The baby blues and postnatal depression in mums and dads

In 2013 I attended antenatal classes for my eldest son, a five-session course that allowed 10 minutes on self-care and post-natal mental health. We were offered a fridge magnet with a help number on it, a few pamphlets and an encouragement to dads to ‘look after the mum’. Whilst these were good points, they did not meet the mark. They left out mental health vulnerabilities for dads, and didn’t recognise that for many women depression can begin in pregnancy. I was not reassured that feeling overwhelmed was totally normal, that seeking help was admirable, and that I could already start to identify where and why we were vulnerable.

Approximately 85 percent of women experience ‘baby blues’ on days three to five after beautiful bubs has arrived. This is caused by a crash in adrenaline after you’ve completed the miracle marathon that is birth, and then a gradual decline in pregnancy hormones that are making way for your milk to come in. It is a divine and yet chaotic time inside your body, let alone the huge role you have just acquired as a new parent. Baby blues are completely normal, generally requiring lots of empathy from our friends/family, and giving ourselves permission for the tears to flow.

Perinatal depression can occur anytime during pregnancy, right up until your baby’s first birthday, however it usually shows itself within the first five weeks of newborn life. It occurs in about 13-15 percent of new mothers, and UK stats reveal approximately 10 percent of new fathers. It’s fair to say the myth ‘men don’t have as many feelings as women’ has been destroyed now – and with this we need to alter our language and awareness to include dads.

Read more in Hey baby – the essential guide to the baby years

The obvious difference between this type of depression and more generic depression is that it involves a baby, and for this reason mums and dads need to act quickly to ensure the best possible environment for their new loved one.

Some of the key warning signs

  1. Change in sleeping patterns. When I first read this, I thought, “What a joke, every pregnant woman or new parent I know doesn’t sleep and is constantly exhausted.” The key sign here though is that you’re exhausted, but when your baby is sleeping, you can’t sleep, and you’re lying there awake. That’s the sign that something more could be going on.
  2. Losing interest in usually pleasurable activities. This might be as simple as you don’t laugh as much as you used to, or it could be that you used to enjoy playing with your baby, and now you avoid it.
  3. Feeling ‘low’, ‘empty’ or ‘dark’. This one can be hard to describe but if you’re in this place, or have been before, then you know what I’m talking about. Sometimes you might feel okay, but it quickly fades and you become someone you don’t really recognise anymore, or someone you don’t want to be.

There are so many other warning signs. It’s worth having a look at Plunket’s Postnatal Depression page with your partner, before you have the baby. Sometimes the first person to notice something is going wrong is your partner, so you’re only 50 percent prepared if just one of you looks up the information.

Treatment looks different for everyone – medication is an option that is completely safe for breastfeeding baby, counselling, or simply adding better nutrition and exercise into your life. Your GP, midwife or Plunket nurse at some point should be checking in with mum about how her mental health is.

Although it can be hard, it’s worth being honest and bringing our best selves to our ‘parenting role’. But no one will be asking dad how he is doing, so let’s all take a little better notice of the new dads around us, encouraging them and checking in they are coping too.

I could tell you more information from books, but here’s what I learned from real life – being a new parent is an outrageous job and sometimes we don’t like it, or we just think we suck at it. Firstly, there’s no requirement on how you should feel, if you don’t enjoy night feeds or cracked nipples then there’s no shame in that.

Own it, its okay, I’m not judging. If you long for days when you can go to work, have a morning tea break, and pee on your own, that’s legitimately okay and I respect that. But if you’re battling through each day wishing you weren’t really a part of it, then please seek help. The world needs you – your creativity, your wisdom, your unique perspective. Your baby craves a life with you, so let’s get you back to smiling as soon as possible.