Becoming a parent brings a wide range of emotions, ranging from joy and excitement to stress and apprehension. The physical changes you go through can also affect your mood and feelings, and it’s common to experience more ups and downs that usual. But depression is more than just a low mood – it’s a serious condition that affects your physical and mental health.
In many cases, depression during the perinatal period (pregnancy and the year following birth) isn’t recognised and may get worse. This can interfere with your pregnancy or becoming a parent. Depression doesn’t just affect you – it can affect those around you, including your relationships and your baby’s development.
That’s why it’s important to speak to someone if you’re finding it hard to cope. The sooner you get support, the sooner you can get on with enjoying your family.
Perinatal, antenatal and postnatal depression – what’s the difference?
You might hear some of these terms used and wonder what they mean. Antenatal depression is when you experience depression during pregnancy, and affects up to one in ten women (9 per cent) in Australia. Up to one in seven women (almost 16 per cent) experience postnatal depression, which develops between one month and up to one year after the birth.
Because depression can start before or during pregnancy and continue after childbirth, we often use perinatal depression to cover the whole period from conception until your baby is 12 months old.
Depression may also return in a following pregnancy or after the birth of another child.
I had never had a history of depression before. This was a very wanted baby... and I remember it clearly... one day a black curtain descended on me... I could feel it coming down...
Depression or the ‘baby blues’?
Many women experience the ‘baby blues’ between the third and tenth day after giving birth, due to changes in hormone levels following childbirth. You might feel tearful or overwhelmed, but this usually passes within a few days and without any specific care – apart from support and understanding.
All parents go through a period of adjustment as they try to handle the huge changes a new baby brings. Remember that you’re not the only ones trying to figure out how to collapse that new pram or settle a screaming baby – all new parents are in the same boat. Most people will go through a temporary adjustment as they learn the ropes and build confidence in their new role. But if you’re feeling distressed, down, sad or overwhelmed most of the time for two weeks or more, you may be experiencing depression.
If you think your partner or baby would be better off without you, or you are having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself or your baby, seek professional help.
Symptoms of depression
The symptoms of depression during pregnancy or early parenthood are the same as at any other time in our life, but can be a little harder to identify and deal with when you’re pregnant or have a baby. Some of the changes that come with being a new parent overlap with the symptoms of depression – such as changes in sleeping or appetite – and it can be difficult to tell the difference.
It’s also a time when everything’s new and challenging – it can be hard to know whether your reactions and emotions are within the 'normal' range when your life with a new baby could be feeling pretty far from 'normal'!
If you‘ve experienced several of the following symptoms for two weeks or more, it’s time to seek support.
Some common symptoms of depression include:
- low mood and/or feeling numb
- feeling inadequate, like a failure, guilty, ashamed, worthless, hopeless, helpless, empty or sad
- often feeling close to tears
- feeling angry, irritable or resentful (e.g. feeling easily irritated by your other children or your partner)
- fear for the baby and/or fear of being alone with the baby or the baby being unsettled
- fear of being alone or going out
- loss of interest in things that you would normally enjoy
- recurring negative thoughts – “I’m a failure”, “I’m doing a bad job”, “My life is terrible”
- insomnia (being unable to fall asleep or get back to sleep after night feeds) or excessive (too much) sleep, having nightmares
- appetite changes (not eating or over-eating)
- feeling unmotivated and unable to cope with a daily routine
- withdrawing from social contact and/ or not looking after yourself properly
- having thoughts about harming yourself or your baby, ending your life, or wanting to escape or get away from everything.
If you’re having these kinds of thoughts, it’s important to seek support.
Am I depressed…or just exhausted?
Because there’s often overlap between the symptoms of depression and the reality of becoming a new parent, the way you’re feeling about yourself, your life and your family can help you differentiate between the two.
It’s important to recognise that some aspects of your life as a new parent, such as sleep deprivation and increased stress, are risk factors. And when they hang around long enough, and enough of them build up, can lead to depression.
New parent exhaustion
- You’re still able to maintain a relatively positive view of self and your life, despite being knackered all the time
- You’re able to recognise that this level of sleep deprivation is only temporary – things will improve
- Once you get to rest, your mood will improve
- You’re able to feel pleasure and get joy from things in your life
Signs you may be experiencing depression
- Seeing yourself and your life in a negative way - “I’m a failure”, “I’m doing a bad job”, “My life is terrible”
- You feel hopeless, and can’t see how things will ever get better
- Even with rest, your thoughts and feelings remain negative
- You can’t get joy out of anything – even things you used to like.
Support for new dads
Depression during pregnancy and early parenthood doesn’t just affect new mums – dads are also at greater risk. If you’ve recently or are about to become a father, we’ve got info and resources to help you deal with stress and take care of yourself.
The thought of getting through the day is daunting… no-one tells people how hard it is… usually easy tasks are beyond your ability.
Treatments for depression
The encouraging news is that there’s a range of health professionals
and treatments to help with depression. Your GP or other health professional can develop a treatment plan that’s tailored for your needs, situation and preferences. Suggested treatments are likely to include a combination of emotional and practical support, plus some psychological therapy
. If your symptoms are more severe, your health professional may consider a treatment plan that includes these approaches together with medication