Depressed new mom

Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a new dad with a beautiful, two-month-old baby girl. My wife and I are going through a rough patch right now. I think she is suffering from depression. She says she feels inadequate caring for our baby. What can I do to help?

A: First of all, I want to commend you for being concerned enough to write. You’d be amazed at how many new dads either don’t notice or don’t worry about their wife’s changing moods. Your having recognized the problem is the first step toward helping her get better.

As many as 85 percent of brand new moms get what’s commonly referred to as “baby blues,” which could manifest as moodiness, tearfulness, and irritability. (This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, when you think about the sleepless nights, lack of physical intimacy, and feelings of isolation that many new moms feel). The good news is that in most cases the baby blues go away all by themselves after a few weeks or so.

Some new mothers—around 10 percent—develop postpartum depression (PPD), which is more serious and usually requires some kind of professional intervention. Symptoms can include appetite changes, an inability to take pleasure in the baby or life in general, unexplained episodes of crying, extreme feelings of anxiety or fear, decreased sex drive, difficulty sleeping, and exactly what you mentioned: feelings of inadequacy as a mother.

The big question here is, what role does the “rough patch” you’re going through play? Is it the cause of her depression, or a symptom of it. Probably a little of both.

So what can you do to help? Plenty. To start with, get her to talk with you, to tell you in more detail how she’s feeling. Your next assignment is to start shifting some of the babycare load from her to you. The more you can take on, the less overwhelmed she’ll feel, and that can go a long way towards helping her recover.

At the same time, be as loving, encouraging and supportive as you can. Make sure she’s eating well, gets some kind of exercise every day (even if it’s just a walk around the block), takes frequent breaks, and gets as much rest as possible—especially at night.

Pay close attention to your wife’s symptoms and whether they change. If you think her depression is interfering with her ability to function normally and care for your baby, call her OB and get a referral to a mental health professional or a support group, which are usually the first line of defense. Depending on her symptoms, she may need more involved talk therapy and/or antidepressant medication.

The sooner you get your wife the help she needs, the better. There’s some evidence that babies of depressed mothers are slower than other babies the same age to reach certain physical, emotional, and mental developmental milestones.

Given that you feel that what’s happening in your marriage could be aggravating her depression, it might be a good idea for you to tag along to some of her appointments.

Finally, pay attention to your own moods and feelings—and if you think you need help, get it fast. As odd as it sounds, new dads can get postpartum depression too. If you’re falling apart, you can’t be an effective caregiver.