Preparing to have a baby is an exciting time but also a challenging one and not every parent-to-be will feel overcome with joy throughout the experience. Becoming a parent is a profound life event and it’s completely natural to have periods of low mood and overwhelming emotion, particularly if it’s your first baby.
The pandemic has amplified feelings of isolation and anxiety amongst new and expectant parents, so it’s never been more important to be honest about how you’re feeling and be kind to yourself.
One in five people have maternal mental health problems during pregnancy and up to a year after birth and it can affect both expectant mothers and people and their partners.
From conception to birth, looking after your baby is a full-time job but this is your reminder to tend to your own heart and disregard any shame or guilt around getting the necessary professional help and peer-to-peer support you need, particularly if your mental health is being compromised.
Here’s everything you need to know about looking after your perinatal mental health during and after pregnancy.
What is perinatal mental health?
‘Perinatal’ refers to the time between conception up to three years after giving birth. Effectively, any mental wellbeing difficulties associated with pregnancy, birth and beyond can be defined as perinatal mental health conditions.
It is less known that people experience depression while they are pregnant.
Common perinatal problems include perinatal depression, perinatal anxiety, perinatal OCD, postpartum psychosis and p¬ostpartum PTSD. Whilst most people are aware of postnatal depression (PND) it is less known that people experience depression while they are pregnant. Prenatal or antenatal depression can be caused by nausea or trauma from a miscarriage or stillbirth in a previous pregnancy.
The baby blues differs from PND. It refers to the brief period of low mood following the birth when new parents are sleep deprived and adapting to the demands of parenthood. Though it can feel exhausting and emotional at the time, hormones are usually to blame and it passes within a few days. Postnatal depression, however, is a deeper, long-term depression that usually develops within six weeks of giving birth and can come on suddenly or over time.
Trust yourself and listen to your intuition – if what you’re feeling is beyond your norm or you’re struggling to cope, don’t hesitate to speak to your GP or midwife straight away.
Recognising the symptoms & how you might be feeling
If you’re experiencing perinatal depression, you may be feeling some of the following symptoms:
Agitated or irritable
Isolated and alone
Lacking self-confidence and self-esteem
A sense of hopelessness
Feeling on edge
Recurring worrying thoughts
A sense of dread
Lack of interest in sex and intimacy
Feeling disconnected from the world around you (derealisation, a type of dissociation)
Finding no pleasure in the things you would usually enjoy
Feeling a sense of detachment from your baby / your partner
Fear of being alone with baby
If you are going through perinatal depression, you may be offered various types of treatment but the core options are usually short-term talking therapy including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or interpersonal therapy (IPT), and medication.
Your midwife will be able to help make a support plan for you if you’re concerned about how pregnancy will affect your mental health.
The medication prescribed is most likely to be an antidepressant. If you have reservations about taking medication whilst pregnant or breastfeeding / chestfeeding, talk to a healthcare professional as early on as you can to discuss your options and make an informed decision about which treatment is right for you, your mental health and your baby. Your GP will be able to advise you on taking a different type or medication or changing the dose. Your midwife will also be able to help make a support plan for you if you’re concerned about how pregnancy will affect your mental health.
Managing your mental health
It’s easy to forget the self-care basics when you’re doing your best to grow and look after a tiny human so try to be realistic about what you can achieve day-to-day. Even eating regular healthy meals, keeping physically active and getting showered and dressed every day can make the world of difference to your emotional and physical wellbeing.
Learn to say yes to offers to help with shopping, child-care and housework, you can’t do it all and no one expects you to.
Get a good quality night’s sleep whenever you can, limit screen time, avoid caffeinated drinks and wind down at least an hour before bed to recharge properly. Learn to say yes to offers to help with shopping, child-care and housework, you can’t do it all and no one expects you to. Being a new parent can be lonely business so connecting with other parents can be all the reassurance you need that you’re not the only one. Spend time with people who support you wholeheartedly without judgement and try not to take on any extra stresses such as moving house or changing jobs unless you absolutely have to.
You don’t need to be a perfect parent who gets it right every single time and soldiers on without anyone to lean on. Everyone is muddling through for the first few years and plenty of new parents will share and validate your experience. There is no shame in asking for help. A healthy parent – who priorities their mental health – is a healthy baby. Talking about how you’re feeling with the people that understand both the positives and the negatives of what you’re going through will give you the space and self-compassion to be honest.
Hypnobirthing and breathing techniques
Many expectant parents find hypnobirthing is a great way for them to relax and enjoy pregnancy more by learning about ways to manage pain and fear through self-hypnosis, breathwork, deep relaxation and guided visualisation. Essentially, it’s intuitive or mindful birthing under another name.
It provides a toolkit for pregnancy and gives the birthing person and their partner the self-trust and confidence they need in order to feel in control and more prepared for the birth. Often partners can feel helpless during the birth but hypnobirthing has been developed with your birth partner in mind to give them an active role during labour.
You can find a whole range of virtual hypnobirthing courses, apps, audiobooks and podcasts, so do your research and go with whatever feels appropriate for you.
For more maternal mental health support, check our list of resources below…