Postnatal depression (PND), also known as postpartum depression, is a serious condition that affects nearly 13% of new mothers and usually develops within the first four weeks after she gives birth. However, it can occur up to a year afterward, and can have serious health consequences.

It has long been recognized that exercise can alleviate some of the symptoms of PND, and now a new study has found that physical therapy in conjunction with educational programs are effective at preventing PND, as well. The findings, published in the journal Physical Therapy, involved new mothers who were recently discharged from the postnatal ward. The women were monitored weekly over the course of 8 weeks, whereby one group received a special experimental program that included physical therapy and education, a second group received education-only, and a third group received no intervention whatsoever.

The experimental group took part in one hour of exercise with their babies under the guidance of an experienced physical therapist along with educational sessions with a health care professional. The education-only group had no physical therapy, and the education that they received was identical to the experimental group, but in written form, only.

Using well-being and postnatal depression scales to measure the outcomes, the researchers found that there was a substantial increase in well-being scores as well as improvement in their symptoms of depression when women received both physical therapy and the education in comparison with the education-only group. The benefits were particularly evident at the end of the 8 week trial, and were maintained 4 weeks after the trial had ended. Furthermore, doctors indicated that the number of women at risk for PND had decreased by 50% compared to the beginning of the trial.

The findings represent good news for new mothers everywhere. It is perfectly natural for women to experience changes in their moods during pregnancy and after their babies are born. The combination of hormone fluctuations and the joy and anxiety of becoming a parent can profoundly affect a mother’s state of well being. Factor in sleep deprivation, which in many cases can be severe, and the potential for depression is significant.

Although many new mothers experience some mild symptoms of depression after their babies are born, often referred to as the “baby blues,” this condition usually appears within the first few weeks and then goes away. However, when the situation does not disappear or becomes more severe, it can develop into PND, a condition that should be not be taken lightly or ignored.

Symptoms of PND are similar to those seen in major depression, and include:

  • loss of appetite
  • sleeplessness
  • loss of focus and concentration
  • guilt and low self-esteem
  • social isolation
  • lack of joy or enjoyment in life
  • agitation and irritability
  • thoughts of death or suicide
  • negative feelings directed toward the baby

Certain women are considered to be at higher risk for PND, including young mothers (under the age of 20), those who abuse drugs or alcohol, mothers who have experienced an unplanned pregnancy, ones with poor familial relationships (including mates and parents), and women with previous experiences with depression or anxiety.

If you suspect that you or someone you know is experiencing PND, seek out help as soon as possible. Consult with your physician, and for more information, visit the websites for the National Institutes of Health and Women’s Health.