The time after a baby arrives can be really challenging for both mothers and fathers. It’s a time of great transition for each of you personally, as well as for your relationship. To feel prepared for this, it’s helpful to think ahead about your postnatal mental health and what you can do to safeguard it.
It’s normal to find parts of the transition to parenthood difficult. Sometimes part of the stress comes down to wondering what’s a normal part of the adjustment to life with a baby, and how you can tell if it’s something more serious. It’s helpful to know the signs that something’s not OK so that you can get help if you need it.
The Baby Blues
In the first few days or weeks after giving birth, most new mothers experience the baby blues. (This is not the same thing as postnatal depression, which we’ll get to below.)
The baby blues are caused by the hormonal changes after birth, and usually settle down within 2-3 weeks. It’s totally normal to feel out of sorts during this time. But if you and your partner aren’t prepared, the baby blues can be unexpected and feel overwhelming.
You might feel down, anxious, irritable, tearful, or just not yourself. It’s really common to have mood swings or trouble concentrating as your hormones adjust and you adapt to life with a baby.
In most cases these symptoms clear up after a couple of weeks, but there is plenty you can do to help while you ride out the hormonal rollercoaster.
Coping with the Baby Blues
- Talk about how you’re feeling
- Let your partner – and anyone else who is willing to – help however they can, whether with your baby or around the house
- Rest as much as you can (and remember that a lie down in a dark room is almost as effective as an actual nap)
- Try a relaxation or meditation app or audio track (great for the last weeks of pregnancy too)
- Ask your partner for a massage
- Eat well and make sure you’re drinking plenty of water (especially if you’re breastfeeding)
Sometimes the baby blues don’t seem to pass, or you recover from them but start to feel worse again later. In this case you might be dealing with postnatal anxiety or depression.
Postnatal Mental Health: Anxiety and Depression
Both men and women experience postnatal mood disorders. So it’s important that you both look out for the signs and encourage each other to get help if necessary.
Feeling overwhelmed and having negative thoughts sometimes is totally normal. But if you’re feeling very anxious, struggling to get through the days, or you experience the symptoms of depression, please get help ASAP.
Life with a baby is hard sometimes for everyone. This can make it difficult to recognise (post-natal) depression, so it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms.
Psychologist Arnold Lazarus coined the very useful term “hassles intensity” to describe one symptom of depression.
We all know what hassles are – those little moments that make us impatient or irritated like having to wait, or deal with someone rude.
When a person is depressed, these hassles evoke strong responses. You might find yourself bursting into tears or shouting angrily, maybe surprising everyone (including yourself).
This is because when you’re depressed, everyday hassles feel like intense hassles.
Other Signs of Depression
Here are some other signs to be aware of so that if you or anyone else experiences (postnatal) depression, you know what’s happening and you can get help:
- Despair, hopelessness or fear about the future
- Feeling alone, empty or numb
- Feeling worthless and imagining others see you the same way
- Imagining others are secretly angry with you or against you
- Slowing right down (beyond the normal effects of tiredness)
- Feeling down, and not taking pleasure in things you normally enjoy
- Feeling nervous or anxious without obvious cause
- Not wanting to be around anyone
- Having trouble focusing or concentrating
- Losing interest in sex
- Feeling irritable, angry or tearful
- Having trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- Under or over-eating
- Feeling painfully jealous
- Having suicidal thoughts or feeling like it would be better if you just disappeared
If you recognise yourself or someone you know in this list of symptoms, please don’t hesitate to get help.
You could start by contacting your GP, who might recommend medication and/or counselling. It usually takes 4-6 weeks after starting treatment to feel some relief, and longer to recover completely, so please don’t delay.
Postnatal Mental Health Self-Care
In the meantime there are lots of ways you can help yourself to start feeling better. Here are a few ideas:
- Talk to someone you trust
- Get help with housework and/or childcare
- Get out of the house for a walk each day
- Ask your partner for a massage, or get a professional massage
- Eat well and drink loads of water (especially if you’re breastfeeding)
You might find this list of self-care ideas useful too. Hopefully these things will help, but they might not be enough. If something is holding you back from getting the professional help you need and deserve, it would probably be helpful to think a bit about what that might be.
Parental Guilt and Shame
Most people believe and act like a new baby is a wonderful gift (which of course it is!)
But this can make it hard for parents (especially new ones) to be honest with themselves about all of their feelings about their baby, or life as parents. Sometimes they can feel like they are betraying the baby, or regret having them. This can exacerbate the guilt they feel, and so it goes on.
Let me be plain: it is OK (and totally normal) to dislike being a parent sometimes. Most parents feel overwhelmed and even burdened by their children at times. This doesn’t make you a bad parent (actually quite an unhelpful concept anyway), it makes you a human being.
If you feel ashamed of your feelings, this might make you think that you should hide them and manage them alone.
Feeling depressed will increase any feelings of guilt and shame, which can kick off a vicious cycle of loneliness and isolation.
If you struggle with life as a parent, please know that you are not alone, and you have nothing to feel guilty or ashamed about.
Postnatal Mental Health: Getting Help
If you don’t feel ready to open up to friends or family about how you feel (or even if you do and their support doesn’t feel like quite enough), please contact a professional. They will understand, and they won’t judge.
You might hesitate because you think that you don’t feel bad enough to need help. On the other hand you might feel so bad that you worry you’ll get a shocked or horrified response. Part of the pain of not feeling yourself can be wondering whether you are feeling bad enough to ask for support, or so bad that no-one will understand. But please know that professionals are used to dealing with both of these situations.
You owe it to yourself and to your child to get yourself into the best state you can, so that you can enjoy your life and be fully present for them.
There is lots of support available for new parents who are struggling with their postnatal mental health. You might like to contact:
- The Association For Postnatal Illness (APNI)
- Pre and Postnatal Depression Advice and Support (PANDAS)
- National Childbirth Trust (NCT)
- The mental health charity Mind
You can also join my mailing list here.