It’s normal to feel rollercoaster emotions when you’re pregnant. Many mums feel excited to meet the little person they’ve been carrying around for the last nine months. Nervous about the new responsibilities that they have on their plate. And also just a bit, anxious, sad or overwhelmed by it all.
As a new parent your physical and emotional endurance is being pushed to the limit. So it’s no surprise that, after labour, many new mums feel burned out and a bit blue.
If someone you know is feeling distressed, anxious or extremely low for a while after they’ve given birth, it’s not something to brush aside though. It might be a sign that they’re struggling with postnatal depression.
Postnatal depression affects a staggering 1 in 10 women within a year of giving birth. And many fathers and partners admit that they’ve experienced it too.
Yet, although it’s common, there’s still a great deal of stigma surrounding the condition. Many people put on a brave face and try to shove down the complicated emotions they’re experiencing.
But, although it seems hard, seeking help is the best thing they can do for themselves and their little one.
What is postnatal depression?
Having a baby upends life as you know it. It’s a big life event and after the rush of labour and sudden hormone changes, a lot of new mums feel like they experience a mental slump. Their newborn is probably waking up at all hours of the night, so they likely aren’t getting enough sleep either. And that alone would make anyone irritable and upset.
A few weeks after giving birth, many women feel a bit anxious, worried and weepy. It’s so common, in fact, that it’s often dubbed the ‘baby blues’.
However, if symptoms linger longer than a couple of weeks, or if the symptoms become so intense that they interfere with their ability to care for themselves and their baby, they might be struggling with postnatal depression.
Simply put, postnatal depression is a type of depression that many parents experience after having a baby. It most commonly affects new mums but it can affect fathers and partners too.
It can be hard to see someone you love struggle with postnatal depression. They probably feel overwhelmingly sad and low. They might have withdrawn from friends and family. And they might be preoccupied with racing, intrusive thoughts.
For a brief, beautiful moment their sadness might be put on pause when their little one enters the world. But, many people with postnatal depression admit that they even find it difficult to bond with their baby, which can cause feelings of guilt and shame.
Postnatal depression is a problem that so many people face behind closed doors. But it’s nothing to downplay or sweep under the rug. It’s a serious mental health condition so you should guide your loved one to help as soon as you can. Because, if left unchecked, postnatal depression can last months, if not years.
What are the signs of postnatal depression?
Worried that you or someone you know is struggling with postnatal depression? Here are a few of the tell-tale signs and symptoms:
- Persistent feelings of sadness and low mood
- Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
- Loss of interest in things that used to bring you joy
- Sleeping difficulties and feeling tired during the day
- Loss of appetite or increased appetite (comfort eating)
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness and self-blame
- Difficulty bonding with your baby or feeling indifferent to their company
- Feeling unable to care for your baby
- Frightening thoughts, for instance, about hurting your baby (These can be very scary and disturbing but it’s important to note that they’re very rarely acted upon)
- Thoughts about suicide and self-harm
How long does postnatal depression last?
The timeline for postnatal depression is different for everyone. Many people experience the “baby blues” directly after the birth of their baby. But this usually subsides 1-2 weeks after delivery.
However, new parents who struggle beyond the 2-week milestone may have postnatal depression, which typically has more severe symptoms and lasts longer.
Postnatal depression varies from person to person and it can last weeks, months or even years. That’s why it’s important to seek help as soon as possible as it’s the best way to increase your odds of a speedy recovery.
How to support someone with postnatal depression
It can be challenging if a loved one is struggling with postnatal depression. But, even if you feel helpless, remember that the support of friends and family can play a big part in recovery. Here are just a few ways you can help them through it:
Reassure and avoid blame
It’s not uncommon for people with postnatal depression to experience guilt and shame. So even if you’re frustrated or upset, you mustn’t blame them for how they’re feeling.
The truth is, you can’t force someone to get help if they don’t want it. So remind them that it’s okay to ask for help and that help is available, whenever they’re ready.
Let them know that it’s not selfish to look after their mental health. Even, though their little one is their whole world, they shouldn’t let their mental health fall by the wayside. A listening ear and some reassurance might be exactly what they need.
Help them get support
Some people who experience postnatal depression might not want to ask for help. This might see it as a sign of weakness, fear that they’ll be judged as a bad parent, or worry that their baby will be taken from them.
Remind your loved one that so many other parents experience postnatal depression and it’s not something to be ashamed or embarrassed about. If left unchecked, postnatal depression can fester. So if someone you know is struggling, the best thing you can do is gently guide them towards support, whenever they’re ready. You might accompany them to the GP or recommend a therapist you speak to, for instance.
Keep in touch
When you’re dealing with late-night bottle feeds and early rises, it can be difficult to squeeze in enough shut-eye, let alone see friends and family.
However, people with postnatal depression often withdraw from their loved ones and shut themselves off from the world, which can make what they’re going through all the more difficult.
It might be hard for your loved one to muster up the energy to organise plans so try to keep in touch with them. Even a quick text message or phone call could make all the difference.
How to treat postnatal depression
Postnatal depression can be lonely, distressing and downright horrible. But the good news is there are effective treatments available. Here is how to cope if you or someone you know is struggling with postnatal depression.
It’s vital that you talk to your doctor as soon as possible if you think you might be struggling with postnatal depression. They’ll be able to fill you in on all the treatments and support groups available. Plus they might prescribe antidepressants if your depression is more severe or if other treatments have not helped. Don’t fret if you’re breastfeeding though. They’ll be sure to prescribe a medicine that’s safe for you and your baby.
They might also want to check your physical health to see if any problems might be exacerbating your low mood. For instance, if you’re anaemic, it could heighten your lethargy and tiredness.
Talk to loved ones
Negative thoughts often fester when they’re bottled up. So chat about what you’re going through with friends and family. They’ll be able to reassure you that you’re a wonderful, caring parent, and they can remind you that what you’re experiencing is normal. Hearing someone validate your emotions and share their own experiences, might make things seem more manageable. Plus, they might offer some hands-on help.
You don’t have to be a ‘supermum’ all of the time. Chances are your friends and family want to give you a hand.
If they offer to chip in with grocery shopping or babysitting, accept the help they offer. Not only will it make them feel useful, but it’ll help you avoid burnout and exhaustion.
Use that time for yourself and do things you enjoy and which relax you — whether that’s going for a stroll, reading a book or having a long soak in the bath.
It can be difficult to get enough shut-eye when you’re a new mum, but try to squeeze in sleep whenever you get a chance.
Practice good sleeping habits, for instance, switch off your devices an hour before bedtime and try to make your sleeping space as relaxing and comfortable as possible.
Remember you don’t have to do the night time work alone either. Be sure to lean on your partner too.
Postnatal depression shouldn’t be taken lightly. While some of the symptoms sound similar to the ‘baby blues’, postnatal depression is much more severe.
You might experience rapid mood swings, exhaustion and feelings of hopelessness. Plus, it’s not uncommon to be battling negative thoughts such as “I’m a terrible mum” or “I’ll never get better”.
Because of this, talking therapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) can be really useful. In your session, your psychologist will help you sift through your emotions and teach you better ways to cope with anxiety and stress. Plus, you’ll learn how to identify and challenge negative thoughts, whenever and wherever they arise.
Therapy provides a safe space where you can vent and let it all out, without judgement and shame. And with the right support behind you, you might feel better equipped to deal with life’s ups and downs. Seeking help might seem a little nerve-racking at first, but it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your new family.