We all speak about the joys of pregnancy and childbirth, looking forward to the arrival of the new-born with keen anticipation. The mental health challenges that expecting and new parents can experience during this period, however, are hardly ever discussed. For some parents, this period may be fraught with stress and anxiety, worry about the future and disturbances in mood.
It’s not uncommon for women to experience “baby blues”, involving sadness, crying spells, mood swings, irritability, exhaustion and doubts about their ability to look after the new member of the family. However, this continues for only a few days and typically resolves by itself. On the other hand, the American Psychiatry Association estimates that three to six per cent women experience the onset of a major depressive episode during pregnancy or in the weeks or months following delivery. These symptoms affect our thoughts, emotions as well as behaviour.
Peripartum depression involves significantly low mood. Women may experience crying spells, excessive fatigue and a withdrawal from friends and family. They may perceive difficulties bonding with the baby and subsequent feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. Disturbances in sleep and appetite may also accompany this condition. In rare cases, women may also experience symptoms of psychosis with a peripartum onset.
Here are some things to keep in mind to look after your perinatal mental well-being:
1) Give yourself some time to adjust – The birth of a child is a significant transition that involves both biological and psychosocial challenges. It’s alright to feel unsure and have doubts. Remember that it’s a learning curve, give yourself time and be compassionate towards yourself and your partner in this journey. Try not to make any other major life changes that may increase the burden of stress. Set realistic and doable goals and do not build pressure on yourself.
2) Remember to rest – In the midst of the physical exhaustion, the sleepless nights, the cycles of worry, it’s essential for new mothers to try and get some rest. It’s not possible to be switched on 24×7. Try to rest every opportunity you get, even if it’s for a few minutes.
3) Give yourself some ‘me time’ – Having a baby doesn’t mean that we let go of other aspects of ourselves. Take some time out for the things that you used to enjoy doing. It could be some physical activity, a hobby you enjoyed or catching up with a friend.
4) Reach out for help – The popular adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” couldn’t be truer. Whenever possible, reach out to family and friends for support in day-to-day activities. Share your thoughts and feelings with them.
5) Take treatment if required – While baby blues subside on their own, depression with a peripartum onset is a mental health condition that requires treatment. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional and get the help that is required.
6) It’s also about dads – While we usually speak about perinatal mental health in the context of mothers, we must also be cognisant of the fact that men may also experience distress related to their partner’s pregnancy and arrival of the new-born. Researchers from the University College London (UCL) looked at 23 past studies with data from more than 29,000 couples and found that about three in every 100 couples experienced late post-partum depression when their baby was between three and 12 months. The mental health of both parents impacts their relationship with the new-born and has to be addressed.
The stigma around mental health, and perinatal mental health in particular, continues to prevent people from speaking up and reaching out for help. As such, while this is a time for much celebration, it’s also important for us to be sensitive and empathetic to the challenges that new parents experience.