You have probably heard of the “Baby Blues” and maybe consider feelings of sadness and irritability as a normal part of new motherhood. For the most part, you would be correct, given that a large proportion of women do experience these types of feelings around 3 to 10 days after giving birth. For many of these women, these feelings pass quickly and are replaced with happiness and excitement as they watch their babies grow.
However, for a number of women, a low mood, irritability, or even hostility or disinterest towards their baby can continue beyond the first few days or develop a few weeks later. We all have off days, particularly when dealing with a lack of sleep, but when these feelings are persistent and overwhelm everything else then it is usually described as Postnatal (or Postpartum) Depression – or PND.
What Are The Symptoms Of PND?
“It took me a long time to accept that there was something wrong. I thought being tired all the time and feeling so down was to be expected as a new Mum. Plus I had friends and family telling me that it was all normal. But when I began to resent my son for wanting my attention, I knew something wasn’t right. I didn’t feel like I bonded with him in the way I had read about, and at the same time I was constantly worrying over every single thing. It felt as though my mind was racing along constantly, filled with thoughts that I was a terrible mother, he was going to get sick and die, and that he would be better off without me.”
Not every woman will experience PND in the same way, and it can sometimes be difficult to diagnose given that new motherhood is so typically associated with some of the symptoms. The main symptom is that of feeling persistently sad or in a low mood that goes beyond normal frustrations that you may encounter. You may also be tearful on a daily basis.
Tiredness is another key symptom. Of course, as a new mum you are guaranteed to be tired from all the night time awakenings, but if you are struggling to sleep when you have the opportunity then your tiredness may be something more than that typically associated with motherhood.
Many women report that they lose interest in things that previously excited them, whether it be hobbies, personal relationships, or trips out. Some feel disengaged from their baby, feeling like they haven’t bonded, or that they only “going through the motions” of being a mother. If you feel like this, then it’s very important to understand that this does not make you a bad mother, and in fact, it is very common. It is also important to understand that a medical professional will not think that you are not fit to look after your child just because you feel this way, so you shouldn’t be afraid of getting help.
Other symptoms that you may experience include being overly anxious or a feeling of nervousness that you can’t control. Whist it’s normal to feel some worry for your child, if this worry is persistent, irrational, or taking over your thoughts, then you may be experiencing PND.
In addition, you may experience:
- A change in appetite, along with rapid weight loss / gain.
- A sense of guilt, feeling as though you are not “good enough.”
- Problems with concentration, a lack of focus, or being unaware of how much time has passed.
- A lack of care or attention to your personal hygiene and appearance – for example, you may feel unwilling to take a shower.
Furthermore, some women develop frightening thoughts, either about harming themselves or their baby. If you experience these types of thoughts then it’s important to get help immediately. It is a fairly common symptom of PND and does not automatically mean that Social Services will become involved, as it is recognised that most women will not act on these thoughts.
What Treatment Is Available For PND?
“I was in denial about my mental health for a long time. It wasn’t until my GP asked how I was doing emotionally at an appointment for something else that I broke down and acknowledged I had a problem. He was, thankfully, very understanding and quickly arranged for me to have counselling and to take a low dose of antidepressant. Within a couple of months I was starting to feel more like myself.”
In most cases, Postnatal Depression is easily treated. Depending on your NHS Trust, you will probably be offered some type of talking therapy, such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy with a trained counsellor, or group therapy led by a counsellor. These types of therapy are highly effective, particularly if you have not previously experienced any mental health conditions. In some areas, you can self-refer for talking therapies, however, it’s best to discuss your needs with your GP first.
Your GP may also offer you medication to help you manage your PND, known as an antidepressant. These medications help to restore balance in the chemicals in your brain and allow your moods to stabilise. They can take a few weeks to have an effect, but once they do, they allow you to catch up on sleep and refocus your thoughts. They are usually prescribed alongside talking therapies. If you are breastfeeding, your GP can prescribe an antidepressant that is safe for both you and your baby.
If your PND does not respond to antidepressants and / or talking therapies, or your symptoms become severe, then you will probably be offered more intense treatment, such as psychotherapy or admission to a mental health clinic. However, this is rare and most women respond well to talking therapies and antidepressants.
What Steps Can I Take To Help Myself?
“I knew that exercise could help with depression and, prior to having my baby, I was a keen mountain climber. With encouragement from my counsellor, I began to take short walks again. Just being out of the house and in the fresh air made a huge difference to my state of mind. I also began volunteering in the community, which gave me a big boost to my confidence.”
Alongside treatment from your GP, you can consider various forms of self-help that may be effective.
Firstly, keeping yourself healthy will help you to recover quicker. Make sure you eat a balanced diet, and aim to eat regularly to maintain your blood sugar levels. This will ensure you have more energy that will help you to feel better.
Exercise can also have a role to play. You don’t have to become an Olympic athlete overnight; instead, you could simply aim to go for a 20-minute walk each day with your baby. Alternatively, you could ask someone to watch your baby for an hour to allow you to attend an exercise class such as yoga or swimming. During exercise, your body releases “feel-good” hormones, and the fitter you are, the more energy you will have.
Make sure you get plenty of rest. It’s not that easy, and that’s understandable, but even a short powernap will make a difference. Ask if your partner or family member can look after your baby for an hour to give you a break. If you can, perhaps consider treating yourself to a massage at your local spa.
Talk to your loved ones about how you are feeling and ask for their support. You could suggest that they read this article and other sources of information about PND so that they have a greater understanding of what you are going through. Try not to be disheartened if you are told to simply “pull yourself together.” Sadly, despite the efforts of campaigners, mental health is still very much stigmatised in the UK and there is a lack of understanding of conditions such as PND. It’s important to remember that you have nothing to be ashamed of and PND is not something you can simply switch off or control without support.
Consider joining your local parent and toddler groups. They are a great way of meeting new mothers who may be experiencing something similar to you and can offer additional support. Your health visitor will probably be able to direct you to groups in your area.
How Can I Get Help?
You can speak to your GP or Health Visitor initially. You can also receive support from the Association for Post-Natal Illness who are a registered charity in the UK providing confidential support via phone and email.
You can also speak to a sympathetic listening ear 24-hours a day by calling the Samaritans on 0845 790 9090.