Perinatal depression and anxiety fact sheet

Giving birth can be an empowering and exciting experience. A new baby can bring so much joy. This phase of life is very special for most couples most of the time. It can also be an emotional roller coaster for most couples some of the time, but for some women and their partners it can be an overwhelming time of stress and struggle.

Having a baby changes everything
Perinatal Anxiety and Depression affects approximately 20 per cent of women who give birth in Australia and 10% of their partners, approximately 50,000 women each year. Left untreated, the impact on the mother, her child and other family members can be profound. Perinatal Anxiety and Depression is a recognised medical condition, the result of biological, psychological and social factors.

Motherhood is a major life event and the impact is often underestimated in our society. Caring for a new baby can be a remarkable and special time, it can also be relentless and mothers need to be resilient. The hard work that mothers do is often not valued by our society - we need to dispel the motherhood myths and provide a network of support.

Most women and their partners undergo significant adjustments after the birth of a baby. Mothers in particular need to redefine their roles to a greater or lesser extent, and many women do experience feelings of grief and loss which at times can be overwhelming. It is normal to feel a range of emotions while navigating through this period of transition, and most couples do manage the emotional and physical stresses and the ups and downs of life with a new baby.

When should I worry about my feelings?
About 80% of women will experience the baby blues three to five days after giving birth. These feelings of tearfulness and anxiety are transient and will dissipate. Most women will also experience a range of emotions during the first year after giving birth. These feelings range from mild, which the mother can manage and deal with, to severe, which impacts on a woman's life, often creating in her a sense of being overwhelmed by her situation.

If a mother is experiencing strong feelings that are impacting on her life and her ability to cope that last for two weeks or longer she should consider help.

It is often difficult for a mother to gauge her feelings. When she is busy with a new baby feeling tired and stretched, it can be hard to work out if the feelings are 'normal' or an indication of something more significant. As a general rule, if a mother is experiencing strong feelings that are impacting on her life and her ability to cope that last for two weeks or longer she should consider a conversation with a health professional.   

The Early Childhood Health nurse, the GP, the midwife or obstetrician are all people who can be approached to discuss coping with the emotional responses to managing a new baby. Some women find this is all they need: a conversation to validate their feelings and the confirmation that little babies can be exhausting work. The health professional is in a position to assess each woman's situation and if necessary can refer the mother on to a specialist doctor or counsellor.

A bit of self awareness can go a long way
Women should consider seeking professional help if they:

  • Can't rest even when the baby is sleeping
  • Are unable to enjoy activities they used to enjoy prior to the baby's birth
  • Can't concentrate, make decisions or get things done
  • Have physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, constant headaches, sweaty hands, loss  of appetite 
  • Feel numb and remote from family and friends
  • Feel out of control, or 'crazy', even hyperactive
  • Have thoughts of harming themself or the baby
  • Have constant feelings of guilt, shame, or repetitive thoughts
  • Feel trapped or in a dark hole or tunnel with no escape

The complexities of seeking help
Although it can be difficult to identify women with perinatal depression and anxiety, women who are assessed and diagnosed benefit greatly from the help available and do recover. Women who are not diagnosed can struggle on for years attempting to manage an unrecognised condition.

Many women suffering from perinatal depression and anxiety do not seek help for many reasons:

  • They may not realise they have a problem that can respond to help, thinking this is just the way it is with a baby.
  • The stigma associated with mental health problems may stop many women even giving voice to their feelings.  Many women hide behind masks, not even sharing their feelings with close friends.
  • Some women think they are the problem.
  • Health professionals are not always able to diagnose perinatal mood disorders.

This article has been supplied by the Gidget Foundation who can provide more information on Perinatal Anxiety and Depression.

Discuss depression and mental health issues with Essential Baby members.