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What is postnatal depression?

Expert’s answer:

After giving birth, most mothers experience some degree of mood swings. The ‘baby blues’ are so common they are considered normal for mothers after birth. They usually begin 2-4 days after your baby is born. You may have crying spells, increased feelings of vulnerability, irritability, loneliness and weariness. Although you may find it distressing, they will pass quickly, usually within a few weeks. You will need support from your partner, family and friends to help you get as much rest as possible.

Postnatal depression may affect up to 1 in 7 mothers, although some experts believe it affects more than this. Symptoms may start as baby blues and get worse or they may take some time to develop. These include irritability, anxiety, panic attacks, sleep problems, tiredness, poor concentration, poor appetite, tearfulness and obsessive behaviour. Postnatal depression may be most obvious when your baby is 4-6 months old. There are many reasons why you may be more vulnerable to developing postnatal depression:

  • Personal history – if you have a history of depression this can be a risk factor for postnatal depression
  • Birth experience – you may find that your birth experience did not match your expectations. This feeling of being ‘let-down’ can contribute to depression. Some women who develop postnatal depression have had a traumatic or difficult birth or a premature or unwell baby.
  • Changes in lifestyle – the birth of a baby brings changes to your life.       New babies are hard work, with their constant demands for feeding, bathing, crying and putting to sleep.       This usually means that mum loses a lot of sleep. A new mum is suddenly responsible 24 hours a day. You lose the freedom you enjoyed before your baby arrived.       It may take time for you to finds ways to adjust to your changed circumstances.
  • Relationships – the birth of a baby can also have a profound impact on your relationships with your partner, family and friends. This can sometimes cause enormous strain.
  • Stressful life events - recent life events, such as bereavement, serious illness, unemployment or money worries may mean you are emotionally stressed before the birth of your baby. Mothers who do not have a supportive partner or are isolated from their families may be more likely to experience depression.
  • Images of motherhood – media images of motherhood suggest that new mothers should be attractive, energetic and living in a perfect home with a supportive partner. Many women think mothering is instinctive, not a skill you need to learn. You may feel you’re the only one not coping.

Self-help tips

If you feel you may have postnatal depression or are finding the ‘baby blues’ difficult speak to your GP or public health nurse.

Find out about support networks in your area. Mother and baby groups are not full of ‘super-women’, most are ordinary women who are dealing with the ups and downs of motherhood just like you.

There are also some small steps you can take to help manage how you are feeling:

  • be open about your feelings and worries with your partner or a friend or family member you trust;
  • take every opportunity to rest;
  • eat well;
  • ask people you trust to help you with practical things such as housework and minding older children;
  • set time aside for relaxing with your partner, family and friends;
  • organise a daily treat – it could be a walk in the park, a workout or a chat with a friend;
  • find time to have some fun – accept genuine offers to baby-sit; and
  • be intimate with your partner – a kiss and a cuddle can be comforting even if you don’t feel like sex.

Puerperal psychosis

This is the most extreme and rarest form of postnatal mood change. It affects about 1 in every 500 mothers. Puerperal means the six weeks after childbirth and psychosis means any form of mental illness in which you lose contact with reality. Symptoms begin soon after birth, usually with the mother becoming restless, mildly confused and unable to sleep (even when baby is sleeping). This form of depression usually requires hospital care.

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