More Than Just The Baby Blues

A mother and baby

I know you’ve heard it before – but becoming a parent really is life-changing.

Hands up if you didn’t really fully appreciate what this meant until you experienced it for yourself? For the record, my hand is right up there.

Yes, we’d heard about the sleepless nights, the crying, the poo-splosions... but we’re tough modern women and could handle all that. How bad could it be? Of course, the smiles, cuddles and immense joy your child will bring into your life would make it all worthwhile, right?

But what about when it doesn’t? What if it all seems totally overwhelming and you feel like your world is collapsing in on you? I remember that feeling. I suffered from postnatal anxiety after the births of my two children. I know I’m not alone.

This week is Perinatal Mental Health Week. Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) are aiming to “break down the barriers” by improving awareness and reducing the stigma associated with perinatal mental health problems. This includes knowing how common these problems really are, being aware of the symptoms and knowing how to get help for perinatal mental health issues.

The perinatal period covers the time from when you get pregnant to a year after the birth of your baby. The most well-known mental health problem over this time is postnatal depression. However, anxiety can be just as common as depression, and they can often occur together. New mums are not the only ones affected either. Figures show:

  • 1 in 5 mums or mums-to be suffer from depression, anxiety or both in the perinatal period – that includes during pregnancy and the year after birth
  • 1 in 20 dads suffer depression while their partner is pregnant, and possibly even more suffer from anxiety
  • 1 in 10 dads suffer from depression, anxiety or both after their baby is born

These numbers may be surprising to many. However, organisations like PANDA are reporting call rates from people seeking support have increased over the past 12-18 months, so it’s likely rates of perinatal mental illness are even higher now. Chances are you, or someone you know has suffered from a perinatal mental health issue. It’s therefore important to know the common symptoms.

The stereotypical image of postnatal depression involves a woman who can’t stop crying and feels sad all the time. This is not uncommon in the first few days after your baby is born, often known as the ‘baby blues’. However, if these kinds of symptoms persist for more than a week or two, this is no longer the baby blues, and may indicate postnatal depression.

Common symptoms of perinatal anxiety include constant worry about your baby or other things, fear of being left alone with your baby and an inability to sleep well. This was more my experience over this time.

Other common symptoms or perinatal depression or anxiety can include: • Becoming easily irritable or angry, or suffering mood swings • Constant fatigue • Either poor sleep or an increase in sleep • Losing interest in things you usually enjoy • Withdrawing from friends and loved ones • Finding it hard to focus – ‘brain fog’ • Suffering panic attacks • Developing obsessions or compulsions • Engaging in risky behaviour (eg, using drugs or alcohol) • Thoughts of self-harm, suicide or of hurting your baby

In very rare cases, these symptoms may be more extreme, with hallucinations, paranoia, delusions or manic behaviour. This may indicate postnatal psychosis, and while this only occurs in 1-2 women per 1000, it needs urgent medical help.

Some of these symptoms can be hard to separate from the normal experience of trying to care for a newborn. Most people would report fatigue and brain fog for at least some of this time, for example. If you are not sure if you or a loved one is suffering from perinatal depression or anxiety you could try doing one of the Mental Health Checklists on the PANDA website to help guide you on whether you may need some help. Speaking to your GP is also recommended.

How can you get help?

If you or a loved one has concerning symptoms, and especially if you are worried about their safety or the safety of their children, please seek immediate medical help. PANDA also have a free Helpline – 1300 726 306 (available Monday to Friday 9am – 7.30pm).

However, there are other things you can do as the support person for someone with perinatal depression or anxiety. First of all, be there to listen and validate their experience. Sometimes people just need a chance to talk with someone who will listen without judgement. If you are concerned though, encourage the person to seek professional support. Professional counselling and / or medication may be needed in some cases.

You may like to also encourage the following self-care ideas which can be helpful adjuncts to managing perinatal mental health problems.

  • Exercise can be helpful for both anxiety and depression. Cardiovascular exercise such as walking outside in fresh air and nature is often helpful for depression. More gentle exercise such as yoga or stretching can help with anxiety.
  • Get social – having a good social network can really help reduce the isolation some experience after having a baby. You may be able to join a Mums and Bubs exercise class (and incorporate both exercise and socialising together!) or a new Mums group.
  • Have some time out. This can be really hard with a breast-feeding newborn. But finding even 30 minutes to do something by yourself that you enjoy, while your baby is looked after by a trusted partner, friend or relative, can make a difference.
  • Practise good sleep hygiene. Lack of sleep can really take its toll on your mental health. Help make this process easier by going to bed at a regular, earlier time as much as possible. Also, avoid any stimulants like caffeine, alcohol and screens before bed and try to only take short naps earlier in the day, so you are sleepy by the end of the day.
  • Eat well. Newborns have an innate ability to need a feed right when your dinner is ready, and sometimes you’ll feel too exhausted to cook a proper meal. Hopefully family and friends can help out with some easy meals for your freezer. Try to have some protein-rich healthy snacks on hand for times when you can’t manage a proper meal. Nuts, protein balls and veggie sticks with dip can work well.

You can see from this that perinatal mental health problems are common and can affect both women and men during pregnancy and after the birth of their baby. However, help is available. The most important things are recognising the symptoms and not being afraid to seek help as soon as you can.

Stay safe and healthy


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