What is Postpartum Depression?
Postpartum Depression (also known as Postnatal Depression) is a type of depression that can affect women after they have given birth; this type of depression is common and affects more than one in ten women within a year of giving birth. Mothers with Postpartum Depression may experience feelings of extreme sadness, anxiety and exhaustion that may make it difficult to live day-to-day life.
Pregnancy for many people is a wonderful and exciting experience, however for many parents it is a time of worry and exhaustion. Women who experience Postpartum Depression may find difficulties coming to terms with how they are feeling and can find it very difficult to discuss their feelings with others for many reasons. For example, because people associate having a child with happiness and fulfilment, those suffering with Postpartum Depression may feel a pressure to be happy and may feel ashamed of their depression.
Many symptoms of Postpartum Depression can have a negative effect on the mother, baby and the family and therefore, it is important that those who experience Postpartum Depression seek help as soon as possible. If untreated, the depression can continue to grow and worsen with time.
What are the symptoms?
There are many symptoms that women with Postpartum depression may experience; common symptoms include:
• Persistent and intense feelings of sadness
• Feeling empty, hopeless and overwhelmed
• Crying more than often for no apparent reason
• Increased anxiety
• Feeling moody, irritable or restless
• Oversleeping or exhaustion
• Having difficulty concentrating, making decisions or remembering details
• Suffering from physical aches and pains, including headaches, stomach problems and muscle pain
• Over eating (comfort eating) or under eating (loss of appetite)
• Having trouble bonding or forming emotion attachment to the baby
• Doubting ability to be a parent
• Thinking about self-harm
• Thinking about harming the baby
• Lack of enjoyment and loss of interests
• Withdrawing contact from other people
• Feeling guilt and self-blame
Signs for others to look for
Because of the symptoms of Postpartum Depression, mothers may feel reluctance in sharing how they feel, this can include sharing with the father or other family members or friends. Here are some signs for partners, family and friends to look out for in new parents:
• frequently crying for no obvious reason
• having difficulty bonding with their baby, looking after them only as a duty and not wanting to play with them
• withdrawing from contact with other people
• speaking negatively all the time and claiming that they're hopeless
• neglecting themselves, such as not washing or changing their clothes
• losing all sense of time, such as being unaware whether 10 minutes or two hours have passed
• losing their sense of humour
• constantly worrying that something is wrong with their baby, regardless of reassurance
Causes of Postpartum Depression
It is unclear as to what exactly causes the depression, however it is believed to result from a combination of physical and emotional factors. It is important to remember that Postpartum Depression does not occur because of something the mother did or did not do.
Physical factors refer to the levels of hormones, such as oestrogen and progesterone, in the women’s body. After childbirth, these hormones quickly drop which leads to chemical changes in the brain that may trigger mood swings. Another contributing factor is that new parents will suffer from sleep deprivation which can lead to exhaustion, discomfort, irritability and confusion, which may intensify their sadness from not having the energy to cope.
Postpartum Depression can also be influenced by pre-existing mental health issues. For example, if a mother already has issues with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, then having a baby and having the hormonal changes can intensify negative feelings and make it harder to overcome them.
There are social and emotional factors than can also have an effect on Postpartum Depression such as not having a good support network or a relationship with the father; lack of support puts more pressure on the mother, increasing stress, anxiety and fatigue. Additionally, if the mother has experienced recent stressful life events, such as bereavement or illness, then it can add to any pressures they are experiencing regarding their child.
Even if the new mother does not have existing mental health issues or social and emotional issues in their life, having a baby is a life changing experience. Looking after a small child is a stressful job and will cause exhaustion regardless, it also changes how people live their lives and see the world around them. It may be that the new mother is focussing on everything she must give up or change, it may be that they are concerned with their financial situation or it may be simply that they do not feel ready or prepared for looking after a baby.
Any of these reasons may have contributed to the depression, however there are other reasons that may have led to it that may be specific to the individual.
Myths about Postpartum Depression
Postpartum Depression is often misunderstood, and people often make incorrect assumptions about it, which may make the sufferer feel worse.
One myth is that Postpartum Depression is not as severe as other types of depression, this is incorrect as it is just as severe as any other type of depression. Like other forms, if untreated, can have long lasting and damaging effects on the mother, child and the family that will progressively get worse and more difficult to deal with.
Another is that Postpartum Depression is entirely caused by hormonal changes, however, as discussed in the ‘causes’ section, this is untrue, and it is usually influenced by many factors.
Further, Postpartum Depression is sometimes confused for the ‘baby blues’, which is a temporary mood change after giving birth. However, Postpartum Depression is or can be an ongoing mental health issue that may persist into a long-term problem if left untreated.
Although this article has only discussed Postpartum Depression in women, it is not only women that are affected by it. Research has actually found that up to 1 in 25 new fathers become depressed after having a baby, and although this may not necessarily be caused from hormonal changes, social and emotional changes may prompt depression in new fathers as well.
How to help
It is important for those suffering with depression to talk to others about it, this can be done by accessing counselling services, which provides people with professional advice, education about the depression and can guide people through techniques on how to cope with the depression.
Peer support groups are another type of talking therapy that can be a valuable experience.
Peer support groups allow people to share their experiences of what has and has not worked for them and make suggestions of things that other people can try. This may be particularly beneficial for those who may struggle talking about their feeling with people they are close to and can reduce feeling of isolation.
However, having a good support network of people that they are close to, such as family and friends, is also beneficial. By discussing fears and emotions with other people close to the sufferer can prompt them to offer help and support, which will reduce feelings of isolation.
It is important that new parents suffering with Postpartum Depression:
• Make time for themselves to do things they enjoy and find relaxing
• Rest while they can and try to follow good sleeping habits
• Exercise, which has proven to increase moods in people with depression
• Eat regularly and healthily
• Limit alcohol consumption and do not take drugs, as they can worsen mood
• Talk to partners, family and friends
• Do not try to be a ‘supermother’ – accept help from others when it is offered
• Seek help from counselling services and talking therapies
• If unable to cope, enquire about medications such as antidepressants
If someone who has previously experienced Postpartum Depression becomes pregnant again, they are at an increased risk of going through that again – but it does not mean that they definitely will. When people who have had Postpartum Depression in the past find out they are pregnant again, it may be that their anxiety is increased straight away due to memories of a previous time, or it may be that they feel more confident about spotting symptoms and how to look after themselves.
It is important that people who are experiencing Postpartum Depression seek help, either from close relationships of from professionals, as soon as symptoms appear to minimise the risk of the disorder becoming chronic.