In recent years, we’ve come to understand even more about the significant emotional changes that women experience after having a baby. Around 80% will develop the ‘baby blues’ between days 3 and 10 after birth; for most, these feelings pass within a day or two. However, around one in five new mothers, and up to one in ten new fathers, will be affected by postnatal anxiety and/or depression. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and every person affected will have their own, unique experience. It can be very reassuring to know that postnatal depression (PND) and/or anxiety can treated with a range of options.
What are the symptoms of postnatal depression?
The most common symptoms include feeling low and ‘flat’. Many women also experience changes in their mood, sleep and appetite. Sometimes it can be hard to put into words exactly what they are feeling, other than being sad and even miserable. It’s not uncommon for women with PND to cry easily and for reasons they find difficult to identify.
The most ‘telling’ features of PND are feelings of sadness, hopelessness and even feeling numb.
Feelings of guilt can be present as well, with comments about not being able to enjoy their baby and having doubts about their ability to care for them. Some women also experience thoughts of harm to themselves or their baby, which can be intensely distressing.
Postnatal anxiety can create feelings of intense discomfort. Some women experience overwhelming anxiety relating to something happening to themselves or their baby. Anxiety can create physical, as well as mental stress and can be equally as distressing as symptoms of depression.
It can be very hard to be objective about our own personal experiences, and sometimes it is partners or close family members who are the first ones to recognise changes in the new mother’s mood. It’s important not to view their comments as criticisms. Most people are kind and genuinely want the best for each other, especially for new parents.
Often, it’s the lack of joy in parenting which is a ‘red flag’ for PND. Each day can feel very repetitious, going through the same motions without any sense of delight or pleasure, especially in the new baby.
7 risk factors for postnatal depression and/or anxiety
There are some factors which increase the risk of PND or anxiety. It’s important to bear in mind that it’s still possible to have either of these conditions without any risk factors.
- A history of depression or mental health issues.
- An unplanned pregnancy or disappointment around the baby’s birth.
- Having an unsettled baby who cries a lot.
- Drug, alcohol or substance abuse.
- Being in an unsupportive or abusive relationship.
- Having financial or housing stress.
- Lack of social support and isolation.
But I’m just tired!
It can be hard to separate feelings of sleep deprivation and exhaustion from depression. In many ways, they share the same characteristics, especially with low energy and lack of motivation. But at some point, often when there is an opportunity for more sleep, it becomes clear to women that what they are feeling cannot be simply put down to tiredness.
Where to get help
- Get immediate support if you are having thoughts of self-harm, or thinking about hurting your baby. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
- Make an appointment to see your GP. If possible, have someone care for your baby during your appointment so you can focus on yourself without distraction.
- Make a list of your symptoms which will help your GP to understand what you’re feeling.
- Speak with your Child Health Nurse who may be able to refer you to an early parenting centre for support with your baby’s sleep and settling. So you can get the most out of any parenting program, it’s important to first make sure your own mental health is stable.
- Complete an Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Score. Check here for details on how to do this. Remember, this is a screening tool, not a way to diagnose PND.
- PANDA(Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) — 1300 726 306
- ForWhen— 1300 24 23 22 (Monday to Friday, 9.00am to 4.30pm)
- Gidget Foundation— online and telehealth support — 1300 22 4636
- Beyond Blue— 1300 22 4636
Written for Belly Bandit by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, October 2022.