Understanding Emotional Health & Postnatal Depression

Understanding Your Emotional Health – What are Postnatal Depression & Anxiety ?

mother and baby
Depression and Anxiety in the Perinatal Period

Becoming a parent is a major life transition. Although it is a time of celebration and new beginning, it also brings with it significant changes and challenges. Many parents struggle to adjust to the changes, and some parents experience postnatal depression and/or anxiety at some point during the perinatal period. The perinatal period includes pregnancy and the first year following childbirth.

How common is postnatal depression and anxiety
Approximately 9% of women experience depression at any given time during pregnancy (also known as antenatal depression). Following childbirth, 13% of women experience depression (also known as postnatal depression). Anxiety is at least as common as depression during the perinatal period.
What are the symptoms of depression and anxiety?

Depression and anxiety can start at any time during the perinatal period and can come on suddenly or develop gradually. The symptoms are no different to depression and anxiety experienced at any other time in one’s life. The symptoms of depression include:

A. Feeling sad or unhappy most of the day
B. Loss of pleasure or interest in most activities
C. Significant weight loss or gain, decrease or increase in appetite, unrelated to pregnancy.
D. Difficulty sleeping or over-sleeping
E. Feeling restless or slowed down
F. Fatigue or loss of energy
G. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt
H. Difficulties thinking, concentrating or making decisions
I. Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Anxiety often goes hand in hand with depression. A certain level of anxiety and drive are necessary in order to motivate us to carry out our daily tasks and responsibilities. However, when this level of anxiety gets too high it can interfere with our ability to complete tasks and enjoy life. Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Constantly worrying about many things, for example, your baby’s health, finances, relationships, etc.
  • Panic attacks, heart beating really fast, trembling, sweating
  • Feeling like some terrible is going to happen
How do Women Describe their Experiences ?

Jessica Rowe, an Australian news presenter, experienced postnatal depression after the birth of her baby in 2007. Watch Jessica’s experience of PND, taken from beyondblue’s DVD Stories of Hope & Recovery.

What causes depression and anxiety in the perinatal period ?

There is no single definite cause of depression and anxiety during the perinatal period, however, a number of factors have been found to increase a woman’s risk of developing postnatal depression.

The most established risk factors include:

  1. Antenatal depression
  2. Antenatal anxiety
  3. Limited support (particularly from partner)
  4. Major life changes or events
  5. History of depression
  6. Low self-esteem`

Tips to help you start on the road to recovery:

  1. Let someone know how you are feeling.
  2. Ask for and accept help from others.
  3. Spend quality time with your partner and keep in touch with family and friends.
  4. Make time to play with your baby each day. It can be helpful to join a mother-infant playgroup.
  5. Make a little time each day to do something nice for yourself that you find enjoyable (e.g., reading a magazine or book, having a bath, going for a walk).
  6. Look after yourself by exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet, and getting enough sleep (this might mean napping when your baby does).
  7. Seek help from a health professional.
pregnant woman

Different Treatment Options

Women experiencing depression may have difficulty recognising symptoms or may be unaware of the treatments available.

Postnatal Depression & Anxiety Can Be Effectively Treated

The first step in recovering from depression and anxiety is to recognise it and ask for some help.

  • Speaking with your GP and Maternal Child Health Nurse can ensure you get a thorough assessment and discussion about treatment options.
  • Support and understanding from friends and family and being able to talk about your feelings with other women experiencing similar problems can also be helpful.
  • Information and support can also be obtained from self-help books, telephone support services and Internet resources.

It is important to remember that PND can and will improve with time and the appropriate treatment. This can be helpful and sufficient for some women depending on the severity of their symptoms.


Psychological Therapies

In psychological therapy, you and your psychologist will work through your difficulties and you will learn coping strategies to help improve your mood.

Given the effects of depression and anxiety on a woman’s relationships with her baby and partner, mother-infant groups and/or couple therapy are also helpful for many women.

PIRI’s research programs involve cutting edge interventions and are free of charge. They can help not only you, but may help others in the future. Click here to link to PIRI’s free treatment trials.


At times, when depression is moderate or severe, your health professional may prescribe antidepressant medication. This is often recommended to be taken in conjunction with psychological treatment, or if other treatments are not helping. There is a wide range of antidepressants that can be prescribed, but your doctor can determine which is the right medication for you. Many women are concerned about taking medication during pregnancy and while breastfeeding because of the possible risk to the baby. This is an important consideration and should be discussed with a GP or Psychiatrist who will weigh the risks and benefits to both mother and baby.

Mother and Baby Units

In some cases, where PND is seriously affecting a mother and her baby, health professionals may recommend a stay in a Mother and Baby Unit. Mothers can be referred to Mother and Baby Units by psychiatrists, GPs, obstetricians or paediatricians if a mother is experiencing severe depressive symptoms or is at risk of harming herself or others. During her stay, mothers will receive specialised treatment and monitoring, especially if complicated medical issues are involved. These units provide a safe space, support and assistance for the mother, while health professionals determine the right treatment option for when she returns home. Mothers and babies are stay together where possible, or close contact is maintained, if it is not possible.

Other Mental Health Conditions

Women who experience depression after the birth of their baby may also experience other mental health conditions in conjunction with PND. Anxiety frequently co-exists with PND: approximately 40% of women who experience PND also have an anxiety disorder. Other mental health conditions can also co-exist with PND such as:

  • Eating Disorders, commonly Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa.
  • Postpartum Psychosis which is very rare, but can involve having strange beliefs that are not based in reality and feeling irritable or full of energy.
  • Bipolar Disorder which involves cycles of both manic (high energy) and depressed symptoms.

Learn more about PND and other mental health conditions that can occur in the perinatal period. Click here.

The Mother-Baby Relationship

Who is affected by postnatal depression and anxiety?

Depression and anxiety in the perinatal period can have a negative impact not only on the woman but also on her baby. The symptoms of depression and anxiety can make it difficult to engage in joyful parenting and impact upon the interactions between mother and baby.

PND can have a negative impact on the attachment relationship between the mother and her baby. Infants are very sensitive to the care they receive, and symptoms of depression can make it difficult for mothers and babies to bond. Mothers who are depressed may not be able to provide consistent responses to her infant if she is feeling irritable and withdrawn.

The Importance of Play

Infants come into the world with a huge capacity to establish human connections. Engaging with your baby through play, massage or talking are some good ways of developing a secure relationship, while helping them to learn and develop. What play involves depends on the developmental age of your baby. It starts with very simple things involving their senses, looking, listening, touching and tasting and as baby develops more complex things can be included.Here are some materials that you may find useful when playing and interacting with your baby:

  1. Games you can play with your Baby tipsheet
  2. Infant Development- Exploration clip from Baby2 Series
  3. What play does for you and your baby tipsheet
  4. Baby Massage tipsheet

What About Fathers ?

Depression and anxiety can also put strain on a woman’s relationship with her partner. Some partners may find they are having difficulty coping themselves and may need to seek help for their own emotional well-being.

Men can experience PND too

As you can imagine, having a baby can cause many changes in your life: financial, emotional and social, but the sheer number and magnitude of these changes may be overwhelming. You may feel you are often criticized and ‘left out’ with no free time just for you. It may surprise you that some men may also experience the symptoms of depression in conjunction with their partners.

How can I support my partner ?

In addition to all the other changes in your life, you may discover that your partner is experiencing difficulties adjusting to motherhood, depression, or anxiety. Here’s some tips for what you can do to help:

  • Your partner needs you to be there and to listen to her concerns and to believe what she is feeling.
  • Be as patient as you can.
  • Don’t try to convince her that she is worrying over nothing – show you do care about her feelings and encourage her to express them.
  • Just ask how she feels.
  • All you have to do is listen – you don’t have to fix the problem yourself.

See Darren Jolly describe what helped for him and his family.

Click here for our expert tips for new Dads.

Dads need to look after themselves too!

As a father, you might feel like you have to be the strong one when it comes to supporting your partner through PND, and may not recognise your own needs for support.

The demands put on you at this time- sleep deprivation, work commitments, home duties, child care, and visits to health professionals- can make you feel tired, confused and possibly angry and guilty. You may also feel uncertain and insecure about your relationship or possibly disconnected from your partner.

Depression, anxiety and emotional stress could be affecting you. You may have the full range of depressive symptoms or you may find yourself experiencing other emotions such as confusion, helplessness or anger and resentment.

Where do I get help for myself if I need it ?

If you feel like you are struggling to cope, overwhelmed, depressed or confused, you may wish to discuss this with your doctor. Remember that the Medicare rebate for psychological sessions applies for men too. Talk to your GP for a referral.

Some useful contacts for you are:

Most importantly, seek help as soon as you think you need it. Being quick on the draw is the best approach to deal with depression and to care for your own health in general.

Special Challenges for Young Mothers

Perinatal Depression in Young Mothers

Depression and anxiety can occur during pregnancy or in the days, weeks or months after your baby is born, that is, in the perinatal period. It’s quite common: around 14% of women and about 5% of fathers feel depressed in their baby’s first year.  Anxiety is thought to be just as common as depression, and new mums often experience anxiety and depression at the same time.

If you think you might be struggling with depression or anxiety, have a look at the following questions:

  1. During the past month, have you felt down, depressed or hopeless ?
  2. During the past month, have you not felt like doing things you used to enjoy?
  3. Do you sometimes worry so much that it affects your day-to-day life ?

Did you answer ‘yes’ to any of these? If you did, maybe you should think about talking to your Maternal Child Health Nurse or GP about what’s going on for you.

People who have depression experience some or all of these things:
  • Feeling down, sad, or snappy
  • Not enjoying or wanting to do the things you usually enjoy
  • Not being able to go to sleep, waking in the night, or sleeping too much;
  • Not feeling hungry or eating too much; weight loss or weight gain
  • Not having much motivation to do things
  • Feeling really restless or having no energy at all
  • Difficultly thinking clearly or making decisions
People may also experience anxiety symptoms like:
  • Worrying so much it gets in the way of doing normal things
  • Panic attacks, heart beating really fast, trembling, or feeling like some terrible is going to happen

What causes perinatal depression and anxiety?

A wide range of factors contribute to perinatal depression and anxiety, there is no single cause.

Risk factors include:
  • Your mental health problems (anxiety and depression) in the past, especially during pregnancy – including eating disorders
  • Mental health problems of others in your family
  • If you don’t have support from family, partner, or friends
  • Family violence or abuse, either now or in the past
  • Using alcohol or drugs
  • Stressful events like difficult pregnancy or birth, someone close to you dying, not having somewhere safe or permanent to live

Difficulties that young mums might face

Relationship challenges

Getting used to parenthood is a very big change. It affects all relationships, including ones with your partner, your parents and your friends. Perinatal depression is a bit more common due to the fact that a lot of young mums may experience an unplanned and even unwanted pregnancy, have trouble keeping up with old friends who may still be at school, and may feel they get criticism and judgement for being a young mother.

Many young mothers feel isolated and very different to their peers because they must suddenly be a parent, responsible for a baby, whereas everyone else their age is out partying or worrying about homework and other self focused issues. Many young mothers comment that they feel like they are not socially accepted by their community.

Bonding with your baby

picture of happy mother with baby

When it comes to bonding with your baby, many mothers put a lot of pressure on themselves that if it isn’t instant, it won’t happen at all. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen immediately or within the first few weeks of birth. A mother’s relationship with her baby is ongoing and is constantly developing. Having depression or anxiety might put some extra stress on this and other relationships, but with the right support, it will all work out.

Getting help

There is help available for depression and anxiety. See our Different Treatment Options section to help you find out which is the right choice for you.

It’s also a good idea to connect with other young mums who feel the same way you do and who understand what it’s like being a young mum!

Mum Mood Booster

PIRI has developed a free, online treatment for depression and anxiety for new mums: Mum Mood Booster (MMB).

  • Each online session can be completed whenever you’re ready, wherever you are.
  • You will get to talk to a psychologist throughout the program
  • You will get paid to complete some questionnaires!
  • If you are over 18, have a baby under 12 months old and are not receiving other treatment, you might be able to join.

Interested? Click here!