While postnatal depression (PND) can make you feel overwhelmed and helpless, there are lots of small steps you can take to help yourself, as well as professionals you can turn to.
We speak to Liz Halliday, deputy head of midwifery at Private Midwives, and Katharine Graves, founder of KG Hypnobirthing, to help you identify whether you are suffering with PND, and how best to recover.
Is it baby blues or postnatal depression?
Many new parents experience postnatal depression after having a baby and it affects more than one in every 10 women within a year of giving birth. But what’s the difference between the baby blues, postnatal depression and just plan exhaustion?
‘The “baby blues” are a very common phenomenon experienced by many women,’ says Halliday. ‘They usually occur three to five days after birth and resolve within a time period of one to seven days. Hormonal changes, tiredness and the responsibilities of a baby can trigger the baby blues.’
Graves agrees that adapting to parenthood is overwhelming for many new mothers. ‘Motherhood is a massive change in a woman’s life,’ she says. ‘You have this little person in your arms who you love to bits, but after three nights of waking up to feed this beautiful little person, you suddenly realise life is going to be different for ever more and this is going to go on. It is said that when a baby is born, a mother is born too, and it is almost like being a new person. Nothing can prepare you for this and it is a shock.’
Is it normal to struggle after having a baby?
It’s important to remember that feeling overwhelmed in the early days are incredibly common. ‘All of this is quite normal, and most women need support and a little time to let them pass,’ reassures Halliday.
‘But if you feel that they are persisting after a week, it may be a sign that something more serious is going on,’ she adds.
‘Postnatal depression, postnatal anxiety disorder and other perinatal mental health issues often don’t present immediately after birth and can emerge as the weeks or months roll on. They don’t resolve quickly and can often worsen over time if help is not sought out.’
What causes postnatal depression?
A number of things can lead to PND. ‘A history of depression (personal or family), hormonal shifts, sleep deprivation, social isolation and unsatisfactory birth experiences are key factors that can contribute to postnatal depression,’ explains Halliday. ‘However, these factors are not always present.’
Graves is keen to highlight the part that birth trauma and social isolation as a new mum can play. ‘If the birth has been traumatic and painful, it is much more likely that the mother will have PND,’ she says.
‘In a painful birth, the drugs she has been given inhibit the production of natural hormones, oxytocin (the hormone of calm) and endorphins (nature’s feel-good factor),’ adds Graves. ‘The drugs may have also had an influence on how she bonds with the baby. Now, not only does she have the most agonising and traumatic experience of her life to deal with, but she also has no time for herself or to rest, in order to process this.’
‘In addition, we are social animals, and isolation is challenging and unnatural,’ she continues. ‘Before a woman has a baby, she probably goes to work, meets other people, has conversations with them and generally feels she is part of society. Once she has had her baby, she is home alone. This isolation is very challenging and she needs to do everything she can to make contact, generally with other new mums, because that works best.’
Symptoms of postnatal depression
Postnatal depression can present in many ways. Halliday outlines the most common symptoms below, which are all signs that they might need to contact a healthcare professional:
- A low mood
- Feeling that they cannot cope
- Feeling that they are not able to care for their child fully
- Worrying and not being able to control worry or anxiety
- Feeling that everything is their fault
- Not finding enjoyment in things that used to bring them pleasure
‘Every woman who experiences perinatal health issues can have slightly different experiences, so it’s important to speak to someone who can help,’ explains Halliday.
‘The main problem we face is that women often feel guilty for not feeling joyous, or that they are not coping, so they might seek to hide their feelings and put on a brave face. There is nothing to be ashamed of – help is out there.’
Postnatal depression self-care tips
Halliday and Graves agree that self-care is essential when it comes to combatting PND. Even if you feel you have very little time, it’s important to prioritise your own mental wellbeing.
‘Self-care is important for everyone, but a new mum may feel overwhelmed and exhausted, and a bit of self-care can really make a difference to how she is feeling and coping with the daily struggles of life,’ says Halliday.
Here are their top suggestions of self-care tips to look alleviate PND symptoms and look after yourself:
✔️ Eat well
‘Nutritious food will feed your body and help you to heal,’ says Halliday. ‘Biscuits and chocolate will only give a short energy burst followed by a sugar crash. So have your chocolate bar, but maybe after a decent meal.’
✔️ Nap as often as possible
‘You have probably never been so tired in your life before,’ sympathises Graves. ‘Normally, if we are tired because we have had to work extra long hours or have done some unusual physical activity, we sleep it off the next night. With the new baby, you won’t be sleeping long hours. So sleep whenever you can. When the baby rests, take a nap. You may not usually sleep in the daytime, but with a new baby you must sleep whenever the baby does.’
✔️ Take regular exercise
‘Don’t overdo it in the early days, but a short walk or a yoga class can boost endorphins, which will make you feel better,’ says Halliday.
✔️ Don’t forget you time
‘Having even 20 minutes to grab a shower, a hot cup of coffee or even a short walk outside without baby can give you a little time to remember that you are still you,’ says Halliday.
✔️ Forget the housework
‘You will have very little time, but in the time you do have, pamper yourself and rest,’ reminds Graves. ‘It doesn’t matter that your home isn’t clean and the washing up hasn’t been done. A bit of dirt strengthens your child’s immune system!’
✔️ Ask for help
‘If someone visits, ask them to pop the kettle on, or cuddle baby while you get a quick shower,’ advises Halliday. ‘If someone offers you a meal, say yes! It’s not unusual for women to try to do everything, but it’s often not necessary or helpful. Accept help and repay the favour in the future.’
✔️ Alleviate loneliness
‘There will be coffee mornings for local mums, and baby and toddler groups that you can attend to meet people,’ says Graves. ‘These are available almost everywhere. Ask at your health clinic or your GP, or ask your partner to help you with ideas. This is very important.’
✔️ Take one step at a time
‘Try not to think about tonight or tomorrow,’ says Halliday. ‘Dealing with what’s going on right now is enough. Worrying about the future won’t help anything, but if you really can’t stop then…
✔️ Make a list
‘Write down what you think you have to do later and then leave it until… later,’ Halliday continues. ‘Or even better, ask someone else to help you.’
✔️ Breathe deeply
‘The relaxation that you practised in pregnancy ready for your birth can be equally useful after birth,’ explains Graves. ‘The simple, long, slow “up” breathing is beneficial in any circumstances and especially when you feel depressed. On the beautiful, gentle, long, slow out breath, you produce oxytocin, which is the hormone of calm, connection and love.’
✔️ Don’t be afraid to cry
‘Let it all out,’ says Halliday. ‘Call a friend or sit with your partner if you want to, but let the tears flow. Bottling emotions up can make you feel worse. Sometimes a good cry followed by a hot bath can really help.’
✔️ Ask for professional help
If you suspect you might be suffering with PND, it’s important to speak with a professional, for guidance and help. ‘Although postnatal depression may prove quicker to resolve with treatment for many women, suffering with depression is always very serious and should be treated as such,’ says Halliday.
‘Talk to your GP, midwife or health visitor. They will know of local organisations that can offer support. There are also several forms of antidepressants that you could discuss with your GP and are considered safe whilst breastfeeding, if you decide this might be an option for you.’
Graves also suggests that, alongside conventional health professionals, such as your GP and health visitor, you may also like to consider consulting a reflexologist, hypnotherapist or acupuncturist. ‘The important thing is to ask for help,’ she says.
Further help and support
For additional support try one of the following resources:
- Association for Post Natal Illness : a charity providing support to mothers suffering from post-natal illness.
- Mind: support for new mums to manage the everyday, nurture themselves and dispel the many myths of motherhood.
- Mothers For Mothers Postnatal Depression Support Group: support, advice, information and most of all a listening ear for any worries or concerns from real mums.
- NCT: a charity offering support to new mums.
- Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice & Support: trusted support service for families suffering from prenatal/antenatal and postnatal illnesses.