Q: Since the birth of her baby two months ago, my daughter has been suffering from mild postpartum depression. She is breast-feeding and does not want to take antidepressant medication. Could light therapy help?
A: Maybe. The clinical trials are still preliminary, so we cannot yet make a strong claim for bright-light therapy’s positive effects on postpartum depression. However, many women who have used light therapy while pregnant—when it has been shown to reduce depression, thereby offering a safe alternative to medication that might affect the fetus—have chosen to continue it after giving birth.
Your daughter can even nurse during light therapy sessions as long as the baby’s eyes are nuzzled in her breast rather than facing the lights. Her own eyes must be open, however, because light therapy works through the eyes to sync the body’s circadian rhythm with the local day/night cycle—which in turn has positive effects on mood. Light therapy also may increase the availability of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin.
To do light therapy at home, your daughter needs a fluorescent light box that provides 10,000 lux of illumination, such as the Daylight Simulator from the Center for Environmental Therapeutics (www.CET.org, $179.99). Insurance may cover the cost if the light box is used based on a doctor’s recommendation.
Treatment typically involves sitting 12 inches from the light box for 30 minutes each day shortly after waking up. However, scheduling light therapy can be tricky for a new mom because her circadian rhythm can be disturbed by the baby’s nighttime feedings. (To minimize this disruption, it helps to keep lights very low during nighttime feedings.) To gauge the best time for her light therapy, your daughter can take the free online Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire (seewww.CET.org/eng/Tools_ENG.html and click on “your circadian rhythm type”), answering the questions with her current postpartum state in mind. If the suggested timing is not feasible, she should try starting a bit later in the morning than recommended—never earlier.
Source: Michael Terman, PhD, is a psychologist and director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center, and a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, both in New York City. He also is president of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics and director of clinical chronobiology at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. www.Columbia-Chronotherapy.org