New mums and mental health

A guest post by Sally Hogg

I remember when my son was born, people kept asking ‘are you enjoying being a mum?’ The answer in the very early days, was probably ‘no’. It got better, but it wasn’t fun at first. Yes, he was absolutely amazing and wonderful. But I hurt. I kept crying for no reason. I was so very, very tired. I worried whether I was doing things right, and – to be honest – I missed my old life. This was a momentous time, but it wasn’t enjoyable at first.

But I never said ‘no’ to that question. It was loaded with expectation. Asked by grannies, aunts and older mums who look back at motherhood through rose-tinted glasses.

Are you enjoying being a mum? New mums & mental health

There are many reasons why it’s hard to admit that you’re not having a great time as a new mum. It seems as if everyone else is doing fine and having a magical time. It seems like everyone expects you to be on top of the world, and it feels like failing – and perhaps a betrayal of your baby – to say that you are struggling.

Yet most, if not all, mums will struggle at some time. And for a significant proportion, this struggle may not simply be the normal rollercoaster of new parenthood, but something more serious. Between 10 and 20% of new mums (and around 5-10% of new dads) experience a mental health problem during pregnancy or the first year after their baby is born. To put this in perspective, it means that in any typical antenatal class or baby group, there is likely to be at least one person in the room who has a mental health problem.

Whilst postnatal depression is well-known, mental health problems for new parents are not just postnatal. In fact, experts now suggest that depression is more common in pregnancy than postnatally. Problems go wider than depression too. They can include, for example, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, psychosis, and eating disorders. Some of these problems will occur for the first time when someone becomes a parent, others may be the recurrence of an existing problem – perhaps one that has been well-managed for many years. Some people with pre-existing conditions are particularly at risk: any woman who has ever experienced bipolar disorder, for example, has a 50% chance of mental illness in the weeks after birth, although this can be very effectively managed with specialist help in pregnancy. The severity of mental health problems varies too. Thankfully, most will be relatively mild, but this is not always the case: suicide is actually one of the leading causes of maternal death in the UK.

Mental health problems can be very effectively prevented or treated with the right help, which is why it is so important to speak out early if we think something is wrong in ourselves, our friends or partners. If you feel you or someone you know has a mental health problem, trust your instincts and talk about it. It may be that they are just having a few bad days, but they will still benefit from a supportive conversation and, if they are ill, the sooner they can receive help, the better.

There are a range of options available to prevent, reduce or treat mental health problems. These include support groups, counselling or other forms of psychological therapy, or medication. The best option will depend on the nature and severity of a mum’s illness and her own personality and preferences. Midwives, health visitors and GPs should ask all expectant and new mums regularly about their mental health, and should be able to signpost mums to different sources of support.

There are also things that we can do ourselves to improve our mental health. These may be enough to overcome mild mental health problems, but won’t be sufficient in themselves for women who are more seriously ill. Activities associated with reducing depression and anxiety include socialising, exercising, getting more sleep, and active relaxation (things like mindful mediation or having a massage). These can feel very hard to do when you have low mood and a new baby, which is why it’s good to talk to family and friends so that they can help you to take care of yourself.

Sadly, there are gaps in services in the UK, and some professionals don’t have the skills and knowledge they need to detect mental health problems and give women the support they need. You may need to be persistent and assertive in order to get help.

Things are improving though: the Maternal Mental Health Alliance (a coalition of over 80 charities and professional bodies) is doing a lot to raise awareness and improve services, and earlier this year, the Government announced over £350 million to fund new services.

Parenting is a rollercoaster, and it’s not one that we’ll always enjoy. For most new mums, the highs of this rollercoaster should far outnumber the lows, but a significant minority will be less fortunate. If you feel the balance isn’t right, don’t suffer in silence. You aren’t alone and things can get better.

Sally Hogg is chair of the Oxted & Caterham NCT branch. She also runs the Mums and Babies in Mind project for the Maternal Mental Health Alliance.  They offer some useful self-help guides about recognising and facing maternal mental health issues.

I would like to publish as many stories about maternal mental health as I can to spread awareness. If you would like to write a guest post with your own story or perspective, please email me: themumreviews (at) gmail.com.

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Tammymum
Diary of an imperfect mum

Birthing babies is a messy business – my postnatal anxiety

I’ve mentioned before in my breastfeeding post about the traumatic birth I had with my first son. Without going into too much detail here, I was induced, I had an emergency c-section and he was in special care with pneumonia for 10 days after he was born.

This all threw me for a massive loop. I had planned a natural water birth with only gas and air in a midwife-led birthing centre. I’d been doing pregnancy yoga and was convinced my body was a childbearing temple and I could have the birth I wanted if only I thought positively about it.

What a load of bull!

I had a drip and was strapped to a foetal monitor which kept bleeping in alarming ways that made me think my baby was dying. I had an epidural after being pricked in the spine countless times, and finally was rushed to theatre (after 20 hours of labour). I was so scared and addled during the surgery that I sang all the songs from The Sound of Music to my anaesthetist. Apparently, that was a first for him – but he was quite young.

And I hadn’t even considered, nor had anyone mentioned to me, the possibility of my son going to special care and being in one of those plastic oxygen boxes. I thought that only happened if your baby was premature. Turns out, special care happens to loads of mums for all sorts of reasons. But nobody warns you ahead of time.

Birth trauma and its effects

By the time I finally brought my son home from hospital, I was seriously messed up. I was convinced he was going to spontaneously die. We couldn’t fit his cot in our bedroom, so I slept in the nursery with him (away from my husband). I lost so much sleep, staying awake listening to make sure he was still breathing.

I remember that every night I would go to sleep repeating to myself, “Please God let him be okay. Please God let him outlive me. Please let him grow to be an old man.” My anxiety about his survival was all consuming.

And other times, when he had colic and wouldn’t stop crying, I wanted to throw him out of the bloody window. And as soon as that thought crossed my mind, I would be overtaken with guilt.

When I think of myself back in those days, I see a woman walking around in a sleep-deprived haze of constant anxiety around my baby’s well-being. Who couldn’t go on a buggy walk without me stopping to check on him every couple of minutes. I hated his rear-facing car seat because I couldn’t see him – we had to buy a mirror.

When well-meaning people would try to hold him or feed him a bottle, I was liable to hover and even yell at them, criticising their techniques – even though these were people who had children of their own and knew what they were doing.

I wore the same clothes day and night – a nursing top and baggy elasticated-waistband trousers. They were inevitably covered in baby sick and the crumbs from my attempts to eat toast without putting the baby down.

I was lonely but I couldn’t maintain a conversation. The days and nights ran into one another. Each day it seemed like I’d be stuck forever in my dark living room, curtains drawn, trying to soothe my screaming baby. Each night was spent begging forgiveness to the universe for being such an ungrateful and unworthy mother.

When I look back at the woman I was in those early days of first-time motherhood, I almost don’t recognise her.

Getting better

I never sought any help for my condition. I didn’t realise it was a problem. I thought it must be normal. In retrospect, I know it wasn’t normal.

As time passed, the trauma of my birth and my son’s illness faded.  Eventually, my son started crawling. Seeing him be independent and robust relieved some of my anxiety. By the time he was 1, I was feeling more like myself.

I was lucky that I got better in my own time. But it would have been much better if I’d realised what a state I was in and that there was help out there for me.

That is why this is the first post in what I’m hoping will become a series on maternal mental health. My next post will deal with the PND I had after my second son. And then I’m hoping to commission guest posts on the topic. Not just on diagnosed PND or anxiety, but about any mental health challenges you might have faced as a new mum. These could be shared on my blog anonymously if you like, or you can put your name to it.

If you would like to contribute a post on maternal mental health, please email me at themumreviews (at) gmail.com.

If you are feeling down, anxious, lonely or depressed after having a baby, you are not alone.

You can find support and information on http://www.pandasfoundation.org.uk/. Please also consider speaking to your GP or health visitor, and seeking support from family and friends.

My Petit Canard
Tammymum
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