We’re kicking the week off with another mental health moment, and the focus this week is on postnatal depression. Hannah Denby shares her experience and offers advice for new mums suffering with PND. Read her story below.
What is postnatal depression?
Guess what? Just like ‘regular’ depression, someone with PND won’t automatically look or act sad all the time. In fact, PND is still a mystery to most people – probably because so many new parents have a habit of painting on a big sunny smile when they’re in company, then crumbling into a heap of despair during the dark, lonely nights. (Yes, I am speaking from experience).
PND affects up to 15 in every 100 women who’ve had a baby – and it doesn’t just affect mothers. Did you know that up to 1 in 10 new dads or partners will develop PND?
The causes of PND aren’t completely clear, but people with a history of mental health problems can be more susceptible. Symptoms include low mood, lack of energy, anxiety, reduced interest in your usual activities, difficulty sleeping and problems bonding with the baby.
At least four of those are pretty much par for the course when a new baby enters the home – let’s face it, a brand-new, tiny little human, completely reliant on you is bound to make anyone feel tired, anxious and generally out of sorts! And let’s not even get started on the sleepless nights…
Having said all of that, it’s important to point out that everyone’s PND story is different – here’s mine:
Maternity Leave – expectations vs. reality
During pregnancy, I’d imagined my maternity leave would be filled with coffee dates with NCT buddies, walks in the park while the baby napped in the pram and a peaceful bedtime routine with Daddy before our little cherub drifted off to the land of nod in his Moses basket.
The reality could not have been more different. After my husband returned to work (following two-weeks paternity leave – which definitely wasn’t long enough to settle into family life!) I’d spend my days at home, counting down the seconds until he’d be back from work, dreading that I might receive a message to say he was working late, or his train was delayed (or worse still, cancelled!)
For me, breastfeeding was a painful, stressful nightmare. My son had an undiagnosed tongue-tie until he was about six weeks old – I persevered with breast-feeding, but in all honesty, it was only because I was crippled with fear that formula would make him ill. It wouldn’t, he would have been perfectly fine just like all the other millions of formula-fed babies, but I just couldn’t see it through the fog of anxiety.
Sleepless nights (and days!)
There were days (and weeks) where my baby refused to nap – the majority of his first six months were spent awake and crying, his fists curled up into tiny angry balls. He woke so often in the night that my husband ended up relocating to the spare room (with my blessing, I might add!) so I could safely bed-share with baby (and not have to watch him sleeping peacefully as I sat awake ALL NIGHT feeding the baby.)
And because baby needed to go to bed at around 18:45 (which, inconveniently, was the time my husband arrived home from work) we barely saw each other. I didn’t manage to eat properly and survived mostly on Nutella sandwiches, cereal bars and biscuits delivered to the bedroom by my husband, when he left for work at 07:15.
I began to believe there must be something wrong with my baby – that he was in pain or had a dairy intolerance. I gave up eating dairy and mentioned my concerns to the GP at our six-week check. The doctor examined my (thankfully very healthy) son and suggested I might be suffering from PND. This was the first time a professional had mentioned this since the birth of my baby – I’d heard of the ‘baby blues’ and we’d talked a little bit about PND during NCT classes, but it wasn’t something I’d been particularly concerned about as I hadn’t experienced any mental health issues before.
I dismissed his comments, truly believing I was ‘just’ exhausted and adjusting to new life as a mother. The GP offered talking therapy or a prescription for anti-depressants, but I refused both. I mentioned this to my husband and health visitor later that day, brushing off the GP’s comments and telling them I was just knackered, frustrated and sad that my baby seemed so upset all the time.
I didn’t venture out of the house very often; I was too anxious my baby would cry all the time. When we did go out, I would see other mothers having a lovely, relaxing cuppa with friends as their babies slept soundly in their prams. I believed that I must be doing something wrong.
My baby was still waking every 30 minutes through the night and refused to nap unless a) he was strapped to me as close as humanly possible in a sling and b) I was holding him whilst doing squats or bouncing gently on an exercise ball. Side note – the one (and only!) benefit to this was I ended up with thighs of steel for a few months! I suppose it helped shift the baby weight, if nothing else!
So, what else went through my mind? How about this – our baby was very much wanted and so very loved. His safe arrival was a blessing, a moment we’d been dreaming of for months. And for me, this was what made it so hard to admit I was feeling less than content with how things were going. It made me question whether I even deserved to be a mother, especially when so many women suffer pregnancy difficulties or struggle to conceive.
My turning point was a chat with a Family Support Worker at a breastfeeding drop-in support group. I’d been a couple of times before and found this lady especially helpful with ideas on how to hold and position my baby to help him latch on effectively. It was her who bore the brunt of my tearful breakdown in the middle of the children’s centre as I finally admitted to her (and myself) that I wasn’t enjoying motherhood and I could probably use a little help and support. She was amazing, telling me her own story of PND and making me realise that it was very normal to feel the way that I did.
From there, I booked another appointment with my GP and asked to try some medication. And for me, it worked quickly. The daily tears stopped, and I started to feel less anxious about getting out and about. Soon after, I plucked up the courage to talk to my friends and family about how I was feeling, and they couldn’t have been more supportive. I joined a few baby groups to get us both out of the house and just being around other people seemed to help.
Things are looking up
Fast forward to now and I have a happy, healthy almost two-year-old – it turns out he just wasn’t keen on being a little baby! I successfully battled my way through the breast-feeding difficulties and I’m still feeding him now, although we are down to only one feed at bedtime. In general, he naps in his cot and sleeps through the night – two things I didn’t think would ever happen! I’m still on medication, but I’m planning to see my GP to discuss the best way of coming off it. I took a risk earlier in the year to leave employment and set up as a freelancer – knowing that I can plan my work to fit around family life has been a huge weight off my mind.
If you think you might have PND or you’re pregnant and worried you might be susceptible to it post-birth, I’d urge you to tell somebody how you’re feeling, whether it’s a friend, partner, midwife, GP, health visitor or organisation like PANDAS, MIND or APNI.
Admitting you have PND does not make you a bad parent (or a bad person!) and it’s not your fault. There’s so much support available – you just need to be brave enough to ask for it.