Pregnancy can be one of the most rewarding experiences that you’ll ever have. There are days where you’re laughing over your expansive belly, but there are also days where you’re crying into your pillow at night. When mental health issues hit, it’s important to be vigilant to support both your personal and the baby’s health.
Psychological care during pregnancy
So you’ve confirmed that you’re pregnant. An emotional roller coaster is likely to begin. ‘Will I be a good parent’?, ‘Can I do this’? ‘How do I do this’? are all common questions pregnant women ask. There’s so much information to consider. Multi-vitamins, scans, appointments, gender reveals, cot, prams, child seats and wraps are likely topics you will be mulling over during your 9 month pregnancy.
Whilst many pregnant women thrive during pregnancy and find it an exciting time, for other expectant parents, it can be challenging both physically and psychologically. The pregnancy glow people often smile and comment on may in fact be intense nausea, sleep deprivation and exhaustion.
What’s important is that if you are concerned for mental health issues during pregnancy or post birth, speak to someone. There are many options for mental health support and accessing support sooner will likely reduce the severity of your condition.
Physical symptoms impacting pregnancy mental health
There are many factors that impact our mental health during and post pregnancy. Some are not within our power to prevent yet with the right supports, many can be managed well.
With the news that you are expecting a baby, morning sickness is likely to impact 70% of women. Nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and fatigue are all very common, particularly during early pregnancy. Severe morning sickness can also induce symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Complications during pregnancy can understandably send us into a whirlwind of emotions. Complications to either the mother or baby are often unexpected and induce fear, confusion, sadness and anger.
As discussed a little later, reproductive hormones can impact our mental health and produce symptoms such as anxiety, sadness, anger and feeling irritable. We often push our symptoms aside and use hormones as an excuse however sometimes, we need a little more support in determining if our emotions are hormonal or something more.
Particularly during your last trimester, being physically comfortable can be difficult. Along with body pains and frequent trips to the bathroom during the night, sleep can become disturbed. Once baby is born, broken sleep during the early months is expected however sleep deprivation can have a significant impact on our health and wellbeing.
Prior mental health
You are at higher risk of developing a perinatal mental health condition if you have experienced mental health problems in the past, however the good news is that with the right treatment and support, the risk of developing and the severity is decreased.
Psychological symptoms of pregnancy
Mood swings during pregnancy are common for a lot of reasons. The constant hormonal dance your body is performing will often strike a chord during your first trimester and towards the your due date. Other factors that impact our mood can be sleep disturbances, pregnancy worry and other external contributing factors.
With the rise in oestrogen and progesterone in your body you may find yourself reaching for the tissues during a TV commercial or feelings of anger if there are no more loaves of bread in the supermarket. As your hormone levels stabilise your mood swings are likely to reduce.
Whilst many may have a giggle about their ‘moody mummy moments’ during pregnancy, if you feel your mood swings are intense and persistent, or are significantly impacting your daily life, please speak to a trusted professional for further assessment and advice.
Stress often creeps up during pregnancy. Financial stress if taking maternity leave, which cot or pram to buy, relationship worries and thoughts about what sort of parent you are going to be often form a part of our pregnancy. The added stress of pandemic restrictions may also impact plans during pregnancy.
Back aches, leg cramps and the feeling of your organs being shuffled around can all impact our regular sleep patterns during pregnancy. The worry of which side to sleep on or not sleep on can be enough to leave you laying in bed awake for hours during the night. This sleep disturbance often leads to exhaustion during the day and for some going to work or caring for older children can become dreaded.
Be kind to yourself. It’s okay to leave the dirty dishes for half an hour to take a nap or indulge in a warm bath. Talk to your boss and explore if there is flexibility in work arrangements. Even putting your feet up with a cuppa for 10 minutes may be enough to recharge your battery.
It’s natural to be concerned for your babies health during pregnancy, particularly if you have not experienced pregnancy before or have experienced pregnancy loss or complications in the past. If you have constant worry or thoughts that something bad is going to happen, this could be an indicator that you have or are developing anxiety.
Ongoing worry may contribute to sleep disturbances, a change in appetite, anxiety attacks or result in trouble focusing on daily tasks. Antenatal anxiety should not be ignored and consider raising this with your midwife at your next antenatal appointment.
Don’t dismiss ‘mummy moments’, if you feel your mood swings are intense and persistent, or are significantly impacting your daily life, please speak to a trusted professional for further assessment and advice.
Psychological disorders in pregnancy
We often talk about the ‘baby blues’ developing shortly after giving birth. This usually starts 3 to 10 days after giving birth, will last a few days and is generally experienced by 80% of new mothers. If the baby blues does not resolve within a few days, this could be an indicator of an emerging mental health condition. Research indicates that up to 1 in 5 women experience depression and / or anxiety in the perinatal period.
Depression and anxiety are the most common mental health conditions diagnosed during the perinatal period. Symptoms vary from person to person and often people ‘suffer in silence’ whilst they focus their attention to their baby. Symptoms may include:
- Feeling sad and frequently crying
- Difficulty concentrating and decision making
- Isolating self from family, friends and supports
- Fatigue and lack of motivation
- Eating more or less than usual
- Little or no joy in daily activities
- Thoughts of harm, death or suicide
- Persistent worry
- Feeling nervous, overwhelmed and stressed
- Sleep disturbance
- Eating more or less than usual
- Being irritable
- Panic attacks (heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating or shaking)
- Avoiding people or places that trigger worry or panic
- Obsessive, intrusive and distressing thoughts
Remember, it’s not just new mums who can experience perinatal mental health. Preparing for and welcoming a baby into your home is a huge life adjustment. Perinatal mental health can also impact dads and partners. 1 in 10 fathers experience depression or anxiety however it often goes undiagnosed. Take the time to talk to your partner and check in on how each of you are feeling. If any concerns arise, seek out a trusted professional and together support each other to access treatment.
How does your mental health affect your baby?
It’s important to address your mental health at any stage of pregnancy and post birth. With untreated mental illness, a new parent may find it harder to care for their baby and find some things distressing like hearing a baby cry or settling a baby during the night.
Parents with untreated mental illness may find bonding with their baby forced and may not feel an “instant connection”. This is okay and is certainly something that can be supported to develop.
What’s most important is that a parent who suspects they may have or are developing some form of perinatal mental illness accesses support as soon as possible.
Perinatal depression and anxiety
If you think you may be experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, it is recommended you seek assessment and treatment. Without treatment, these symptoms may continue or get worse once you have given birth.
Most mental health support services accessed during pregnancy can continue supporting you once you have given birth so you won’t have to worry about getting to know someone else or repeating your story multiple times. Having a plan sooner will likely aid in your feelings of preparedness. Including a family member or close friend in your treatment plan is recommended as this will increase your support network.
Having a plan sooner will likely aid in your feelings of preparedness to deal with any mental health issues or symptoms that may arise. Including a family member or close friend in your treatment plan is recommended to increase your support network.
Tips for managing your mental wellbeing
As parents, we often push our own needs to the background to focus on what our baby requires from us. When it comes to mental health however, focusing on our own wellbeing and supporting your mental health will allow you to care for your baby in the best possible way. By focusing on a few key areas, you are well on your way reducing the risk and/or severity of a mental health condition.
Practicing self-care can be achieved in many ways. Being aware of your physical self by way of nutrition and exercise can prepare yourself to get through the day. Having healthy snacks available and water on hand is an easy way to fuel your body rather than grabbing a tim tam to eat as you walk past the fridge. Get some fresh air and sunshine by taking your baby for a walk or arrange time by yourself to do an activity you enjoy.
If you’ve got a few minutes, call a friend. They will likely be happy for a catch up and often sharing stories of parenting can remind you that you are not alone. Also remember, you are not just a mum, so also chat about things non-baby related that you enjoy.
Share your experience
There are so many ways we can share the highs and lows of your parenting journey. Find a safe social media group, blogging your experience or joining a mother’s group are all great ways we can share our experiences. It’s okay to be honest about your experience because there are MANY that can relate.
Stop smoking and drinking
We have all heard from our doctor and friends that smoking and drinking is a terrible idea during pregnancy. It’s important to be optimistic and see pregnancy as a window of opportunity, there is no bigger motivation than the instinct to protect your baby’s health and to avoid adverse health outcomes for your child.
If someone offers you help, most of the time, they genuinely mean it. It takes a village to raise a child and now is the time to accept a casserole, load of washing being folded or family/friends minding your baby or older children whilst you have some time out.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if someone is struggling. We often walk around with a forced smile and say “everything’s great” when it’s not. There is no shame in reaching out for support. Family and friends are a great starting point however it is understood that sometimes talking to some you don’t know such as a helpline can be easier.
Treatment for perinatal mental health
Mental health conditions such as major depression and anxiety can be treated a number of ways and it’s important to speak with a health care professional to explore which combination of options may be most suitable for you.
- Nutrition and exercise
- Social support
- Talk therapy
How to get a mental health treatment plan
Mental Health Treatment Plans are available through General Practitioners (GP) which, if eligible will provide Medicare rebates for psychologist appointments.
Your GP will ask you some questions regarding how you’ve been feeling and coping and may administer an Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) or K10 tool to further understand your current mental health.
Medicare rebates are available for Mental Health Treatment Plans, which you can access through your General Practitioner.
Seeking independent professional advice
As a new mum, Google has become our new best friend. Searching one simple topic can smother you with thousands of websites and articles which send your sleep-deprived mind in a spin. It is recommended you seek advice from trusted sources such as those below.
- PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia)
- COPE (Centre of Perinatal Excellence)
- Raising Children
- Beyond Blue
- ForWhen – 1300 24 23 22
- PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) — 1300 726 306
- Karitane Careline – 1300 CARING (1300 227 464)
- Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
Maternal mental health is a serious issue that can have a major impact on fetal and child health. Prevention strategies that target this problem can help optimise the health of both mother and child.
Your can also raise your mental health concerns with your local GP or Child and Family Health Nurse who will provide non-judgmental advice.
Pregnancy and early parenthood will be one of your biggest life experiences and full of surprises. You won’t always know what to do or have all the answers, but that’s okay! Learning takes time, patience and support.
Mother and wife to The Wiggles star, Simon, Lauren Hannaford reflects on her own journey of parenthood and says “You’re not alone. Ask questions. Talk about it and be there to support each other”.