Dr. Harvey Karp on Why He Believes PPD Is More Common Than Ever Before

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When I was a new mom to a very fussy, colicky baby, I did what most new moms do nowadays: I turned to the Internet for advice. Soon enough, I found the work of Dr. Harvey Karp, whose baby soothing techniques outlined in his bestselling book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, have been lifesavers for exhausted, desperate parents for years.

I’m not sure if it was the soothing techniques themselves that saved us (otherwise known as “The Five S’s”: swaddle, stomach position, shushing, swing, and sucking). To be honest, I never really mastered swaddling, no matter how hard I tried. But the book itself was definitely comforting. Just knowing I wasn’t alone in having a howling, finicky baby was totally reassuring. And I really jived with central idea of that book — that babies aren’t really ready for the world when they’re first born, and that the first three months of life is like a “fourth trimester” for infants.

At the time, there wasn’t much else out there about how to soothe colicky babies, and I know I wasn’t the only one who was saved by Dr. Karp’s groundbreaking and super-helpful work. But now, Dr. Karp is on a mission to help with another aspect of new parenthood that affects new moms (and even dads) everywhere: postpartum depression.

In a recent editorial on Thrive Global, Dr. Karp discussed that while postpartum depression remains a huge problem among new mothers, it’s still rarely talked about openly, and very often misunderstood. And yesterday, Dr. Karp chatted with me about his mission to bring awareness to this important and pressing topic.

For starters, Dr. Karp touched upon the many lingering myths that surround PPD — the first being that it only happens to women. On the contrary, Dr. Karp says that men can absolutely suffer from PPD as well. But here’s what’s even more fascinating about it: Despite popular belief, postpartum depression isn’t only a hormone driven phenomenon; because it’s actually prevalent among adoptive mothers, too.

But perhaps the biggest myth he hopes to debunk is that PPD is characterized most by depression, when in fact, the most common symptoms of PPD are anxiety-related. When people think of PPD, says Dr. Karp, they often think of a mother who is “sad and tearful,” but, he notes that “oftentimes it’s not a sad depression, but an anxiety-ridden depression.” In reality, “people [with PPD] aren’t so much sad, but they can’t turn off their mind, and they can’t sleep.” Women with PPD may also suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, and a feeling of “impending doom,” Dr. Karp adds.

Hearing all of this was totally eye-opening for me personally, because while I didn’t have depression after either of my two boys were born, I absolutely did experience anxiety symptoms. Had I known that they were symptoms of PPD, I might have looked for help before things got worse (which they did, unfortunately, with my first child).

When I asked Dr. Karp why he thinks so many mothers experience anxiety surrounding new motherhood, he had a very interesting take. He explained that new motherhood takes many women by surprise, and it’s a huge responsibility that many mothers simply aren’t prepared for. When you have a baby, and you’re getting ready to leave the hospital, says Dr. Karp, “you can’t believe they are letting you take the baby home.” (I think we can all attest that this statement is basically 100% true!)

This is first time in human history that we don’t have the village …
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And then, when you finally do get home, you have almost zero help, Dr. Karp says, adding that this isn’t the way parenting is supposed to work — in fact, it’s not even the way things worked just 50 years ago.

“This is first time in human history that we don’t have the village,” Dr. Karp shares. And as a result, he says it’s taking a toll on mothers the most. Parents these days are expected to parent all alone, without extended family nearby.

This sort of thing is unprecedented, says Karp, and is why often so many women end up with symptoms of PPD. “They are doing something no mother has done before,” he shares.

But this isn’t the only reason why Dr. Karp feels more women are experiencing PPD these days. He tells me that there are three other main causes, too, as he sees it: sleep deprivation, a crying baby you can’t calm, and a general feeling incompetence at caring for your baby.

According to Dr. Karp, sleep deprivation (which pretty much affects all parents, amiright?) changes your brain physiology and leads to a more hyper-vigilant amygdala, which is part of the fear center of your brain. You feel more and more anxious, more on edge, and more like something bad is going to happen.

Dr. Karp also says that these days, parents aren’t as prepared for the practical aspects of caring for a baby (diapers changing, feeding, soothing, etc.) as they could be. In our culture, he says “many parents have never held a baby before.” All of this can leave new parents feeling totally inadequate and unable to soothe their babies in those overwhelming first weeks of parenthood.

So a sleep deprived parent who is holding a screaming baby and has no idea what to do to fix it? Yeah, that parent may very well spiral into PPD, says Dr. Karp. (And I think we can all see how that might very well be the case: just typing out that scenario makes me anxious!)

Dr. Karp also reports that 1 in 8 moms suffer from PPD, and that the disease can lead to marital stress, low self-esteem, poor bonding, obesity, breastfeeding problems, lifelong problems with depression, and in extreme cases, suicide or even infanticide.

So what’s the solution to all of this? Dr. Karp believes that screening for PPD is extremely important, and tells me that while legislation for PPD screening was passed last year, it unfortunately didn’t get funded (at least not yet). But even if all doctors eventually screen women for PPD, Dr. Karp believes we need to practice prevention here — that it’s a “terrible failure” to wait until a woman gets depressed to treat her.

Dr. Karp has devoted much of his life to writing helpful guidebooks and developing products specifically designed to help parents deal with the stress of new parenthood. (Interestingly, he now recommends the Happiest Baby DVD over the book, because he says that pictures are worth a thousand words when it comes to learning practical, hands-on techniques like these.) Among his latest parenting lifesavers? The Snoo — a “smart sleeper” bassinet that comes with a built-in swaddle, rocks and shushes your baby, and automatically adjusts the settings according to your baby’s needs. (Dr. Karp calls it “your own personal grandma or night nurse for the first six months.”)

Regardless of what you use to get some relief, though, Dr. Karp wants new parents everywhere to know that caring for yourself is just as important as caring for your baby, and that we all deserve help, wherever it comes from. He believes that addressing a new parent’s need for sleep, support, and baby care education are really what will solve the terrible problem of postpartum mood disorders — and I think that’s something we can all get behind.

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