Everything you need to know about the signs, symptoms and treatments for postnatal depression.
Most mothers have days when they feel really down. This is perfectly normal. Looking after a baby, being constantly on call and coping with the daily demands of life is not easy. However, mothers who feel miserable most of the time may be suffering from postnatal depression, a debilitating illness that can spoil the experience of motherhood, interfere with the development of the mother-baby bond and put an immense strain on adult relationships.
The postpartum period is a critical time for the health of the mother. In some cultures, it is not uncommon for other women to look after the mother in the first few weeks after the birth. However, many mothers find themselves without support and with little or no experience in the practice of baby care. This puts the sole responsibility of looking after the baby and the household on the mother long before she is ready.
Postnatal depression is a serious condition that can result in a great deal of suffering. The first thing is to recognise the symptoms and then get help as soon as possible. It can take a long time to recover from the illness, but early treatment can reduce its severity.
How to Spot the Signs of Postnatal Depression
With national lockdown restrictions in place, it’s more important than ever to look after yourself as a new parent, too. Whilst it’s completely normal to feel anxious or experience a low mood during the first few weeks of parenthood, it’s important to understand what’s ‘normal’ baby blues, and what isn’t; especially if you’re away from your usual support network.
Help is at-hand: we recently spoke with Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director of Mental Health at Bupa UK Insurance, who’s shared the signs of postnatal depression (PND) to watch out for in you or your partner.
What are the symptoms of postnatal depression to look out for?
Postnatal depression is a mental health condition that can affect both new mums and dads. It can also come on gradually, so you may develop it without realising. Postnatal depression can interfere with your day-to-day life and prevent you from enjoying parenthood, so it’s important to know the signs to watch out for, both in yourself and your partner.
Postnatal depression has many different symptoms and can affect your mental wellbeing in lots of ways. If you’re worried your partner is struggling with their mental health, you might find they become withdrawn (or reluctant to leave the house), anxious or more irritated than usual.
They may also experience a persistent low mood, cry for no obvious reason and feel unable to look after your new baby.
Below are some of the symptoms of postnatal, ranging from mild to extreme.
- Fatigue – even a simple task such as getting dressed may seem an impossible one.
- Sleep disturbances – it may be hard to get to sleep and your partner may wake up very early in the morning.
- Feelings of worthlessness – the mother or father may be unable to organise a routine or work out what their baby needs or wants. They may also fail to take care of themselves.
- Anxiety – the parent may be obsessed with the baby’s health and concerned that the baby will come to harm if left alone.
- Despair – feeling unhappy and wretched can be worse at particular times of the day. Good days may be followed by bad days which can make someone feel tearful for much of the time.
- Irritability – feelings of irritability are common and may be aimed at her partner or family members, who may not understand what is happening.
- Reduced libido – postnatal depression can take away the desire for sex.
- Mum Guilt – even though the mother has really looked forward to motherhood, she may find it hard to love the baby, which increases her sense of guilt.
- Panic attacks – headaches, stomach pains or heart palpitations can make the mother (or father) fear that she is going to have a heart attack or a stroke.
- Social withdrawal – you may lose interest in activities that you previously enjoyed before the birth and may not want to go out at all.
- Delayed attachment – the mother or father may be unable to respond to baby’s need for love and affection. This is an important concern because emotional availability in the first six months of life is crucial to the baby’s overall health and future development.
How can I support my partner with postnatal depression?
Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director of Mental Health at Bupa UK Insurance, also suggests some of the best ways to support someone with PND.
Make time to talk
Sometimes it’s difficult to open-up about how you’re feeling, but if you’re worried about your partner, try to find some time to sit down together and calmly talk about how they’re feeling.
It can make a big difference for your partner if you take the time to make it clear that you’re here for them. If talking face-to-face is proving difficult, you could try to connect by sending a message, instead.
Listen without judgement
Whilst it might feel upsetting or overwhelming to hear your partner is experiencing postnatal depression or distressing symptoms, it’s important not to blame them for how they are feeling.
It takes a lot to open-up to someone about their struggles, so aim to listen to them without judging, and keep the focus on them, rather than coming back to your own feelings (unless you’re experiencing similar symptoms, too).
Offer them reassurance
Postnatal depression can leave you questioning your abilities as a new parent, so it’s important to offer your partner reassurance, for example by telling them that they’re a good parent, and that you’re there if they need any help.
Share any responsibilities
With lockdown restrictions and our social bubbles limited, another way you can help your partner is offering practical support, such as sharing the feeds, doing the laundry and helping to cook. A simple gesture of asking your partner what you can do can really help.
If your partner is finding it difficult to relax or switch off, why not run them a bath, or take the baby out for a walk? Offer them some time to themselves to do something they enjoy, such as reading or exercise.
Seek support together
It’s important that your partner seeks support from a healthcare professional, if they’re experiencing any signs of PND. Even though they may not feel up to it, finding out what support is available from your doctor can help. Offer to schedule an appointment and accompany them, so they don’t feel alone.
Your GP is there to help, and there’s lots of treatments available (such as talking therapies and medication); your doctor will support you and your partner at every step. Your health visitor is also there to support both of you, as well as checking in on your baby, so you could open-up to them, instead.
It can also help both yourself and your partner by reading about postnatal depression from authoritative sources (such as Bupa, NHS and MIND), so you can try to understand how they’re feeling. Whilst you may not be able to meet face-to-face, there’s plenty of online support groups out there; a quick search online pulls up local groups for your area.
Look after yourself
It’s normal to feel scared or worried if your partner has postnatal depression, and whilst it’s important to be there to support them, make sure you find time to support yourself, too.
Speak to your loved ones – perhaps a close friend or family member – about what’s going on, and how you’re feeling. There is support available for both of you, so you’re not alone.
Ways to Treat Postnatal Depression
The first stage in treatment includes good nutrition, plenty of rest and regular exercise. All are important for emotional and physical health. Regular meals, adequate intake of protein from meat and eggs together with omega 3 fatty acids from fish and vegetables can make a real difference. Hydration is also important. The recommended daily intake is about ten tall glasses of water. Massage, yoga, aromatherapy, acupuncture, walking, swimming, jogging, cycling, getting out and about and having fun can also play an important part in the mother’s recovery.
If the depression is severe or has gone on for a long time, antidepressant drugs can be used safely while breastfeeding. However, antidepressants can take up to four weeks to start working, so it is important that the mother keeps on taking them or the depression may return. About 60 percent of women with moderate to severe postnatal depression feel better within a few weeks of starting medication, but they are not an effective method for everyone.
Evidence suggests that sharing experiences, anxieties and feelings with others is one of the best cures for postnatal depression. For mothers that do not have anyone to confide in, self-help groups and supportive networks such as Parentline Plus and the National Childbirth Trust can provide the help, support and reassurance that the mother needs. Parent and baby classes such also enable mothers to meet others who have gone through the same experience.