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Postpartum depression (also referred to as PPD) is a more severe form of depression that occurs in women after childbirth. Approximately 15-20 percent of new mothers experience PPD to some degree, regardless of whether they just had their first child, or their fifth. PPD can last for weeks, months, or even years, and can be a debilitating, incapacitating, and even lethal illness. It doesn’t just affect new mothers. PPD can have a profound affect on new fathers because they often are unsure of how to help. Therefore, knowing how to help your wife if she has postpartum depression is extremely important.
First, it’s important that you understand that no one is to blame for your wife’s illness. She has not done anything wrong. You have done nothing wrong. Neither of you are to blame. Spending your time and energy trying to figure out what went wrong, why this happened, or what you could have done differently will only leave you frustrated, angry, and will be of no benefit to you or your wife. Save your energy and concentrate on the road ahead, which is where your attention needs to be focused.
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Recognizing the Signs
Recognizing PPD is not as easy as many may think. Over 50 percent of women suffer from what’s known as the “Baby Blues" after giving birth. Baby blues consists of a generalized feeling of sadness, mood swings, crying, and/or irritability, but it often runs its course in a few weeks time. However, while PPD symptoms may start out mildly, similar to those of the baby blues, they increase in severity with time, often progressing rapidly, and will last much longer. Additional symptoms of PPD might include: extreme fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, feeling helpless or hopeless, social and physical withdrawal, decreased interest in the baby, or an irrational fear or concern regarding the baby.
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You can’t “fix" your wife. But you can help. Here are the top 10 things you can do to help:
1. Tell her you love her.
She may not believe you. She may cry if you tell her. It’s okay. Just keep telling her.
2. Tell her this isn’t her fault.
Reassuring your wife and letting her know that you don’t blame her will help with her feelings of guilt and shame. It may take awhile, and you may meet with resistance at first, but making sure she knows she is not at fault is very important.
3. Be patient.
As stated, PPD can last a few weeks, a few months, or even a few years. You will need to be patient. Know that with treatment, and support, your wife will get better.
4. Take care of the house.
Whether you clean it yourself or hire a service, taking care of as many household chores as possible will prevent her from feeling overwhelmed. In addition, give her breaks from taking care of the baby – and the older children if you have them. Get another family member to help you if necessary. Tell your wife to let you know what she needs or wants you to do to help out, too.
5. Reassure Her That the Baby is Fine.
Let your wife know, and know often, that the baby is doing well and she doesn’t need to worry. Reassure her that you and the baby love her and want her to rest and get better. Keep her informed as to what the baby is doing without making her feel that she’s missing something important or depriving the baby by not being there.
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6. Attend her appointments with her.
Many women are often ashamed of their feelings, especially those feeling detached from their baby. Others are simply in denial, or are not aware of their PPD. This can result in doctors receiving inadequate information to offer proper treatment. Improper treatment can increase the duration, and severity of PPD. Your attendance at appointments ensures factual reports, complete information, and allows you an opportunity to ask any questions you may have.
7. Help Her Get Adequate Sleep.
Although sleep deprivation seems to be inevitable after bringing home baby from the hospital, not getting enough sleep can often make your wife’s symptoms worse. If your wife is breastfeeding, bring the baby to her to nurse, allowing her to stay in bed. You could also offer a bottle of pre-pumped breast milk or supplement with formula when needed to give her a break.
8. Don’t expect Sex.
Offer physical contact and affection, on her terms, without the expectation of sex. Women who suffer from PPD often suffer from feeling of shame, guilt, inadequacies, and, as just giving birth, may feel physically unattractive. Putting the added stress of expecting sex will only make your wife feel more self conscious about her body, her appearance, and her guilt will multiply if she is unable to meet your needs and wants. Offer your affection with hand-holding, putting your arm around her, holding her, back rubs, brushing her hair, or anything else she feels she can allow you to do.
9. Let Her Know You’re Proud of Her.
Telling your wife that you know she’s doing the best she can has a larger impact than you may think. Your wife may feel that she is a burden, and that you’re upset or angry with her for her illness. Instead, give her hope, love, and support by letting her know that you see the effort she is putting into getting well, and you know how hard she's working right now.
10. Find, and attend, a PPD support group in your area.
There is help and support for those affected by PPD. Even if your wife can’t or wont’ attend, you should. These groups offer information and resources that will help you to help your wife. They will offer you the support you need during this time, as well. To find support groups in your area by contacting the local hospital, your wife’s OB/GYN, or check online at Postpartum Support International or call 1-800-944-4PPD for more information. You’re not alone.
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Just as there are things you should do, there are a few things that you should never do.
1. Don’t blame her.
Your wife did not plan on developing PPD. It is not a condition that can be seen on an x-ray, found with blood tests, or diagnosed with a machine. There’s no way to predict who will and who will not be affected by PPD following childbirth. This is not your wife’s fault. Telling her it is will only make her feel worse, multiply her feelings of guilt, and could possibly result in danger to her or to the baby.
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2. Don’t Try to Fix Her.
Don’t tell your wife she just needs to get out of the house/stay home more, start exercising, color her hair, lose the baby weight, go back to work/stay home from work, or spend more time with family/friends and she’ll feel better. This can result in feelings of failure, which can deepen the depression, when these suggestions don’t cure her PPD.
3. Don’t Snap at Her.
Telling your wife to “snap out of it," or “just get over it" is not going to make it happen. Just as women who suffer from PPD did not choose to be depressed, they can not choose when they will feel better either. It’s a process and it will take time.
4. Don’t Wait For Her To Ask.
Your wife may not ask for help. She may not be able to ask for help. She may be in denial that she needs help. Don’t wait for her to ask before you seek help for her if you suspect that she may be suffer from PPD. Her recovery – and safety – may depend on it. Professionals can offer invaluable advice and support on how to help your wife if she has post partum depression.
5. Don’t Wish for your Old Wife.
Your wife is not a different person. She is simply suffering from an illness that affects her moods, and emotional, and sometimes mental state. Telling your wife that you liked her better before she had the baby, or that you’re tired of her acting this way can make her symptoms worse. Feelings of helplessness, low self-worth, and guilt are present and comments such as these can make these feelings intensify.
6. Don’t Say What Should Be
Feeling of guilt can be present during PPD, as well as those of hopelessness. Telling your wife that this should be the happiest time of your lives, or that she’s missing time with the baby can make her feel that she is a bad mother, intensifying those feelings of guilt.
7. Don’t Let Money Get in the Way.
With a new baby comes a new expense. However, do not let money or financial issues get in the way of your wife getting the help she needs. If your insurance doesn’t cover the treatment that is needed, there are other options to explore – payment schedules, sliding scale fees, deferred payments, grants, financial assistance through local charities, or perhaps even a plan through your employer. Be very careful how you discuss this issue with your wife, as addressing worries about money could sabotage her recovery by making her feel guilty.
8. PPD is a Family issue.
PPD affects everyone in the family. Do not make the mistake of letting your wife attempt to deal with this illness alone. It is very important for you to show support for her decision to go to therapy, as well as any other steps she makes toward her recovery. Keep in mind that while PPD can last for months or years, depending on the severity of your wife’s illness, she should begin feeling some relief in symptoms and show a slight improvement overall within the first few weeks.
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Additional – but Very Important - Information
A topic that is not often mentioned, but should be addressed, is the abuse of men in relationships when a woman suffers from PPD. This type of abuse happens more often than previously thought. However, the majority of cases are never reported, as many husbands are ashamed, or are afraid of getting their wife in trouble. If your wife’s PPD has increased in severity to a point where there is a risk, or a threat of physical harm, or you are being harmed or threatened on a regular basis, there is help. One place you can turn is Battered Husbands Support. There are resources to help you find help in your area, how to keep records of the abuse, as well as when, and how, to leave.
In addition, while rare, if your wife exhibits any of the following symptoms, contact a medical professional immediately, as these may indicate her PPD warrants immediate intervention:
Talk of hurting herself.
Making comments such as, “I’d be better off dead," or “My family would be better off without me."
Talk of hurting the baby.
Making comments such as, “The baby can’t live without me."
Hallucinations, delusions, or hearing voices.
No sleep – not limited or a decreased amount; NO sleep – in days, but still seems to have “lots of energy."
Total isolation or withdrawal from social contact.
Preoccupation with religious ideation, death and dying, or morbid ideas and visions.
These situations may indicate the need for emergency attention, taking her to the nearest hospital, or calling 9-1-1. However, if these symptoms are present and persistent, do not, under any circumstances or for any reason, leave your wife alone.
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Battered Husbands Support. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.batteredhusbands.com/ on December 13, 2010.
Post Partum International. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.postpartum.net/ on December 17, 2010.
Postpartum Stress Center. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.postpartumstress.com/pages/info_for_family.html on December 17, 2010.