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
How has the pandemic made this worse?
Being the parent of a newborn can already feel pretty isolating, and COVID-related restrictions forced parents to narrow their support networks, leaving many feeling even more adrift. And, unfortunately, we know that social isolation is a key factor in postnatal depression. Plus, with fewer options for outside help, not only did new parents suffer from the lack of emotional support a community might offer, but they were stripped of precious practical support (someone to help make a meal or hold the baby for an hour while they nap or shower, or catch up with chores, or play with their toddler, or prepare dinner…you get the picture).
While a lack of practical support, by itself, can push a new parent towards depression, it often leads to an even bigger trigger: exhaustion.
New mothers, feeding and nurturing their little one around the clock —without another set of hands to give them help—can find themselves drained and demoralised.
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.
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.
Is there anything that can help?
Since exhaustion is a huge trigger, finding a way to get more sleep can go a long way to alleviate depression – that’s where my creation, SNOO (a responsive baby cot that aids a baby’s sleep with soothing womb rhythms, gentle rocking and calming white noise) can become a real lifeline. SNOO has been proven to add 1 to 2 hours to a baby’s sleep. It also tackles other triggers by assuring that the baby stays sleeping on the back, curbing persistent crying, and giving worn-out parents the practical support they need. SNOO offers an extra pair of hands to hold and rock babies as an experienced caregiver would, allowing new parents to get the help and rest they need.
During an internal study of more than 10,000 babies, we found that SNOO consistently added an average of over an hour of night sleep…with many babies sleeping 7 straight hours at 2 months. And when baby sleeps… mum sleeps too!
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@example.com 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.