Postnatal depletion: what is it and how can we recover?

<i></i>
 Photo: Getty Images

Some mums are left physically and emotionally depleted, with nothing left to give, long after giving birth.

According to one Australian GP, Dr Oscar Serrallach, this is a problem that's been missed by the medical world until now.

He's coined the term 'postnatal depletion' to describe this condition that's more than fatigue, but not the same as postnatal depression. On her website, Pinky McKay describes it as, "… a syndrome of accumulated issues but includes symptoms of deep fatigue, hyper-vigilance and overwhelm. This depletion can lead to poor immune function and subsequent issues such as mastitis and poor gut health and it can be a vicious downward spiral towards postnatal depression."

The condition's symptoms include feeling run down, lethargic, and battling often unexplainable chronic physical depletion, all caused by, well, modern motherhood.

An exhausting cocktail of pressures

Dr Karen Phillip, family relationship expert and psychotherapist, says she's relieved to hear this term that describes something she sees in her clinic every day. "It seems that almost every mum experiences to some degree; depletion is exactly what's going on."

She believes it's caused by a whole lot of pressures placed on mums.

"All the things we see on social media and read in the media, make us feel we're supposed to be all things to everyone at all times," Dr Phillip explains. "We have overwhelming pressure on us to get everything right in those first months after having a baby."

We're also lacking in support post-birth. "We're missing our sisters, mums and close connections that we used to have in days gone by," says Dr Phillip. "We're more socially isolated after those first couple of busy weeks when everyone's coming to see the baby." (And even that, Dr Phillip says, is a pressure in itself, as we entertain guests while exhausted from having a newborn.)

Advertisement

"Mums are constantly putting themselves as secondary, and we don't stop and look at the things we need."

It all combines to become an exhausting cocktail of pressures and physical depletion.

The struggles of postnatal depletion

You don't have to look too far to find out that many mums relate to this idea of postnatal depletion.

Jacqui Cooper says it was with her second child that she started to feel depleted. "I had some complications during my pregnancy and ended up on bed rest for the last trimester, and then had a really rough birth," Cooper says. "My recovery was really long."

"My daughter is now two-and-a-half and I'm still not back to normal."

Cooper describes her experience of postnatal depletion as being mentally and physically tired all the time. "It feels like what I would imagine chronic fatigue to feel like; everything's tired. I struggle to get through a day without sleeping when my daughter has her day sleep. It's also a real discomfort in my body."

"Everything's a battle."

How to recover from postnatal depletion

Here are a few things to try if you're feeling depleted:

- Eat as well as you can. Go back to basics and use the dietary guidelines to help you consider whether you're getting the right nutrients while pregnant or breastfeeding.

- Gentle exercise. "I started with some gentle yoga, and after a while I found I could do a bit more," Cooper says.

- Get some rest. Easier said than done! Dr Phillip says it's the one thing she advises many depleted parents: "I prescribe one full night of sleep for my clients, and mums can perhaps call on family or their partner to help them do that."

- Ask for help: support is absolutely vital when you're a mum, so try to speak to someone about how you're feeling

It's clear that growing, birthing and taking care of a baby all take quite a physical toll on mums – and it's time we recognise that and look out for ourselves and each other.