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Postnatal depression: where to get help

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mother overwhelmed with baby


Feeling depressed after childbirth

Welcoming a new baby into the world can result in a rollercoaster of emotions and for some women this can bring on feelings of sadness that range from the “baby blues” to serious overwhelming depression. 

While historically women have tended to hide these struggles, fearing it reflects on them as mothers, a growing number of celebrities have spoken out about their struggles, helping bring the conversation out into the open.

One of the first, back in 2003, was Brook Shields who told the world on Oprah, “It has nothing to do with your love for [your children]… It is something that is in your body, the loss of oestrogen, the amount of hormones. .. Pay attention to the feelings that you’re feeling and talk about it and ask your doctor. .. Find out what medicine’s available. You don’t have to be miserable.”

After the birth of her second child Frankie in 2014, Actress Drew Barrymore told PEOPLE!, “I didn’t have postpartum the first time so I didn’t understand it because I was like, ‘I feel great!’ The second time, I was like, ‘Oh, whoa, I see what people talk about now. I understand.’ It’s a different type of overwhelming with the second. I really got under the cloud.”

The baby blues

During the first week after childbirth, many women get what's often called the ‘baby blues’. Women can feel down or depressed at a time when they expect they should feel happy at having a baby to look after1 .

'Baby blues' are 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. 

Is it postnatal depression?

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, health professionals, even their partners may not 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. Emotional signs of postnatal depression may include: 

  • loss of interest in the baby 
  • feelings of hopelessness 
  • not being able to stop crying 
  • feelings of not being able to cope  
  • not being able to enjoy anything 
  • memory loss or being unable to concentrate 
  • excessive anxiety about the baby 

Other signs of postnatal depression may also include:

  • panic attacks 
  • sleeplessness 
  • extreme tiredness 
  • aches and pains 
  • feeling generally unwell 
  • anxiety 
  • loss of appetite  

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 ask your maternal and child health nurse to call in and visit you. Many health visitors have been trained to recognise postnatal depression and have techniques that can help. If they can't help, they'll know someone in your area who can.

It's also important to see your GP. 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 the maternal and child health nurse or a therapist.

More severe cases often require antidepressants and you may need to see a specialist. 

It's important to let your GP 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.

You may also find it helpful to contact Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) supports women, men and families across Australia to recover from post and antenatal depression and anxiety, a serious illness that affects around 100,000 Australian families every year.

Your local child health centre can put you in touch with your nearest postnatal group. These groups provide contact with other new mothers and encourage mums to support each other. They offer social activities and help with parenting skills. 

Avoiding alcohol

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.

Postpartum psychosis

This condition, which is also called puerperal psychosis, is extremely rare. Only one or two 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. Specialist mother and baby units can provide expert treatment without separating you from your baby. 

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 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 can develop straight after the birth or months afterwards. 

It's extremely important to talk to someone about how you're feeling. Your midwife, GP or maternal and child health nurse 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 effective treatments available, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and medications. 

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0

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