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We need to talk about perinatal mental health

AD| I want to have a chat today about perinatal mental health. In both parents, not just the birthing parent. I’m always quite reluctant to…

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AD| I want to have a chat today about perinatal mental health. In both parents, not just the birthing parent. I’m always quite reluctant to talk about mental health because I’m worried I won’t set the tone right. In an attempt to raise awareness and normalise it, I don’t want to take away the severity of how difficult things can be as a new parent. Just because problems with mental health after having a baby is common doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.

Women can suffer from postnatal depression in different ways and some cases are more severe than others. If you have found this blog post because you are stuffing yourself, I will be leaving some details of some postnatal and perinatal mental health services at the end of this post.

mum and baby in bed

Perinatal mental health problems are mental health problems that occur in pregnancy or in the first year of the childs lifes and it affects a massive 20% of new mums. Although I don’t believe I suffered from postnatal depression or any severe mental illness, I did have struggles adjusting to my new life. This was mostly trying to process and recover from a traumatising birth (mentally and physically) while being exhausted but also being responsible for a baby.

I found it really difficult and I felt like nobody really spoke about it until I was in it myself. It’s like a secret club. It’s not until you join the club yourself that everyone around you shares their experience, too.

I get that people may not want to scare expectant mothers and fill them with dread about what is to come, but we are all different and I’m the type of person that needs to be mentally prepared. I need to know EVERYTHING about something I’m about to experience. It helps me brace myself and know I am about to deal with something challenging.

A few weeks into being pregnant I was spending days in bed with morning sickness. So I already knew pregnancy and motherhood weren’t glamourous so it wasn’t much of a surprise that birth and early motherhood wasn’t much different.

My mental health during pregnancy

When you find out you are pregnant, it can bring about many emotions. Excitement, fear, happiness, love, stress – then the following months are an absolute rollercoaster of every emotion you can think of.

Then throw in pregnancy symptoms. More like throw up.

I had terrible morning sickness (nausous pretty much constantly) and was bedbound for weeks.

pregnant women

Then, constant fear that something bad was going to happen to my baby lingered around. In my first trimester of pregnancy, I felt like baby loss was everywhere. I expect it’s just something I noticed more now I was carrying my own child. But it seemed like I was constantly reminded that 1-in-4 women have a miscarriage and it pained me every single day. I even had a bleed and emergency scan at 8 weeks and it felt like my world was ending.

Every scan and appointment is a mixture of fear and excitement. And then you have the labour to start thinking about.

I was terrified of giving birth. I’m rubbish with pain and the whole thing petrified me. I put off becoming pregnant because I was afraid of it, but pregnancy hit me like a ton of bricks and I wasn’t expecting that! It was a bit of a distraction to the actual birth.

Again, that was also a bit like a club. I had people message me who I’ve not spoken to in years during pregnancy sharing how they were ill when they were pregnant. I can’t believe so many women feel utterly terrible!

It’s a mixture of not feeling well, pending labour and a massive life-changing event that can be overwhelming. Of course, some people deal with this better than others.

I struggled some days and was okay others. I was pregnant during the start of the pandemic so my experience was not the norm. I basically stayed at home and went to hospital appointments alone.

Getting over the birth

When I gave birth to my son, I lost over 1.5 litres of blood, I had been in labour (and awake!) 36 hours and a few hours later, after I had been sewn up, given a bed bath, finished throwing up, had my catheter attached and said goodbye to my partner. I was left alone with this little human that cried unless he was attached to my nipple (you can read my full birth story here).

I was exhausted.

I had about 1 hour of sleep a night in the first week of his life and my mental health was in the bin. Especially as I had to go back into hospital as my iron was severely low and I was showing signs of preeclampsia.

mum in labobur

I cried all the time. I cried because I loved him so much, I cried because I was tired, I cried because it hurt to stand up. I cried when I thought about my birth because I was traumatised. It was just a weird time. When people say ‘enjoy that newborn bubble’, it really is like being in bubble. I felt so out of contact with the real world. The days merged together and I struggled to respond to messages.

The big trauma my body had gone through floored me and I struggled to keep my head above water with a baby that would only sleep on me.

Adjusting to being a parent

I wasn’t ready for the life-changing experience of having a baby. I had no concept of how full on it would be. I thought I’d be able to play the piano while he napped in his cot, or exercise on the weekends. But every single part of my life revolved around Leo. Everything I did was so much harder because I had to find a way to do it with a baby, or put the baby down somewhere and hope he didn’t cry.

He always did.

And the sound of my baby crying was the worst sound I’ve ever heard. It’s like someone is hammering my brain and I was desperate to calm him as quick as possible.

mum and baby in hospital after birth

I acquired the skill of holding my baby and breastfeeding him while standing up, buttering toast with one hand and getting myself, toast and tea back to the sofa at 4 am for a bit of Netflix.

During the fourth trimesters, Leo needed me almost all the time. It felt like he cluster-fed for 12 weeks straight. I would get out of the shower and hear him crying for me, my partner stood outside the bathroom door, helpless, holding him and asking me to boob him before I even get a chance to dry myself.

I felt like I couldn’t do anything for myself. I couldn’t go to the toilet and spend time changing my maternity pad and cleaning myself to prevent my tear getting infected. I couldn’t take a long shower and get into new clothes that weren’t damp with milk from my leaking breasts. I couldn’t eat a meal with two hands, everything was cut into bite-size pieces by my partner. I couldn’t wee when I needed to and sleep even though I was exhausted. I couldn’t even reach over and get my drink a lot of the time.

It was shockingly difficult.

People wanted to visit and I felt utterly sick at the idea of not being able to just get my boobs out and be sat on the couch, half-naked. I was embarrassed that I still struggled to stand up and walk. I panicked about when I would sleep if we had visitors, as I usually slept at 8am for a few hours while Leo slept in my partners chest until he needed feeding.

It just wasn’t an easy time. The love I felt for Leo was intense and felt all-consuming, but everything else in my life felt like I was drowning.

newborn baby

I found the experience so bizarre of early motherhood so bizarre. My body didn’t feel like mine and I felt suffocated as I just felt trapped with a baby on me all the time. But at the same time, I wanted and needed him on me. I couldn’t even entertain the thought of him not being with me and I hated others holding him. I didn’t expect to feel like that, I expect it’s the hormones that made me feel possessive over him.

It wasn’t until I accepted that I just needed to expect nothing of myself other than looking after Leo, that it got easier.

Perinatal mental health and men/non-birthing partners

Postnatal depression is not a new term. But it is a term we associate with the mother who gives birth. When a baby is born, the focus is all on the baby and mother.

It’s easy to see how new fathers/partners can struggle with mental health issues when you consider that they get pushed out. Mum is busy with the baby and Dad/other parent is left with housework and cooking.

Not to mention that generally speaking, mothers will spend their whole pregnancy researching motherhood and planning the arrival of their little bundle of joy were as fathers often take a ‘wing it’ approach. This means they are utterly shocked when his baby arrives and they suddenly realise the big impact it will have on their life!

cosleeping baby

I read a lot in Facebook groups about how many partners feel like they can’t bond with the baby because the baby is reliant on the mother. Espcially breastfed babies. This can leads to women wanting to give formula or express so the partner can feed the baby, without understanding that a baby is supposed to be with it’s mother. Expressing too early or giving formula can have a negative impact on your breastfeeding journey which can lead to further mental health problems.

I absolutely think there needs to be more support for Dads and partners, or just more emphasis and encouragement for them to learn more about pregnancy, labour and the first few months of a babies lives.

bedsharing postnatal depression

Mental health tips for new parents

I wanted to share a few tips for new parents. These are things I wish I had known or things I would do if I had another baby.

Know when to get help from a doctor

If you are unable to deal with your emotions or thoughts or think about harming yourself or your baby, then you need to speak to your doctor or midwife as soon as possible.

The tips in this post may help those women who experience normal fluctuations during and after pregnancy, but they are not designed to replace medical care for those with mental health problems.

Please seek medical advice immediately from your GP or mental health services.

Set boundaries for visitors

Do not promise people they can visit ‘as soon as the baby is born’. Trust me when I say you have no idea how you will feel until you’ve been through your labour.

I thought I’d be fine with visitors but was emotional and in a lot of pain. It was so hard to sit there and smile when I felt so horrific. I just needed to be half naked, surrounded by pillows and not under any pressure to do anything by a set time around visitors.

So, tell people you aren’t committing to visits until the baby is born.

Brace yourself for hormone changes

When Leo was three days old, my midwife visited me and told me I would probably feel really emotional and rubbish that day. Apparently the third day after birth is a day is when your pregnancy hormones drop dramatically and it can make you emotional and tearful. This is often referred to as ‘the baby blues’.

It’s helpful to be aware of this and know that it’s normal.

Don’t expect to do things!

Just plan to keep the first few months simple. You take care of your baby and don’t plan to keep up with hobbies or housework. It’s so much easier when you stop trying to be productive all the time and allow yourself to just parent!

If you manage to get 30 minutes to yourself, then that’s a bonus!

Know your pain relief options

If you are scared about your labour, firstly – you aren’t alone. It’s normal to be afraid of giving birth and you can discuss this with your midwife who may be able to give you some reassurance and advice.

The only thing that got me through the idea of labour was the epidural. I knew I wanted one straight away. It was in my birth plan and as soon as I got to the hospital and they said I was 4cm, they asked me if I wanted it and sorted it out for me.

Nobody ever made me feel bad for wanting an epidural or tried to talk me out of it.

There’s other pain relief options and things that can make you feel relaxed and calm. Things such as gas and air, pethidine, a water birth, hypnobirthing, aromatherapy oils and more.

The biggest thing to remember – your birth plan can change if you want it to. You might want to birth naturally but the decide you need an epidural. That’s fine. But know there ARE options that make birth less painful, or even pain free.

Read about the fourth trimester

The fourth trimester is the first 12 weeks of a babies life. This is when a baby is adjusting from being inside you all warm and safe for 9 months. The get pushed into a cold, light, noisey world.

They know your voice, your smell and your warmth and that is what they need to feel safe and secure.

This is why some babies won’t sleep unless held and cry when they are put down. Lots of contact and skin to skin is great for both you and your baby and a sling is a great option for a baby.

Have quick and easy meals at your fingertips

Fruit bread, pizza, cereal bars and lasagne ready meals was probably my go-to food after having Leo.

Chances are that you aren’t going to have time to cook, your partner may be back at work and looking after the rest of the household tasks so do a favour for both of yourselves and get food that is easy and quick to prepare.

Plus lots of snacks.

Check yourself with social media

Just a reminder that social media is usually the highlights of someones lives. Don’t start comparing yourself to mothers who look put together after giving birth, or those that are out and about already with their baby.

We are not all the same and just what you need to do, plus you are seeing a 5 second snippet of someones day! Someone might be out for a walk looking all happy and relaxed a few days after giving birth, but it might have take them two hours to get ready for that walk. Or they might have had an straight forward birth with no complications. We don’t know the whole picture so just remember not to compare your life to anyone else’s.

perinatal mental health breastfeeding

Research breastfeeding

If you have decided to breastfeed your baby, start researching and learning all about it. Educate yourself on the normal behaviour of a breastfed baby, cluster feeding, feeding queues, latching, nipple confusion caused by introducing dummies/bottles too soon, pace feeding.

Breastfeeding is difficult but there are many benefits to it for both you and your baby. You need to be prepared so it’s not a shock. I wrote a whole post about breastfeeding last year which has more information.

If you are struggling with breastfeeding, get help and advice from a lactation consultant.

It’s fine to switch to formula if that is your choice. But it’s not okay to switch to formula when you really want to breastfeed because you’ve not been supported.

Pack your hospital bag with your partner

Make sure your partner knows what you are packing and where everything is in your hospital bag. This just makes things easier for when you’re in labour so they can get you things you need, and after when you get washed and changed.

Check-in with your partner

It’s easy to get lost in your little bubble with your baby – make sure you and your partner check-in with each other regularly. You should both be attentive to each others feelings and how you are dealing with parenthood. Obviously, every relationship is different and we all have different needs.

And yes, the non-birthing parent ideally should be looking after you during recovery, but their feelings are important too so keep communicating with each other.

Bonding for partners

Many mothers are keen for their partner to bottle feed a baby (expressed or formula) to bond. But there are different ways that the other parent can bond with the baby.

Things such as skin to skin, burping, bathing the baby, dressing, changing nappies. I read a post in a Facebook group a few weeks ago where the mother left the weaning up to the childs Dad. The Dad introduced all the new foods at 6 months! I thought that was a great idea and something they could look forward too while you take care of the feeds while they are a newborn.

Support for if you are struggling

Here’s some numbers and names of organisations that can support you if you are struggling with postnatal depression or poor perinatal health.

Samarritans

Get support from. a train volunteer by calling 116 123 to talk to Samaritans, or email: jo@samaritans.org for a reply within 24 hours

Shout

Text “SHOUT” to 85258 to contact the Shout Crisis Text Line, or text “YM” if you’re under 19

PANDAS Foundation

PANDAS is a PND awareness sand support foundation.

You can talk to someone by calling 0808 1961 776

As well as the free helpline, they have email support, social media groups and face to face groups.

APNI

APNI (Association for Postnatal Illness) provides telephone support and online information on postnatal depression.

You can call them on 0207 386 0868. There’s also a chatbox on the website.

MIND

MIND is a mental health charity providing information, support, local groups and an online chatroom.

Call them on 0300 123 3393.

Maternal mental health awareness

World Maternal Mental Health Day 2022 – May 5th

I’d love to hear all your experiences and tips so please do leave them in the comments below

12 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing all your experience and information! I am due next week with our first baby and, while feeling generally relaxed (so far), also have no idea how the baby will actually change us and our lives.

  2. This post hits home! I was perfectly fine after having my first born my son, but just had my daughter mid December and it’s so different this time around mentally especially. Thank you so much for sharing this! It’s not talked about enough.

  3. “But it’s not okay to switch to formula when you really want to breastfeed because you’ve not been supported.”
    I love this line the most out of this wonderful, personal article about how perinatal mental health played a big role in your life! Thank you for sharing the details of your journey and, most importantly, the pivoting realizations that helped you reach where you are now. <3

  4. This post is so important, I’ve bookmarked it! I feel like it is definitely something that isn’t talked about enough, thank you so much for sharing!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this post.

    We definitely need to raise awareness of how difficult the experience is for all parents and the demand on the mother is huge.

    I relate to a lot of the feelings you describe, and it honestly makes me question whether I could go through it again with a second child.

    Also loving the pictures. So cute. It’s all worth it, but it’s the hardest job in the world.

  6. It’s so hard, I’m pretty sure I suffered from some form of post-natal depression after Ru as I was so depressed from being in so much pain, I was doing it all alone, and then getting sepsis and the first few weeks are such a blur even now. I’m glad I’m going into having my second baby with a much better knowledge on these things and that I have Jake there every step of the way this time!

  7. My postpartum journey is totally different second time around. It’s definitely made me feel like I should have had more care first time around. I think I didn’t realise just how difficult I found it first time, now I have this time to compare. It’s weird. Thank you for sharing! I’m sure this will help a lot of people love. X

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