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Perinatal mental health

Pregnancy Dr Erin Nesbitt-Hawes Director
Having a baby is one of the most joyful times in your life, but often also one of the most difficult. Mental health problems are common during this emotional rollercoaster, but help is available…

As many as 80% of women experience the emotional rollercoaster of tears, mood swings and anxiety known as the “baby blues” in the first week after the birth of their baby.  A combination of sleeplessness, hormonal changes and sensory overload from a baby’s needs are all thought to play a part.  Usually as things settle over the first two weeks, these symptoms also ease and no further help is required.

Of greater concern are persistent feelings of unhappiness, anxiety and mood swings which can occur during the pregnancy or after the baby is born.  These feelings last for more than two weeks, and interfere with day-to-day functioning.  Antenatal and postnatal depression can be triggered by life stressors, genetic predisposition, personality type and lack of support.  Depression can affect the mother, father or both parents and can often go unnoticed during this isolating time.  Early identification is important as bonding with the baby may be affected.

Symptoms of depression include lack of enjoyment of usual activities, a sense of hopelessness, loss of self esteem, difficulty sleeping, lack of appetite, anxiety and panic attacks.  Thoughts of self harm and suicide or harm to the baby may occur and if any of these distressing symptoms are present it is important to seek help from your midwife, doctor or another health professional to ensure that you and your baby stay safe while you are recovering.

The importance of support during the pregnancy and in the post-partum period cannot be underestimated in dealing with the stresses of parenthood.  Good communication between you and your partner is important as you both go through this time and can help to identify early if there are any problems.  If you are feeling overwhelmed, help can be sought from your midwife, early childhood nurse, doctor, local hospital or services such as Beyond Blue and Lifeline.

Treatment of depression during and after pregnancy can involve counselling and medications.  The use of antidepressant medications should be limited during pregnancy and following delivery, but it is important to weigh up the risks and the benefits and there are medications which are safer during this time.  Your doctor can speak to you about the best medication for you if it is required, or further information can be sought from Mothersafe. Occasionally a period of hospitalisation is required, with mother-baby units allowing the important process of bonding to continue while treatment is ongoing.

You are not alone if you are suffering from these symptoms and help is available!