The Real Reason behind Postpartum Depression – According to Dr. Harvey Karp

Postpartum depression (PPD) is prolific amongst new mums, but not everyone understands exactly what it is – or why it seems increasingly definitive of the maternal experience.

Crying baby

Dr. Harvey Karp is a familiar name in parenting circles; he’s the bonafide baby whisperer – the man who’s helped countless folks tame their tirading newborns into serene slumber. Author of bestselling The Happiest Baby on the Block, Karp seems to have a knack for intuiting the enigmas of babydom (at least when it comes to sleep). Incidentally, his latest project – raising awareness for PPD – makes poignant reference to the same abiding problem for many a mum and dad: sleep deprivation.

Karp firstly clarifies what PPD isn’t; contrary to its name, the mood disorder is not often characterised by “sad and tearful” affect – instead, it usually manifests as “an anxiety-ridden depression” and “people [with PPD] aren’t so much sad, but they can’t turn off their mind, and they can’t sleep.” Obsessive compulsive disorder can also tack on to the condition, culminating in an endless loop of fearful, fatalistic thinking: inadequate rest stimulates hyper-vigilance in the amygdala, the fear centre of your brain – anxiety levels peak, with no distinct crisis to channel the anxiousness, and a continual, impending sense of doom blots out everything else.

The consequent sleep deprivation is only compounded by the usual lack of sleep that comes with early parenthood, and this (literal) physical torture perpetuates the depressive cycle.

But joining the ranks of the walking dead is not the sole cause of PPD – it goes beyond the physiological.

Karp explains that western society’s pared down familial networks – everyone is scattered across the globe these days – means women (and their partners) are shouldering the responsibility of raising a child in isolation. “This is first time in human history that we don’t have the village,” Dr. Karp says. By design, becoming a mother irrevocably changes life as you know it – and if there’s nobody to rescue you when you’re lost at sea, drowning under the weight of it all is inevitable.

1 in 8 mums suffer from PPD, reports Karp, and the effects of the disease can include marital stress, low self-esteem, weak bonding, obesity, breastfeeding difficulties, chronic depression, and in severe cases, suicide or even infanticide.

According to Karp, when it comes to identifying the symptoms, the onus lies primarily with professionals – but it would be unrealistic to expect that every newbie mother presenting with PPD would be prioritising doctor appointments for themselves. And this is the crux of it all, self-care is just as important as caring for your baby – the two are interdependent. Get sleep, home support, education, and medical assistance – as a matter of priority. Karp believes we all deserve help, and when it comes to fighting this insidious postpartum disease, accepting help – however it comes – is the only way to do it.