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Report: Maternal Depression Is Much More Than the 'Baby Blues'

May 5, 2011

ST. PAUL, Minn. - The vast majority of new moms experience some level of the "baby blues" - the weepiness, the fatigue. However, according to a new report from the Children's Defense Fund-Minnesota, 10 percent of them experience severe maternal depression.

Marcie Jefferys, the group's director of policy development and author of the report, says research underscoring the importance of a child's early environment has exploded, and maternal depression could be a factor.

"Maternal depression can have a big impact on children. However, we can also help parents by targeting services and offering them to families, so the new mother does not need to experience depression, and her children are not affected."

Jefferys says some of the more successful services include home-visiting programs and Head Start - but none of the programs are universally available, leaving many families without the help they need. Wilder Research estimates the annual costs for each mother experiencing unaddressed maternal depression at $23,000, including pregnancy and birth complications and lower productivity.

Because maternal depression is more long-lasting and severe, Jefferys says it's much more difficult to come out of without support. She stresses that depression is not the mother's fault or a reflection of her parenting abilities.

"It actually has a physiological effect. It raises the cortisol levels that will affect both the mother's health and the baby in the womb's health. It can also result in elevated stress-hormone levels, even after the child is born."

The physical effects of maternal depression were debilitating for Ellie Zuehlke. Thirteen days after the birth of her first child, she was hit with severe depression that took her nearly a year to recover from - partly because it took her time to find appropriate care, even though she had easy access to services.

"I was really fortunate in that I had good health insurance. I had short-term disability, so I was already planning to take three months off work, and I was able to get the services I needed. Boy, did I really need them! I could not care for my baby, I could not drive a car - even brushing my teeth was such a struggle."

Even though she is a health care professional, Zuehlke feared letting anyone know how she was feeling, concerned they would take away her baby. She also was afraid that if her employer found out, she would lose her job.

Zuehlke urges moms not to let such fears stop them from seeking help.

"Absolutely, you need to get help when you are in that situation. You are not in a position to be able to deal with it alone. My message to moms and families is to reach out, get help wherever you can, and you will recover. As hopeless as it seems while you are in it, it really does get better."

She also urges health care providers to do routine screenings of moms and familiarize themselves with specialists in maternal depression, so appropriate referrals can be made.

The report is available at

Sharon Rolenc, Public News Service - MN