Complementary Therapies as Adjuncts in the Treatment of Postpartum Depression

Kira M. Weier, CNM, MSN; Margaret W. Beal, CNM, PhD


J Midwifery Womens Health. 2004;49(2) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Postpartum depression affects an estimated 13% of women who have recently given birth. This article discusses several alternative or complementary therapies that may serve as adjuncts in the treatment of postpartum depression. The intent is to help practitioners better understand the treatments that are available that their clients may be using. Complementary modalities discussed include herbal medicine, dietary supplements, massage, aromatherapy, and acupuncture. Evidence supporting the use of these modalities is reviewed where available, and a list of resources is given in the appendix.


Postpartum depression is a serious condition that can have serious and long-lasting effects for the mother and her family. Postpartum depression occurs in up to 13% of women who have recently given birth, according to a 1996 meta-analysis of postpartum depression from 59 studies.[1] In the United States, women with a history of depression have a 30% risk of postpartum depression, and women who have experienced postpartum depression in the past are at a 70% risk of a subsequent episode.[2] An estimated 400,000 mothers experience this mood disorder each year.[3]

Most women experiencing postpartum depression develop symptoms 6 to 8 weeks after the birth of their child.[3] The course of postpartum depression is similar to that of other major depressive episodes -- an episode typically remits spontaneously within 2 to 6 months, and it is common to have residual symptoms up to a year after birth.[4] This can have effects on the quality of the mother-infant relationship and on the psychological development of the infant, even in the early neonatal period.[5,6,7,8]

Infants of depressed mothers have been shown to have adverse changes in behavior and physiology and delayed growth and development at 12 months of age.[9,10] Even older children of mothers with postpartum depression suffer from the long-term effects of this disease. A metanalysis of nine studies of children ranging from 1 to 14 years of age showed a small but significant effect at all age ranges, even after controlling for the current level of maternal depression.[11] The children showed impaired cognitive development and an increased incidence of psychiatric disturbance.

Current conventional treatment of postpartum depression has three components: psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, and psychosocial care.[12] The first line of treatment for postpartum depression consists primarily of antidepressant medication in addition to psychotherapy with a mental health practitioner who has experience in treating women with postpartum depression.[12] The third component of treatment is psychosocial care. Sichel and Driscoll[13] developed an acronym to guide supportive measures given to a woman with postpartum depression: "NURSE." The components of the acronym are nutrition and needs, understanding, rest and relaxation, spirituality, and exercise.


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