregnant everybody kept telling me about how its important to take care of my health n the baby s health.even after the baby s birth it was all about staying health n getting back into shape.in short all was about physical health.nobody n I mean nobody even spoke one word about mental health n avoiding or coping with depression. a few moths down the line n I did feel depressed. nothing full blown but I did get the blues n felt low ever so often.

    I did not want to take a chance so I saw a doc n it really helped me cope with it n gave me tools to deal with any such thing in the future. I just wish more people paid attention to mental health at such an important juncture. your body s undergoing changes, there s the arrival of a new member in the family, work life takes a backseat, monetary issues come up, n sleep times go haywire, energy is sapped, n nobody talks about depression! That s a lot of problems with no solution in sight! it is brutal to say the very least. speak up n keep an eye on your depression levels, having a baby is no easy task.

  • Kim D

    March 2nd, 2013 at 9:37 AM

    Something else that is worth considering is the fact that a lot more moms who do not take the time to take care of themselves on an emotional level while they are pregnant and once the baby comes are the women who will be the most likely to have this enter their lives. They are so busy taking care of others that they fail to see the necessity of taking care of themselves in the same way! This is something that will creep in and then before you realize it you are miserable and left wondering where all of this sadness is coming from. For any new mother I think that this is extremely hard because you are thinking that this should be the happiest time of your life and you don’t feel that way at all and sometimes it is so hard to express this to others who don’t understand what is going with you either.

  • Grafton

    March 4th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    The long and the short of this is that really, in the end the risk factors don’t actually matter.
    I mean, they do in some ways if all you are doing is studying post partum depression as a topical thing, but when you are looking at it in real life and how to treat people, those factors don’t mean too much.
    Personally, I think that it would be better to look at the many varying treatment methods which are available for women experiencing this kind of depression so they can get back to enjoying their lives with the new baby as quickly as possible.
    Once they become depressed the risks that got them there are a non factor, and it becomes much more important to get them back to a better place.

  • JY

    March 4th, 2013 at 11:42 PM

    With so much happening around a pregnancy it is a vulnerable time psychologically. Needs identification and better equipment at such a time to prevent any fall. Same reason why awareness and easy availability if help is so important. Not much is known or available present and I hope that changes for everybody in general.

  • Greg Marlow

    October 6th, 2013 at 8:03 AM

    Could the stress of lactation be a cause of postpartum psychiatric problems? Research has shown how omega-3 fat supplementation is an effective treatment for psychiatric disorders. Omega-3 fats are an important component of milk. If a mother is not getting enough omega-3 fats for herself and her baby she could end up with psychiatric symptoms.

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