Written by Jo Murphy Published on 9th October 2018 Updated on 23rd May 2022

Let’s talk about parenthood and postpartum mental health

Can having a baby really make you feel blue? The conversation around postpartum mental health is changing rapidly, but it shouldn’t get new parents down. If anything, the fact we’re now talking about it is testament to the levels of care that are becoming available—and not just for moms, since dads are feeling the impacts of parenthood too. Here’s how to recognise symptoms, get the right level of help and guide your loved ones along the road to recovery.

First of all, what are the ‘baby blues’?

A new mom’s estrogen levels will drop more than a hundredfold during the first three days after giving birth. Estrogen influences certain cognitive functions, such as the regulation of serotonin—the neurotransmitter that helps mom to feel happy. Therefore, as estrogen levels drop, they take her mood with them. Luckily this lasts for a couple of weeks at most.

Any sadness or anxiety that lingers beyond this timeframe could be the beginning of something else. Women are most vulnerable to mental health challenges during the perinatal period, which lasts up to one year post-birth. Sally Hogg from the UK Maternal Mental Health Alliance (MMHA) explains, “Women are told they’ll be tearful after childbirth, so they might believe they’re not coping like other mothers when really their condition is more serious.”

How do you know if a mom has postpartum depression or anxiety?

Symptoms of postnatal depression include extreme fatigue or insomnia, hopelessness, indecisiveness or inability to concentrate, loss of appetite or increased appetite, or even a sense of hostility towards loved ones. Depression can go hand in hand with postpartum anxiety. If so, this will show up as physical symptoms, such as dizziness, rapid heartbeat and nausea.

Both can also be confused with post-traumatic stress disorder. Sally adds, “If you experience birth trauma, you’ll typically become preoccupied with what happened during labour. You can’t stop thinking or talking about it, or you don’t want to talk about it all.” You may also experience vivid nightmares, flashbacks or panic attacks.

There is also a low risk of postpartum psychosis, which occurs in around one in 1,000 births. A professional will be able to differentiate between the symptoms.

What about dad’s postnatal depression?

Dad will experience depression differently. Signs include persistent frustration, anger, confusion or concern about the future. He may grow less interested in what’s going on around him, and engage less and less with his new family. He might even become aggressive. Physical symptoms include drastic changes to weight, digestive issues and recurring headaches.

Research in the US reveals that 10 per cent of dads experience these symptoms, but this figure could be higher in the UK since men are less likely to ask for help. Rachel Boyd of Mind explains, “While men can’t officially be diagnosed with postpartum depression, they’re half as likely to talk to their friends about it as women—and 31 per cent of men would discuss worries with their relatives compared to 54 per cent of women, which puts fathers at greater risk of emotional isolation.”

What causes postpartum depression?

Having a baby leads to huge lifestyle changes for both parents. It’s a major transition that challenges moms and dads on every level with sleep deprivation, financial concerns, new relationship dynamics and the overwhelming responsibility of parenthood.

A woman’s psychological transition into motherhood can also impact her sense of identity. Plus she may struggle with the physical changes that pregnancy and childbirth bring, such as weight gain, exhaustion, incontinence and sore breasts. But she’s not alone since dad’s vulnerability to mental health problems doubles during the first year of fatherhood.

Both parents are at greater risk if they have a history of depression or they’re faced with other lifestyle challenges, like low income. What’s more, if the relationship between mom and dad isn’t stable, or they’re separated, this leaves them both mentally vulnerable.

Who can I talk to about postnatal mental health problems?

Parents can talk to their health visitor, a counselor or therapist. There are support systems available both on and offline, and connecting with other parents before the birth will help to put a network in place right from the start. Sally of MMHA urges all parents to talk about it, and to keep talking. “Sometimes it’s not easy to say these things out loud, so keep a diary of how you feel. Once it’s written down, it could aid the conversation.”

Dads in the UK can call PANDAS, which offers specific information and support for men. Moms in the UK can connect with others via the Maternal Mental Health Alliance. Parents in the US can contact Mental Health America or Postpartum Support International. And anyone can download the Moment Health app, which gives parents the tools they need to maintain long-term mental health.