Feeling depressed after childbirth
The baby blues
During the first week after childbirth, many women get what’s often called the ‘baby blues’. This is probably due to the sudden hormonal and chemical changes that take place in your body after childbirth.
Symptoms can include:
- feeling emotional and irrational
- bursting into tears for no apparent reason
- feeling irritable or touchy
- feeling depressed or anxious
All these symptoms are normal and usually only last for a few days.
Depression after a baby is born can be extremely distressing. Postnatal depression is thought to affect around one in 10 women (and up to four in 10 teenage mothers).
Many women suffer in silence. Their friends, relatives and health professionals don’t know how they’re feeling.
Postnatal depression usually occurs two to eight weeks after the birth, though sometimes it can happen up to a year after the baby is born.
Symptoms such as tiredness, irritability or poor appetite are normal if you’ve just had a baby. But these are usually mild and don’t stop you leading a normal life.
When you have postnatal depression, you may feel increasingly depressed and despondent. Looking after yourself or your baby may become too much. Other signs of postnatal depression are:
- panic attacks
- extreme tiredness
- aches and pains
- feeling generally unwell
- memory loss or being unable to concentrate
- feelings of not being able to cope
- not being able to stop crying
- loss of appetite
- feelings of hopelessness
- not being able to enjoy anything
- loss of interest in the baby
- excessive anxiety about the baby
Getting help for postnatal depression
If you think you have postnatal depression, don’t struggle alone. It’s not a sign that you’re a bad mother or are unable to cope. Postnatal depression is an illness and you need to get help, just as you would if you had the flu or a broken leg.
Talk to someone you trust, such as your partner or a friend or talk to your doctor. If you don’t feel up to making an appointment, ask someone to do it for you.
Treatment for postnatal depression
Milder cases of postnatal depression can be treated with counselling. This can be given by your gynaecologist or a psychologist. More severe cases often require antidepressants and you may need to see a specialist.
It’s important to let your doctor know if you’re breastfeeding. If you need to take antidepressants, they’ll prescribe a type of medication that’s suitable while you’re breastfeeding.
Preventing postnatal depression
To try to prevent postnatal depression, tell your doctor about any previous depression you’ve had or if you have felt very low or anxious during your pregnancy.
Also, speak to your doctor if you’ve had postnatal depression in the past and you’re pregnant or if you’re considering having another baby, as there can be a risk you’ll develop postnatal depression again.
Keeping your doctor informed will ensure they’re aware of the possibility of postnatal depression developing after your baby is born. This will help prevent a delay in diagnosis and allow treatment to begin earlier. In the early stages, postnatal depression can be easy to miss.
It’s difficult to estimate the exact risk of a woman developing postnatal depression because many factors are involved, including:
- previous medical history
- individual social and psychological circumstances
- current relationships
- complications during labour
Even if you have a high risk of developing postnatal depression, it can be avoided. Getting support from your doctor or midwife will help reduce your risk of developing postnatal depression.
The self-help measures listed below can also be useful.
- Get as much rest and relaxation as possible.
- Take regular gentle exercise.
- Don’t go for long periods without food because low blood sugar levels can make you feel much worse.
- Don’t drink alcohol because it can make you feel worse.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Don’t try to do everything at once. Make a list of things to do and set realistic goals.
- Talk about your worries with your partner, close family and friends.
- Don’t try to be “Supermum”. Avoid extra challenges either during pregnancy or in the first year after your baby is born. A new baby is enough of a challenge for most people.
- Don’t despair. Postnatal depression can affect anyone. You’re not to blame.
If your risk of developing postnatal depression is thought to be particularly high, your doctor in charge of your care may recommend you start taking antidepressants as a precaution shortly or soon after giving birth.
Similarly, if you have a history of bipolar disorder or psychosis and you’re at risk of developing puerperal psychosis (severe postnatal depression), you may be advised to start taking mood-stabilisers and help prevent psychosis reoccurring.
This condition is extremely rare. Only 1 or 2 mothers in 1,000 develop a severe psychiatric illness that requires medical or hospital treatment after the birth of a baby. This illness can develop within hours of childbirth and is very serious, needing urgent attention.
Other people usually notice it first as the mother often acts strangely. It is more likely to happen if you have a severe mental illness, a past history of severe mental illness or a family history of perinatal mental illness. Most women make a complete recovery, although this may take a few weeks or months.
Postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Postnatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often the result of a traumatic birth, such as a very long or painful labour, or an emergency or problematic delivery. It can also develop after other types of trauma, such as:
- a fear of dying or your baby dying
- life-threatening situations
The symptoms of postnatal PTSD can occur alone or in addition to the symptoms of postnatal depression. The symptoms of PTSD include:
- panic attacks
- sleeping problems
- lack of emotions
- severe irritability or anger
The symptoms can develop straight after the birth or months afterwards.
It’s very important to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Your doctor will be able help you. If you’re worried about talking to a health professional, consider asking a close friend or family member to come with you for support.
There are very effective treatments available, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and medications.
Alcohol may appear to help you relax and unwind. In fact, it’s a depressant that affects your mood, judgement, self-control and co-ordination. It has even more of an effect if you’re tired and run-down. Be careful about when and how much you drink, and don’t drink alcohol if you’re taking anti-depressants or tranquillisers.