Maternal mental health and how to look after yourself
Being pregnant and having a baby is a life-changing experience which will take you on a rollercoaster of emotions.
It can be an enormously happy and exciting time, but it may also bring with it stress, anxiety and difficult challenges. It is vital that you look after your emotional wellbeing at this time and make sure you have a good support network in place that you can turn to if you are finding it hard to cope.
Maternal mental health is a very important issue and there is support available to help women who are struggling to cope either during pregnancy or after their baby is born. If you feel concerned about how you are feeling, please speak to your midwife, GP or health visitor.
Experiencing depression or anxiety at this time is not your fault and no one will judge you for the way you are feeling. Sharing your concerns with a trained professional can be a huge relief and the sooner you seek help, the quicker you will receive the support and help you need to start feeling yourself again.
What terms are used to describe maternal mental health issues?
You may hear a number of different terms used when people talk about maternal mental health. A perinatal mental health issue covers anything from the time you first become pregnant up until your baby is celebrating their first birthday.
Antenatal or prenatal depression is used to refer to feeling low, anxious or depressed during pregnancy. Although it is often talked about less than postnatal depression, it affects around 12 percent of women.
Postnatal depression affects new parents after their baby is born. Around one in 10 women will experience postnatal depression at some point during the first year of their child’s life and it can affect partners too.
You may also hear people talking about baby blues. This is a phrase used to refer to a short period of feeling tearful, upset and emotional after birth.
Baby blues is extremely common and will affect most women around three to 10 days after having a baby. It is a natural consequence of all the hormonal changes you are experiencing combined with feeling overwhelmed, emotional and physically exhausted as you recover from the birth and adjust to looking after a new baby.
Baby blues is not the same as postnatal depression and will usually resolve itself within a week or two. In contrast, postnatal depression lasts much longer and usually develops within six weeks of giving birth.
There are also some serious maternal mental health issues which are less common but it is important to be aware of them.
Maternal obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder which can affect women both during pregnancy and after birth. Those with maternal OCD may experience intrusive and obsessive thought and may feel the need to perform compulsive rituals either to feel safe or to prevent an outcome they fear.
Postpartum psychosis is thankfully very rare but it can be extremely dangerous and frightening for those affected. It usually starts within the first two weeks after giving birth but some women will experience symptoms within hours of delivery.
Those with the condition can feel very confused and may experience hallucinations and delusions. Other signs include moods changing quickly from manic to depressed, feeling very suspicious of others and behaving in a way which is totally out of character, which may include completely losing inhibitions.
It is sometimes called puerperal psychosis or postnatal psychosis and should be treated as a medical emergency.
What are the signs of perinatal depression?
If you have perinatal depression, either antenatal or postnatal, you might experience having a low mood, crying easily and feeling upset for an extended period of time. You might also feel easily irritated, unsettled and anxious.
Common signs include finding it difficult to sleep, not wanting to eat and finding it difficult to concentrate and focus. A lack of interest in things you usually enjoy and a lowered sex drive can also be symptoms of a maternal mental health issue.
Having a negative opinion of yourself, feeling that you are worthless or experiencing feelings of guilt can also be signs, as can feeling numb and emotionless. People with perinatal depression might also feel isolated, hopeless and like no one else will be able to understand how they are feeling. In some cases, those with perinatal depression may even think about ending their own lives or harming themselves.
How can I look after my mental health?
During pregnancy and the first few months of parenthood, you will go through a lot of changes so be kind to yourself. Lower your expectations of yourself and accept that there will be times when you need to prioritise rest and self-care over other things in your life like work, housework and socialising.
If you don’t manage to do something you have planned, don’t get angry with yourself – there will most likely be other opportunities in the future. Give yourself the same level of care, sympathy and love that you would give to a close friend or family member who was struggling.
Make sure you are eating well and drinking plenty of fluids. Stock up on plenty of snacks and meal options which require very little effort and preparation.
Rest is crucial so even if you are finding it hard to sleep, give yourself time to relax and unwind.
Talk about how you are feeling with someone, whether it is your partner, family member, friend or your midwife, GP or health visitor. It won’t change things overnight but many people find simply sharing their thoughts can make things feel a little easier.
If you have experienced any mental health issues in the past, it is important that you share this with your GP, midwife and health visitor so they can give you the care and support you need. People with previous issues are more likely to experience perinatal depression or other mental health problems so be open in your discussions even if you think it might not be relevant.
You might find it helpful to keep a journal where you can track your moods and write down how you are feeling each day. This can help you identify any patterns so you can see what might trigger you to feel worse and what successfully lifts your mood.
Set yourself small and achievable goals each day like taking a shower, putting clean clothes on or going for a short walk. Staying in the house and neglecting your hygiene can make you feel worse so even simple tasks like this can help.
Once your baby has arrived, spend lots of time cuddling them – everything else can wait. Skin-to-skin contact is a great way of bonding with your little one and will lower both your stress levels and give you a welcome boost of the love hormone oxytocin, which can help you feel calm, content and at peace.
Try to sleep when your baby sleeps if you can – household chores can wait so don’t attempt to be a whirlwind of activity when your little one naps.
Accept help from others when it is offered and don’t be afraid to ask those who love you for their support – both emotional and practical. It is easy to feel isolated when you are a new parent so try to see others when you can. This might involve going to a group for mothers and babies or meeting up with someone you care about. Even just getting outside and enjoying the fresh air can make a real difference to your mood.