Perinatal depression

Becoming a parent brings a wide range of emotions, ranging from joy and excitement to stress and apprehension. The physical changes you go through can also affect your mood and feelings, and it's common to experience more ups and downs than usual. But depression is more than just a low mood – it's a serious condition that affects your physical and mental health.

In many cases, depression during the perinatal period (pregnancy and the year following birth) isn't recognised and may get worse. This can interfere with your pregnancy or becoming a parent. Depression doesn't just affect you – it can affect those around you, including your relationships and your baby's development.

That's why it's important to speak to someone if you're finding it hard to cope. The sooner you get support, the sooner you can get on with enjoying your family.

Perinatal, antenatal and postnatal depression – what's the difference?

You might hear some of these terms used and wonder what they mean. Perinatal depression is defined as depression in pregnancy, around childbirth or within the first year post‐partum, antenatal depression is when you experience depression during pregnancy, postnatal depression develops between one month and up to one year after the birth.

Because depression can start before or during pregnancy and continue after childbirth, we often use perinatal depression to cover the whole period from conception until your baby is 12 months old.

Depression may also return in a following pregnancy or after the birth of another child.

Depression or the ‘baby blues'?

Many women experience the ‘baby blues' between the third and tenth day after giving birth, due to changes in hormone levels following childbirth. You might feel tearful or overwhelmed, but this usually passes within a few days and without any specific care – apart from support and understanding.

All parents go through a period of adjustment as they try to handle the huge changes a new baby brings. Remember that you're not the only ones trying to figure out how to collapse that new pram or settle a screaming baby – all new parents are in the same boat. Most people will go through a temporary adjustment as they learn the ropes and build confidence in their new role. But if you're feeling distressed, down, sad or overwhelmed most of the time for two weeks or more, you may be experiencing depression.

If you think your partner or baby would be better off without you, or you are having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself or your baby, seek professional help.

Symptoms of perinatal depression

The symptoms of depression during pregnancy or early parenthood are the same as at any other time in our life, but can be a little harder to identify and deal with when you're pregnant or have a baby. Some of the changes that come with being a new parent overlap with the symptoms of depression – such as changes in sleeping or appetite – and it can be difficult to tell the difference.

It's also a time when everything's new and challenging – it can be hard to know whether your reactions and emotions are within the 'normal' range when your life with a new baby could be feeling pretty far from 'normal'!

Am I depressed…or just exhausted?

Because there's often overlap between the symptoms of depression and the reality of becoming a new parent, the way you're feeling about yourself, your life and your family can help you differentiate between the two.

It's important to recognise that some aspects of your life as a new parent, such as sleep deprivation and increased stress, are risk factors. And when they hang around long enough, and enough of them build up, can lead to depression.

What causes mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood?

Mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood can affect anyone, regardless of your background. Depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions usually don't have one definite cause – something we can point to and say ‘that's the issue'.

Instead, they're likely to develop as a result of a combination of challenges or ‘risk factors' and a lack of support or ‘protective factors'. Risk factors often include longer-term issues you might have been dealing with for a while, as well as more immediate ones related to giving birth and becoming a parent.

As part of your pregnancy and postnatal care, health professionals may ask you questions about the following issues so they can provide support if you need it:

  • personal or family history of mental health conditions or current mental health conditions
  • current alcohol and/or drug use
  • how much practical and emotional support you have available
  • current or past history of abuse (e.g. physical, psychological, sexual)
  • difficult or stressful life events (e.g. previous miscarriage or stillbirth, loss of job, moving house, homelessness).

If there's a specific issue or challenge that's worrying you or you need extra support, don't wait to be asked. You can start the conversation by explaining your situation and what's going on for you.

Stresses during pregnancy and early parenthood

Getting used to being a parent can be hard work – and that's if everything goes smoothly. Throw in a colicky baby, difficulty sleeping or recovering from a complicated birth and you could find yourself feeling pretty stressed out. If you're dealing with a number issues over a period of time, keep an eye on your moods and seek support if you need it.

Factors that can increase stress

This doesn't mean that every new parent who faces challenges will develop a mental health condition – different combinations of risk factors affect us in different ways, and protective factors can strengthen our mental health and improve our resilience.

Protective factors

If we think about risk factors as the negative things that can chip away at our mental health, protective factors are the positive things that build us up and give us the skills and support to deal with challenges.

These include:

  • Strong support networks – family, friends, community, other new parents
  • Positive sense of identity and cultural heritage
  • Being physically healthy and taking care of yourself – exercising, eating well, reducing stress where you can
  • Good coping and problem-solving skills
  • Optimism – a belief that life has meaning and hope
  • A positive attitude to support seeking
  • Access to support services

Similarly, perinatal anxiety is another condition that is common among new mothers. Postnatal psychosis, bipolar disorder, is not as common as perinatal depression and anxiety, but it affects a small number of women in the first days or weeks after childbirth.

Available treatment

Mental health conditions among mothers can be treated effectively, and just like other physical conditions. It's important to identify and seek support as early as you can, as perinatal mental health conditions generally don't go away on their own.

Most people with anxiety or depression benefit from one or a combination of the following:

  • lifestyle changes and social support
  • psychological or 'talking' therapies
  • medical treatments

You are your baby's most important asset, and an asset that should be looked after — caring for yourself is as important as caring for your baby. The most important thing is to talk to a health professional about getting the right treatment. Remember, the faster you get support, the faster you can get back to enjoying life with your family.

Depression during pregnancy and early parenthood doesn't just affect new mums – dads are also at greater risk. If you've recently or are about to become a father, keep an eye on the signs and symptoms.

Take this simple test to see if you are in risk of perinatal depression:

If you or someone you know is having symptoms of Depression, immediately seek health care. You can find MHA Champions Care Providers below:

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