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What are the signs and symptoms of postnatal depression?

While being a parent can be a hugely satisfying experience, it can also be tough and there are many pressures on mums and dads to be ‘perfect’.

It’s common to feel lots of different emotions after your baby is born, during the postnatal period. Sometimes you may feel happy and excited, and at other times you may feel worried, anxious, overwhelmed or negative - all of which are completely normal. However, for some women, these negative emotions can take over and become extremely difficult to cope with. As many as 1 in 5 women experience depression after the birth of a child - a condition known as postnatal depression.

Here, we explore the most common symptoms of postnatal depression, as well as some of the potential causes of this condition and treatment options that are available.

What are the signs and symptoms of postnatal depression?

It’s important to know that most women feel anxious, tearful and a bit ‘down’ immediately after giving birth – a phenomenon that’s become known as the ‘baby blues’. However, these feelings tend to be mild and often go away on their own after around 10 days.

If your feelings start later, are very intense or last for more than two weeks, this could be a sign that you are struggling with postnatal depression.

Unfortunately, women, their families, and sometimes even health professionals, don’t spot that a new mum has postnatal depression, so many women end up waiting much longer than they should before they get treatment. There are many reasons for this. For example, some women often wrongly assume their symptoms are a normal part of adjusting to having a new baby, causing them to brush their feelings off as the ‘baby blues’ instead of getting support.

The following are some of the most common signs and symptoms of postnatal depression, to look out for:

  • Poor sleep – it’s very common to have poor sleep with a new baby, but in postnatal depression you may not be able to sleep even when your baby is asleep
  • Excessive fatigue and low energy – again, this is common when you have a baby, but can be debilitating when you have postnatal depression
  • Persistent sadness and low mood, which can be overwhelming and can affect your ability to function
  • Crying more than usual, and often for no apparent reason
  • Problems concentrating and making decisions
  • Loss of interest and enjoyment in things that were once important to you – you may not want to do things that used to give you pleasure, and you may not enjoy spending time with your new baby
  • Irritability – finding that you are becoming angry more easily, and ‘snapping’ at people for no reason
  • Anxious thoughts – it’s common to worry about lots of things when you have a new baby. However, in postnatal depression, the anxious thoughts can be more frequent and severe. Common worries focus on whether you may have done something to negatively affect your baby’s health or whether something or someone will harm your baby. You may also be afraid to be on your own with your baby. These thoughts may be accompanied by physical symptoms of anxiety including a racing pulse, breathlessness, sweating, muscle tension and even panic attacks
  • Negative thoughts – it’s common in postnatal depression to think you’re a bad mother or your baby won’t love you. You may also doubt your ability to cope with having a baby, and convince yourself that other people are judging you
  • Guilty thoughts – you may feel guilty that you’re not happy and excited, and think this is your fault, even though it isn’t
  • Avoiding people – you may not want to see or speak to family or friends, or go to postnatal groups, which can lead to you becoming isolated and withdrawn
  • Having a lack of feeling towards your baby – you may find it difficult to bond with your baby, and may even experience frightening thoughts or fantasies about hurting your baby. These thoughts can be scary but they are very rarely acted upon
  • Self-neglect – if you have severe postnatal depression this may prevent you from looking after yourself. You may not eat well, take care of your appearance or personal hygiene and find it hard to get out of bed and manage usually easy daily activities
  • Hopelessness – it may seem that things will never get better or that life is not worth living
  • Suicidal thoughts and self-harm – you may think about ways to harm yourself. These thoughts are common in depression and not everyone acts on them. It’s important to seek help if you have an urge to harm yourself

What causes postnatal depression?

There is no single factor which causes postnatal depression, but it’s thought there are a number of things that could increase the likelihood of someone becoming depressed after giving birth. These include:

  • Experiencing previous mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, before and/or during your pregnancy
  • Stressful life events, such as a relationship ending, losing your job or suffering a bereavement
  • Lack of support from family or friends
  • Low self-esteem
  • Complications during pregnancy
  • A traumatic birth experience
  • Physical health problems, such as an underactive thyroid

Also, women who stop taking antidepressant medication when they are pregnant are more at risk of struggling with postnatal depression after birth. If you are taking antidepressant medication when you get pregnant, don’t stop without getting advice from your doctor, as this could cause problems further down the line.    

Postnatal depression in partners and fathers

Having a baby isn’t just a major life event for mothers, but for fathers too. Although the focus is mostly on women with postnatal depression, research has found that 1 in 10 fathers develop postnatal depression, and experience many of the same symptoms. This is more common in partners of women with postnatal depression and when there are problems in the relationship.

Treatment for postnatal depression

Getting the right support for postnatal depression is just as crucial as receiving treatment for physical health problems during the postnatal period. It will help you to stay as well as possible and enjoy your family life.

Some women worry that professionals may think they can’t care for their baby if they do seek help, but this is not the case. Anyone can be affected by mental health issues in the postnatal period, so you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if you think you might be unwell. You can visit your GP, speak to a health worker or a midwife, or get in touch with Priory. Our nationwide network of hospitals and wellbeing centres offer specialist treatment for postnatal depression, delivered by highly experienced consultant psychiatrists and therapists. We can help you to address your negative feelings, overcome your symptoms, and take steps towards the happy and fulfilling future that you and your baby deserve.

Get in Touch Today

For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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