What is postnatal depression?

Postnatal depression describes the depression that many women feel after the birth of their child. It is very common and is thought to affect one in 10 women within a year of giving birth. There are certain myths surrounding postnatal depression, for example that it is the result purely of hormonal changes, or that it isn’t particularly serious and it will pass. Like depression and many other mental health issues, postnatal depression results from complicated factors, the experience of postnatal depression differs for each individual and it is indeed serious and can have long-term effects on you, your family and your child. 

If you are experiencing postnatal depression, it is no doubt extremely stressful and worrying. There is a lot of societal pressure on parents to feel a certain way after welcoming their child into the world. Our beliefs that this should be a happy, even joyful time make it very difficult for parents with PND to be open about how they are feeling, as they may feel ashamed and fearful of being judged.

Postnatal depression can also be characterised by worrying thoughts, for example about hurting yourself or your baby. These thoughts can be immensely distressing, and hard to admit. Like other mental health difficulties, and all illnesses in general, you can get the support you need and deserve to get better. Having postnatal depression does not mean that you are a bad mother or father, or person; it’s not your fault. 


Signs and symptoms of postnatal depression

Many women feel sad and anxious in the time immediately after giving birth; this is so common it is largely considered normal – the term the ‘baby blues’ is often used to describe this time. However, just as being a bit sad does not mean you are feeling depressed, feeling low after giving birth does not necessarily mean you are developing postnatal depression. Postnatal depression, like any depression, is characterised by a pervasive, long-lasting low mood. Other symptoms and signs of postnatal depression include:

  • A lack of enjoyment and interest in general
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling disconnected, overwhelmed and/or guilty
  • Irritability, tearfulness
  • Changes in appetite
  • Trouble sleeping, disturbed sleep patterns and/or feeling tired consistently
  • Withdrawing from other people and activities
  • Difficulty connecting with your baby
  • Experiencing troubling thoughts, particularly concerning your baby 


What causes postnatal depression?

Postnatal depression has no clear cause, but there are several factors that may contribute towards a parent developing postnatal depression. These include:

  • A history of mental health difficulties, prior to or during pregnancy
  • A lack of support network from friends and family
  • Difficulties in your relationship with your partner
  • Experience of abuse or other trauma
  • Experiencing recent stress, such as moving house, loss of work or bereavement
  • Birth related trauma, psychological and/or physical


Can postnatal depression be prevented?

There is no certain way to protect yourself against developing postnatal depression; it’s an illness so it isn’t your fault if you get it. It does not occur as a result of misdoings on your behalf. There are however some things that you can do to ensure you support your emotional and mental health in the time after having your baby  - these are also good practices for daily life!

  • Don’t try to do everything yourself
  • Rest when you can
  • Exercise and eat healthily
  • Avoid self-medicating with alcohol or drugs
  • Stay connected to your friends and family and accept offers of help when they come
  • Connect with new friends who might be in a similar situation to you, i.e. new parents
  • Maintain open, productive channels of communication with your partner


Men and postnatal depression

It is a myth that postnatal depression only affects women. An estimated one in 25 fathers will also develop postnatal depression. The causes of paternal postnatal depression are no more clear or simple than they are for women. Men are more vulnerable to develop postnatal depression if their partner is too. 


How counselling and therapy can help with postnatal depression

Remember that depression is an illness like any other, and you deserve to get help. Many parents who develop postnatal depression feel complicated feelings of shame and guilt and are afraid of being honest about their thoughts and feelings. Talking to others about how you feel is a positive step towards feeling better, and towards reducing the unfortunate existing stigma attached to PND. 

A therapist is impartial and removed from the situation; this can be a huge relief. Therapy is a safe space in which you can be honest without fear of reaction or judgement. You will be able to discuss your situation and understand your present feelings better, perhaps through exploring painful issues from the past (psychodynamic), your relationships with others (interpersonal therapy), or maybe by working with your current thoughts and learning to manage them (cognitive behavioural therapy). 

You may find working with a couple’s counsellor with your partner could benefit your relationship if you have been strained by the impact of postnatal depression. Couples therapy can help you both find ways to communicate with one another effectively and supportively. 


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Last updated 8 November 2016