4 mins read

What is Postnatal Depression?

Author: Forth

May 24, 2023

Fertility & Pregnancy

Thoughtful woman thinking while looking outside the window

Postnatal depression affects approximately 1 in 10 new mothers in the United Kingdom[1]. Despite its prevalence, many women struggle with identifying and getting help for postnatal depression.

Understanding Postnatal Depression

Postnatal depression, also known as postpartum depression, is a type of depression that affects new mothers after giving birth. It is a common condition that can range in severity and can last for weeks, months or even a year if left untreated. It is important to differentiate postnatal depression from postnatal blues or baby blues, which is a milder condition that can occur during the first few days after giving birth.

Postnatal depression can be a challenging and distressing experience for new mothers, but it is a treatable condition. Seeking help and support from healthcare professionals, family and friends can make a significant difference in managing and overcoming postnatal depression.

Symptoms and Signs of Postnatal Depression

The symptoms of postnatal depression can vary from person to person, but some common symptoms[2] include:

  • Feelings of sadness, low mood and hopelessness
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Changes in appetite and weight
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

Some of these symptoms can also be experienced by new mothers who do not have postnatal depression. However, if these symptoms persist for more than two weeks and interfere with daily life, it is important to seek help from a healthcare professional.

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of postnatal depression is not fully understood, but it is believed to be caused by a combination of hormonal changes, psychological factors and social factors. During pregnancy, the levels of hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone increase significantly. After giving birth, these hormone levels drop rapidly, which can affect mood and emotional well-being.

Psychological factors such as anxiety or a history of depression can also increase the risk of developing postnatal depression. New mothers who have experienced traumatic events, such as a difficult childbirth or a miscarriage, may also be at higher risk.

Social factors such as lack of support, financial difficulties, relationship problems or stressful life events can also increase the risk of postnatal depression. New mothers who have limited social support, such as living far from family and friends, may be more vulnerable to developing postnatal depression.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of postnatal depression after childbirth, it is important to seek help. Treatment options include therapy, medication and support groups. Remember, seeking help is a sign of strength and can lead to a happier and healthier life for both you and your baby.

The Impact of Postnatal Depression

On the Mother

Postnatal depression can have a significant impact on a mother’s physical and emotional health. It can interfere with a mother’s ability to care for herself, her baby and her family. Prolonged or severe postnatal depression can prevent women from enjoying this special time in their lives and affect their relationship with their baby and partner.

On the Baby

Postnatal depression can also impact the baby’s development and wellbeing. Studies have shown that infants of mothers with postnatal depression may have difficulties with bonding, social and emotional development and may be at increased risk of behavioural problems later in life[3].

On Family and Relationships

Postnatal depression can also put a strain on family relationships as partners and family members may struggle to offer the support needed. It can also lead to feelings of guilt, shame, and isolation.

Diagnosis and Assessment

Screening Tools

Screening tools can be used to detect the presence of postnatal depression. The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) is a commonly used questionnaire that assesses a mother’s mood, anxiety and emotional wellbeing. If the EPDS score suggests postnatal depression, further assessment by a healthcare professional is necessary.

Professional Evaluation

Healthcare professionals such as midwives, health visitors and general practitioners can provide assessment and support for women with postnatal depression. A mental health specialist or psychiatrist may also be involved in the evaluation process.

Differentiating from Baby Blues

It is important to differentiate postnatal depression from baby blues which is a milder and temporary condition. Baby blues usually resolve within two weeks without treatment, while postnatal depression requires treatment to resolve.

Treatment Options

Therapy and Counselling

Talking therapy such as counselling can be helpful for women with postnatal depression. It provides a safe space for mothers to express their feelings, evaluate their experiences and develop coping strategies. CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is a specific type of counselling that can be used to address the negative thought patterns and behavioural changes associated with postnatal depression.

Medication

In some cases, medication may be recommended for postnatal depression. Antidepressants such as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) can be effective in treating postnatal depression. However, treatment usually lasts for at least six months and should be closely monitored for any side effects.

Alternative Treatments

Alternative treatments for postnatal depression include exercise, social support, and self-help strategies such as mindfulness, relaxation techniques and changes to routine and lifestyle.

Self-help Strategies

Self-help strategies can be helpful for managing mild cases of postnatal depression. It is important to get plenty of rest, eat healthily and stay hydrated. Women with postnatal depression can also access support services such as parenting groups and postnatal support groups where they can meet other parents in a similar position. The NHS has online services that can help you manage and treat postnatal depression.

Speak to Your Midwife

If you are experiencing postnatal depression and need someone to talk to, there are people you can reach out to for support. The first person you can talk to is your GP or family doctor. They can provide a proper diagnosis, offer guidance, and refer you to appropriate services. Another option is to contact your health visitor or midwife, as they specialise in supporting new mothers and can provide valuable advice and assistance.

Remember, reaching out for help is an important step towards your well-being, and there are caring professionals available to support you through this challenging time.

This information has been medically reviewed by Dr Thom Phillips

Thom works in NHS general practice and has a decade of experience working in both male and female elite sport. He has a background in exercise physiology and has published research into fatigue biomarkers.

Dr Thom Phillips

Dr Thom Phillips

Head of clinical services