Worried your baby blues could be something more serious? Pregnancy and childbirth can throw your hormones and emotions completely out of whack, but if you start to experience feelings of depression or anxiety that last longer than a few weeks, you could be suffering with perinatal depression. Here’s how to spot the warning signs.
Dealing with the changes of pregnancy and motherhood can be more than overwhelming. You’re sleep deprived, you have almost no time to yourself, and your emotions sky rocket from feeling happy and elated one minute, to sadness and exhaustion the next. And that’s without the added pressure that you’re now completely responsible for a tiny human.
It’s no surprise that many women find it difficult to adjust to being a new mum in the following weeks after giving birth, whether it’s your first or fourth child.
Parenting is rarely easy, particularly when those dreaded post-pregnancy hormones are thrown into the mix.
Whilst these spiralling emotions are normal, with many women only experiencing unexpected mood swings for a few days after giving birth, for some women the ‘baby blues’ can be an indication of something more serious.
In fact, perinatal depression — depression experienced during or after pregnancy — affects 15–20 per cent of women in Australia. Risk factors and symptoms can vary between women, but there are some common signs to look out for, and help available, so you don’t have to deal with your depression alone.
Here’s how to recognise the warning signs of perinatal depression, and some helpful advice and support to help you through this difficult time.
What is perinatal depression?
Perinatal depression refers to depression experienced during or after pregnancy. You may be more familiar with the term postnatal depression, which refers to depression in women once they have given birth. Perinatal depression refers to both prenatal and postnatal conditions collectively, either during pregnancy or within 12 months of early parenthood.
Unlike the baby blues — emotional changes that generally only last a few days after giving birth — perinatal depression is defined as serious, negative emotional changes that last longer than two weeks. With perinatal depression, people feel a sadness or guilt that’s more severe than usual. This lasts for longer than a few weeks, involves a number of other symptoms, and may interfere with their relationship with their baby and how they cope with their everyday life.
Perinatal depression is a common condition among new and expectant mothers — at least one in every five women experience anxiety, depression, or both during pregnancy and/or following birth — and it’s often extremely debilitating.
Anxiety and/or depression can be a frightening and isolating experiencing for a parent who is trying to deal with their symptoms whilst at the same time looking after their new baby. It can severely impact your physical and mental wellbeing, as well as your confidence as a parent, and how you bond with your child.
What causes perinatal depression?
There’s no single cause of perinatal depression, but there are certain risk factors and triggers that can increase your chances of developing the condition. These include:
- a previous history of depression, bipolar disorder or psychosis
- sleep deprivation
- stressful life events
- a lack of social or emotional support
- a history of physical, sexual or emotional abuse
- pregnancy loss
- a baby that is difficult to settle, restless or unwell
- trauma during or after the birth
- vitamin D deficiency
It’s quite common to experience perinatal depression with your first baby, but having it once also increases your risk of developing the condition with your next child.
If you think you might be more at risk, visit your GP before you even experience any symptoms, for further advice.
What are the symptoms of perinatal depression or anxiety?
Whilst it’s natural to experience emotional changes during and after pregnancy, if you experience feelings of depression or anxiety that persist for more than two weeks, or interfere with your daily activities, it’s time to seek to help.
Symptoms to look out for include:
- panic attacks (a racing heart, palpitations, shortness of breath, shaking or feeling physically ‘detached’ from your surroundings)
- persistent worry, often focussed on fears for the health or wellbeing of your baby
- a sense of hopelessness and of being a failure
- obsessive or compulsive behaviours
- difficulty sleeping (unrelated to baby’s schedule)
- changes in appetite and weight; weight loss or weight gain
- loss of self-esteem and confidence
- extreme tiredness and lethargy
- lack of interest and enjoyment in usual activities
- reduced ability to think or concentrate
- loss of libido
- feeling physically or emotionally overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands of chores and looking after your baby
- suicidal thoughts or ideas
- difficulty bonding with your baby
If you or your partner are experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety — men can also be affected; 1 in 10 new dads are diagnosed with postnatal anxiety or depression each year — you’ll need professional help and family support. Postnatal anxiety is just as common. Many parents experience anxiety and depression at the same time, which can have a huge effect on your confidence as a parent.
When you know the signs and symptoms of perinatal depression, you can seek help as early as possible. There are treatments, support and services available to help you through this difficult experience.
If I think I have perinatal depression, what should I do?
Whilst this is a serious and debilitating condition, the good news is, it’s treatable if you seek help. There are a number of treatments and support available to you to help you on the road to recovery. Lots of parents go through this too, so remember you’re not alone, and don’t have to go through this alone.
If you have any of the symptoms above, we recommend booking an appointment with your GP or child and family nurse to talk to them about how you’re feeling. They’ll work with you to find out what’s going on, and devise an appropriate support and treatment plan to help treat your symptoms. They may refer you for counselling such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT), or prescribe you antidepressants.
Speak to your GP for referral — they can put you on a mental health care plan, which includes a Medicare rebate for up to 20 sessions with a mental health professional per year.
You should also talk to your partner, close friends and family about how you’re feeling too. Talking to someone who can understand how you’re feeling can help you to manage some of the symptoms. If you feel you need emotional support, then don’t be afraid to ask for it. The people who care for you will want to be there for you and give you the support you need.
A birth class, parent group, playgroup or therapy group can be another source of emotional support. At these groups you can meet other people to share your experiences with. It might be helpful to talk through how you’re feeling with other parents who have gone through the same experience.
There are also support groups and networks that you can connect with that will be able to give you free professional advice and support, as well as connecting you with other parents who have also experienced perinatal depression. We’ve listed our recommendations below:
The National Perinatal Anxiety & Depression (PANDA) Helpline – call 1300 726 306
This support line and online resource gives advice and support to individuals and families to help them recover from perinatal anxiety and depression.
The Gidget Foundation
Free psychological services for expectant and new parents who are suffering from or at risk of developing a perinatal mental health problem. You can download the app for their 24/7 safety and wellbeing support service, tat connects parents to a dedicated support centre.
Provides free information and support to people affected by anxiety, depression and suicide. They also provide a wealth of online information around mental health, wellbeing, pregnancy and parenting.
Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Hotline — call 1800 882 436
Connects expectant and new mums with qualified midwives and nurses for free emotional support and reassurance. They work with parents to ensure the health and wellbeing of their children and family.
A free online program designed to help pregnant women and birthing mothers experiencing antenatal and postnatal depression.
Provides 24-hour crisis counselling, support groups and suicide prevention services. Call 13 11 14, text on 0477 13 11 14 (12pm to midnight AEST) or chat online.
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