Perinatal depression is a mood disorder characterised by feelings of sadness, emptiness, and anxiety that lasts for weeks or months at a time. The term most commonly in use has changed from ‘postnatal’ to ‘perinatal’ because we now know that such symptoms can start during the pregnancy and also at any time for a year after the baby is born.
Perinatal depression is not just the ‘baby blues’, a stressful time that occurs because the mother feels overwhelmed once the baby arrives. The baby blues occur because the mother experiences change, both in her routine and in her hormonal balance. These are short term dips in mood that are not continuous and usually do not last beyond the first 2 weeks of the baby’s life. However, if these feelings last or get worse, then the mother may be experiencing postnatal depression.
Unfortunately perinatal depression occurs quite frequently and it is thought that the incidence has risen over the past few years. The effects of this condition can vary from mild to severe, so it is important to be aware of this if you, or a person close to you, is pregnant or has just given birth. The good news is that it is treatable.
Not everyone experiences the same symptoms during depression, and so this may present itself also as:
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Frequent crying
- Loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed
- Unexplained fatigue or low energy
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of interest in caring for the self or for the child
- Changes in appetite
- Once the baby is born, trouble bonding with the baby or doubts about the ability to care for the child
A midwife or doctor will routinely visit a new mother, to assist and look out for any of these symptoms. Locally, the Parent Infant Mental Health Alliance (PIMHA) are specialised in perinatal depression and can offer their services to help out the mother, her partner, or both.
Why does perinatal depression happen?
There is no single cause of perinatal depression. However, there are factors that contribute to the chances of it happening:
- History of depression, particularly during pregnancy
- History of trauma and abuse
- Hormonal changes
- Stress during the pregnancy (for example difficulties in the relationship, financial worries, unplanned pregnancy or worries about giving birth during the pandemic)
Coping, Seeking Help, and Treatment
It is important to seek help if you are suffering from perinatal depression because this can have serious consequences on your health and that of the baby. Counseling and Cognitive Behavioral therapy are generally the first steps taken and your doctor might also discuss medications if they deem this appropriate. Sometimes medications are needed in the short term to correct the hormonal imbalance that results during and after pregnancy. These help the brain to regulate chemicals that control mood or stress.
As with all types of depression, a holistic approach is always suggested. Professionals such as the Parent Infant Mental Health Alliance (PIMHA) help the mother to develop coping mechanisms to get her back on track. It has been proven that having a support network of other mothers going through similar experiences can be beneficial. Other lifestyle modifications such as eating a healthy diet and incorporating exercise into your routine will also help to alleviate the symptoms of perinatal depression.
We must never presume that pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby to be a happy time. Parents need to be aware of the danger of perinatal depression in order to work on improving the mother’s mental health in the best way possible.
Perinatal Depression. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Accessed at: NIMH » Perinatal Depression (nih.gov)
Depression During and After Pregnancy. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). May 14th 2020. Accessed at: Depression During and After Pregnancy (cdc.gov)