It’s deemed a blissful time after a tough nine month pregnancy and often treacherous birth but ‘the baby bubble’ isn’t always such a positive experience.
In fact, about 1 in 5 women in the UK suffer with maternal mental health issues. And, over the past year, the number of women suffering from postnatal depression or anxiety has nearly tripled, according to one estimate, likely due to the additional stresses of the pandemic. And it’s time we spoke honestly about it.
Thanks to a boom in new mothers using social media to speak candidly about their maternal mental health, the ball has started rolling – but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to addressing and treating maternal maternal health conditions.
To help bust the taboos surrounding maternal mental health, we’ve enlisted one of the best experts in the business, Dr Karp, one of America’s most-trusted paediatricians and child development experts. He is also the founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, a smart-tech and parenting solutions company who practised paediatrics in Los Angeles for over 25 years. He is on the faculty of the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics so you can be safe in the knowledge that he knows his stuff.
Is there a maternal mental health endemic right now? If so, what is causing it?
People used to think that the key trigger for postnatal depression was a hormonal shift. However, many women have those shifts and don’t develop postnatal depression, and many parents (men and adoptive moms, for example) don’t have those hormonal changes, yet they do develop postnatal depression. Some parents who suffer with postnatal mental health issues are predisposed by a history of depression or anxiety. And life stresses all raise the risk.
Many of these factors are very difficult to change, but parents have more control over the three biggest postnatal depression triggers. Many studies tell us that the key triggers for postnatal depression are:
- Persistent crying
- Feeling unsupported or incompetent
- For postnatal anxiety, an additional trigger is the fear of your baby rolling to an unsafe sleeping position
What are the signs that someone could be struggling with maternal mental health problems?
According to Dr Karp, the signs of a perinatal mood disorder could include:
- Sadness…being tearful, feeling regretful or even despondent
- Nagging guilt…feeling like you’re the worst parent in the world or that your baby would be better off without you
- Internal criticism…the constant feeling of “Why did I do that?” or “I’m such a failure”
- Intrusive thoughts…for example, worrying that the baby will get hurt
- Loss of interest in the activities you used to enjoy
- Compulsive behaviors (washing your hands multiple times in a row, checking your sleeping baby over and over again)
- Anxiety and the feeling that you can’t turn your mind off
- Desire to run away
What are some tips for alleviating any mental health problems, for both mum and baby?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help… that means leaning on your partner, family, or whoever else offers to lend a hand. Modern parents have it harder than generations past. Today, having a nanny may seem like a luxury, but remember, historically, all mums had five helpers between extended family, neighbors, and older siblings! But getting help also includes seeking professional help. If you have symptoms of postnatal depression or anxiety, talk to your doctor. Together you can figure out the best treatment.
We also spoke to Kirsty Parsons, an Empowerment Mentor helping mums heading towards or already at burnout, to feel supported and seen, so that they can banish the stress and overwhelm and start to find themselves again, to share 5 vital ways you can avoid burnout as a mum.
1. Prioritise Self-Care: The first step towards preventing burnout is recognising the importance of self-care. Taking just 10 minutes a day for yourself can make a world of difference. What self-care looks like varies from person to person. It could be tackling the ironing pile, watching an episode of your favourite series on double speed, reading a book, or simply taking extra time to remove your makeup. Remember, this time is solely for you and whatever brings you joy.
2. Rediscover Your Identity: Motherhood can sometimes overshadow your individual identity. It’s crucial to find time to reconnect with who you were before and discover who you’ve become. Rekindle old hobbies, reconnect with friends you haven’t spoken to in a while, and remember that you’re more than just a “mum.” Reclaiming your identity is a powerful tool against burnout.
3. Conquer Mum Guilt: Mum guilt is a common burden that can lead to exhaustion. Instead of letting it weigh you down, break it down. Identify the triggers of this guilt and address them one at a time. Focus on what truly matters and remember that being a good mum doesn’t mean sacrificing your own well-being.
4. Say No to Comparisons: Social media has a knack for making you feel like you’re falling short. Avoid comparing yourself to others, especially what you see on social media, as it only showcases the highlights of someone’s life. Remember that everyone has their own struggles, and nobody’s life is picture-perfect all the time. Just do you!
5. Build a Support Network: Having a strong support system is vital for busy mums. Surround yourself with positive people, especially those who can lift you up when you need it most. Make sure your relationships are balanced, both giving and receiving. Your mum friends can be your lifeline through the ups and downs of motherhood.
Why is sleep so important in tackling maternal mental health?
Night after night of poor sleep builds up a mounting “sleep debt” in the body and brain that eventually must be paid, either with some solid catch-up sleep—or with our health. Being short on shuteye makes us more prone to irritability, illness, inflammation, and infection. From the common cold, to obesity to cardiac arrest, every part of the body suffers during sleep deprivation.
Sleep deprivation quickly leads to poor judgment, slow reaction time, and impaired memory. In fact, research shows that sleep deprivation has the same effect…as being drunk!
For parents of newborns, exhaustion is the #1 stressor. It triggers depression, marital conflict, and breastfeeding failure. But it’s not just the adults’ health that’s at risk. Parents who are desperate for sleep often accidentally put their babies in harm’s way. Tragically, more than 200 babies in the UK die in their sleep every year, and many of these deaths occur because the baby is in an unsafe location.
Where to turn for help
A range of help and support is available if you are struggling. PANDAS offer a safe, supportive community with trained and safeguarded team members who are here to offer hope and empathy. Call their free helpline on 0808 1961 776 (Monday – Sunday, 11am – 10pm), or email their support service on [email protected] for a response within 72 hours.
You can also visit the Mind Community for a safe space to talk and share your thoughts and experiences, or get in touch with the Association for Post Natal Illness (APNI) on 0207 386 0868 or by using the live chat box on their website (both manned Monday – Friday, 10am – 2pm).
If you think you might have PND, speak to a GP or your health visitor as soon as possible. If self-help, lifestyle choices or charity support aren’t helping, you may be prescribed antidepressants or referred for psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
If you need help urgently, call 111 or 999 in an emergency.
Most importantly, do not struggle in silence hoping this will go away. As it says on the NHS website, it’s not your fault you’re depressed and it does not mean you’re a bad parent, or that your baby will be taken away from you (babies are only taken into care in very exceptional circumstances). Post-natal depression can happen to anyone. You are not alone.
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