The time following the birth of your baby is one of adaptation and has an impact on every aspect of your being. You will likely experience emotional, mental and physical changes that are normal and transitory. Yet, you may also experience more complex symptoms that need the support and care of health care professionals to ensure you and your baby remain safe and well.
Distinguishing between ‘baby blues’, postnatal depression and anxiety and puerperal psychosis can help women and families understand what is happening and access support early.
About 80% of women experience the ‘baby blues’ soon after the birth of their baby. Sudden changes to your hormones as well as other physical factors, such as lack of sleep, pain and loss of control over your body are the main culprits. Emotionally, there is the realisation that you have a little human who totally depends on you and needs around the clock care, the anxiety of guessing whether you’re doing it right, the exhaustion of having to regularly welcome visitors and also, perhaps, of also being a mum to other little ones.
The transition to motherhood is massive in every way and your self-care is paramount. As well as your physical body, your emotions and your mind need to adapt.
The ‘baby blues’ usually appear on day 3 to 5 after the birth of your baby, may peak at about day 7 and disappear by the end of your second week as a mum. Symptoms tend to occur for a few hours each day and can include feelings of sadness, irritability, fatigue, feeling emotionally ‘frail’ and crying easily and for no apparent reason.
Although normal, the symptoms you experience during the ‘baby blues’ period should not be minimised or ignored. It is essential to feel supported, appreciated and cared for as a new mother, as this will benefit you and your baby’s health and well-being. Educating your friends and family about the likelihood of you experiencing these feelings and symptoms, will help them understand and empathise with your emotions and support you better.
Postnatal depression (PND) may present itself during pregnancy or up to a year after birth and it is thought to affect approximately 10-15% of new mothers in the six months following childbirth. For women who have previously experienced postnatal depression, the chances of it occurring again are between 30-50%.
Initially, symptoms of PND may appear similar to the ‘baby blues’ but will be more severe and will most likely dictate your emotional state throughout the day. They can also include feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger, guilt, worthlessness, extreme stress, feeling overwhelmed and, potentially, feeling detached or withdrawn from your baby or those you love. Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby may also occur. It is important to contact your GP, midwife or health visitor as soon as possible if you are experiencing these or are preoccupied with thoughts that may include death and dying.
Physically, you may experience abnormal appetite and sleep patterns, frequent tension headaches, aching muscles, stomach aches and/or nausea, constipation or constant fatigue.
Whereas the symptoms of the baby blues subside after a couple of weeks, the symptoms of PND can last a year or longer, often occurring (or being noticed) months after your baby’s birth.
The risk factors for postnatal depression are the same as those for mental health problems and include birth trauma which, in itself, often leads to post-traumatic stress disorders.
Similarly to PND, postnatal anxiety can present itself during pregnancy and up to a year after birth.
Its symptoms can include constant worry, feeling that something bad is going to happen, non-stop thinking, inability to stay still, appetite and sleep disturbances and physical symptoms such as dizziness, nausea or hot flushes.
Anxiety disorders can trigger depression but, also, anxiety in itself can be a symptom of depression. It is therefore common for postnatal anxiety and depression to occur together.
This is a rare and extremely serious disorder which requires immediate medical intervention to keep mother and baby safe from harm. It tends to begin suddenly, in the first few days or weeks after the birth and affects approximately 1 in 1000 women.
Symptoms can include severe depression and/or manic behaviour (extremely energetic and talkative), hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not real), suicidal thoughts or actions, bizarre behaviour, paranoia, thoughts of harming or killing your baby, confusion and disorientation and rapid mood swings.
If you experience any of the above, know that you are not alone. Lack of adequate support or treatment could have adverse consequences on your own mental health, as well as on your baby’s development and your relationship. Confiding in your loved ones and seeking professional support early can ensure you have the necessary support to overcome any mental health difficulties you may face following the birth of your baby.