There’s no single cause of postpartum depression (PPD). But certain factors — including genetics — may increase your risk of developing PPD.

Pregnancy is a demanding process that involves a variety of physical, emotional, and hormonal changes. Mood changes are common during and after pregnancy. In fact, many people may experience temporary feelings of sadness or anxiety postpartum, known as the “baby blues.”

But in some people, these feelings may persist for weeks or months. This is known as postpartum depression (PPD). PPD is a serious mental health concern that can affect the well-being of not only the birthing parent, but also the new baby and other family members.

There’s no single cause of PPD. A variety of factors may contribute to its development, including genetics. But understanding the role genetics play in PPD risk and identifying steps you can take to protect your mental health after birth can help you prioritize your well-being.

A family history of general depression or PPD is one of the leading risk factors for developing PPD. This means that if a parent, sibling, or other family member has had PPD, you’re more likely to as well.

Family members share many things that may increase their likelihood of developing PPD. Genetics are one shared feature of families, but other shared factors that could increase the likelihood of depression and PPD include:

  • a history of other chronic illnesses
  • familial trauma or abuse
  • lack of support
  • low self-esteem
  • shared stressors, such as racism

A 2016 study involving more than 583,000 siblings from Sweden notes that PPD was more likely to occur among identical twins than among other types of sibling pairs, including those with and without shared environments growing up.

The results of this study suggest that genetics — which are more closely shared among identical twins than other types of siblings — play a role in the likelihood of developing PPD. According to this study, nearly half of a person’s risk for PPD is defined by genetics.

Many studies have tried to identify specific genes involved in PPD, but results have been mixed. In general, findings suggest that several genes may play a role in establishing PPD risk, many of which play a role in signaling within the brain.

For instance, genes involved in serotonin and oxytocin signaling — which play roles in mood, social connections, and relationship building — have been found to have a strong association with PPD.

Many of the genes linked to PPD have also been linked to other types of mood or mental health disorders, including:

  • general depression
  • bipolar depression
  • anxiety disorders
  • insomnia
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

These results suggest that shared patterns of dysregulated signaling within the brain may contribute to a variety of mood disorders, including PPD.

In addition to people who have a personal or family history of depression (including PPD), PPD is most likely to affect people with:

  • a history of trauma or abuse
  • unplanned or unwanted pregnancy
  • adolescent pregnancy
  • difficult or traumatic birth experience (current or previous)
  • preterm delivery or an infant with special healthcare needs
  • little or no support from family or friends
  • life stressors, such as relationship or money problems
  • difficulty nursing

Still, anyone can develop PPD. Experts recommend screening for PPD for everyone after giving birth. If you’re experiencing feelings of hopelessness or prolonged sadness, reach out to your healthcare team to address it.

If you’re concerned about PPD, whether based on your family or personal history or for any other reason, talk with your healthcare team about steps to prevent PPD. In general, experts recommend counseling interventions to prevent or manage symptoms of PPD.

Counseling for PPD may involve talk therapy as well as behavioral interventions to help identify and modify intrusive thought patterns that contribute to feelings of distress.

Other factors that have been found to be protective against PPD include:

  • nursing and skin-to-skin contact
  • getting adequate sleep (at least 6 to 7 hours per day)
  • connecting and confiding in others
  • taking vitamin D supplements as necessary (always be sure to discuss with your healthcare team before starting any medications or supplements, especially while nursing)
  • becoming more health conscious

Some of these actions may require help from others. Establishing a network of support among friends and family can help when possible.

If you don’t have a support system available to you, paid or social services may be available to help ensure you have the time and energy to take care of your own mental health.

Mood changes after giving birth are common and can be normal. This can make it hard for some people to tell the difference between the “baby blues” and PPD.

In general, baby blues develop within the first few days of giving birth and only last a short while. More prolonged feelings of sadness or anxiety lasting longer than 2 weeks may be a sign of PPD.

PPD can also develop at any time within the first year of giving birth.

Although most people start experiencing symptoms of PPD within 1 to 3 weeks of giving birth, as many as 7% of people have symptoms 9 to 10 months postpartum. And more than half of these people did not report experiencing PPD symptoms earlier.

Symptoms of PPD can look different from person to person, but may include:

  • feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or helplessness
  • feeling angry or moody
  • feeling guilty or shameful
  • eating more or less than usual
  • noticing changes in sleeping patterns not caused by the needs of your baby
  • experiencing loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
  • withdrawing from friends and family
  • having intrusive thoughts about harming yourself or your baby

Some new parents may feel embarrassed or scared of how they’re feeling. They may choose to hide their emotions or thoughts from their loved ones and healthcare team.

But it’s important to remember that these feelings don’t make you a bad parent, and that help is available to support your mental health and well-being.

A variety of factors can contribute to the development of PPD after giving birth, including genetics. If someone else in your family has had PPD, you may be more likely to experience it yourself, especially if you experience other stressors during pregnancy and in the postpartum period.

PPD affects the health and well-being of not only yourself, but also your baby. If you’re worried about PPD, your healthcare team can help you understand your individual risk and identify steps to protect or manage your mental health postpartum.