You’ve got the baby you always wanted, but for some reason, you feel low and overwhelmed.
And it's not just the birth mum who can be affected. The hectic, sleep-deprived chaos of new parenthood can be incredibly overwhelming. It’s thought that around 14% of new mums suffer postnatal depression (PND) in the first three months after giving birth, but it’s important to remember this is also a condition that can affect partners and also adoptive parents.
Whether it’s sleep deprivation, money worries, new responsibilities, or the relationship dynamic shifting, there's a lot to take on board. This is a huge life event. On top of this, partners might feel guilty about what their partner is going through, knowing they aren’t the ones breastfeeding at 3am or healing from labour and birth.
The best thing you can do is to know the symptoms and seek help as soon as you can.
What is postnatal depression?
In very simple terms, postnatal (or postpartum) depression is a form of depression that affects new parents after having a baby. Many women feel down, tearful or anxious after giving birth, but if this lasts for more than two weeks, you could have postnatal depression. Like all forms of depression, this is very normal, very treatable and nothing to be ashamed of.
Why does it develop and how long should it last?
Postnatal depression can start any time in the first year after giving birth. For a long time, postnatal depression was explained by hormone changes, yet this doesn't explain why it's not just the birth mum who is at risk of developing maternal mental health issues. There’s actually a lot of different factors involved. Like all forms of depression, the causes are not black and white, yet it has been associated with the following:
A history of mental problems, either in pregnancy or earlier in your life.
A lack of close family and friends to support you after your baby arrives.
Relationship issues with your partner.
Stressful life events such as a bereavement
If one of you is experiencing emotional or mental health difficulties, it's more likely that the other is too. Of fathers with depressed partners, 24% to 50% experience depression themselves.
It’s important to remember, even if you do not have any of these symptoms, you could still be suffering from postnatal depression. You’ve just undergone a massive life-changing event, which can often be a trigger in itself.
How long you suffer from PND depends on the severity of your condition and the type of treatment you choose to take.
What are the signs of postnatal depression?
Everybody reacts to becoming a parent in different ways. But there are some common signs that you may be experiencing a mental health problem. These include:
fear, confusion, helplessness and uncertainty about the future
guilt, for example because you weren't the person who had to give birth
withdrawal from family life, work and social situations
frustration, irritability, cynicism and anger
hostility or indifference to your partner
hostility or indifference to your baby
using more alcohol or recreational drugs than usual
finding it hard to sleep, even when you have the chance
physical symptoms like indigestion, changes in appetite and weight, diarrhoea, constipation, headaches, toothaches and nausea.
If you think you're experiencing mental health problems, it is possible to manage these feelings with the right support.
Is there anything I can do to prevent postnatal depression?
It’s impossible to predict whether you will suffer from PND after your baby is born and although there have been several studies on how to prevent postnatal depression, there is no scientific evidence to support any. Experts recommend that you eat well, maintain a healthy lifestyle and take care for yourself once your baby is born. It’s also important to build a support network.
That said, if you have a history of depression or mental health problems, you should speak to your GP or mental health team when you are pregnant, as they will be able to arrange extra support for the first few weeks after you give birth. This goes for partners too, or for those about to adopt or having a baby via a surrogate - you can speak to your doctor any time you experience mental health problems. This includes during the time that the birth mum is pregnant or after your child is born.
What are the treatments for postnatal depression?
Tackling postnatal depression at home is the first step, yet depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be offered additional support to help you feel better faster.
Visits from your health visitor: This increased support is offered to those with mild depression. These ‘listening visits’ from your health visitor help you try and get back to doing things that you enjoy.
Talking therapies: If you have moderate postnatal depression, you’re likely to be referred by your GP to a therapist or counsellor, especially if this is the first time you have suffered from a mental illness. One type of therapy commonly used in the NHS is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which helps people break cycles of negative thinking.
Antidepressants: If you have moderate to severe postnatal depression that’s unlikely to go away on its own, you might be offered medication. Although this may seem scary, antidepressants can help treat the condition without having an impact on your family.
If you do choose to avoid therapy and want to try and cure your postnatal depression without extra support, here are some ideas that might help.
Where can I go for support and advice?
From your health visitor, to dedicated phone lines, if you are suffering from postnatal depression, there are plenty of resources out there to help:
Friends and family: Having a new baby is definitely a time to call on the people who know you best. Whether it’s for help with caring for your new arrival, or just sharing your thoughts over a cup of tea, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Your health visitor: He or she is there to make sure you and your baby are doing ok. If you don’t feel comfortable discussing your feelings with your family and friends, they will be able to recommend local recourses and support groups that might help.
Your GP: Your GP is a great person to help give you a formal diagnosis and work out what the best treatment will be to help support you. Remember they are trained professionals and will not judge you in any way.
Charities: There are a number of amazing charities out there who help raise awareness and support for new parents suffering with PND. The Association for Post Natal Illness (APNI) had downloadable leaflets, as does PANDAS (Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support). NCT and MIND also have dedicated sections where you can read more about the condition, and find advice for partners and family members about how best to support you.
Phone helplines: Many support organisations have phone (and sometimes text) lines, which are a great place to start if you want to seek some anonymous advice. Whilst the people on the end of the phone aren’t health professionals, they have training and support and will be able to offer you advice. We've listed some good numbers to call at the end of this article.
Support groups: Although these may feel daunting, support groups are a great way to meet other mothers going through exactly the same thing. Ask your GP or health visitor, or search online to find a PND or new parent support group in your area.