Symptoms of postnatal depression

Postnatal depression can affect women in different ways. They can begin to have symptoms soon after the birth which can last for months, or in severe cases for more than a year.

Key symptoms are:

  • a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
  • loss of interest in the world around you and no longer enjoying things that used to give pleasure
  • lack of energy and feeling tired all the time (fatigue)

Other symptoms can include:

  • disturbed sleep, such as not being able to fall asleep during the night (insomnia) and then being sleepy during the day
  • difficulties with concentration and making decisions
  • low self-confidence
  • poor appetite or an increase in appetite (“comfort eating”)
  • feeling very agitated or alternatively very apathetic (can’t be bothered)
  • feelings of guilt and self-blame
  • thinking about suicide and self-harming

Postnatal depression can interfere with your day-to-day life. Some women feel unable to look after their baby, or feel too anxious to leave the house or keep in touch with friends.

Frightening thoughts

Some women who have postnatal depression get thoughts about harming their baby. This is quite common, affecting around half of all women with the condition. You may also have thoughts about harming or killing yourself. These thoughts do not mean you are a bad mother, and it is very rare for either mother or baby to be harmed.

However, it is vital you see your GP if you have these or other symptoms of postnatal depression. Treatment will benefit both your health and the healthy development of your baby, as well as your relationship with your partner, family and friends.

Seeking help for postnatal depression does not mean you are a bad mother or unable to cope.

Spotting the signs in others

Many mothers do not recognise they have postnatal depression, and do not talk to family and friends about their true feelings.

It’s therefore important for partners, family members and friends to recognise signs of postnatal depression at an early stage. Warning signs include:

  • They frequently cry for no obvious reason.
  • They have difficulties bonding with their baby.
  • They seem to be neglecting themselves – for example, not washing or changing clothes.
  • They seem to have lost all sense of time – often unaware if 10 minutes or two hours have passed.
  • They lose all sense of humour and cannot see the funny side of anything.
  • They worry something is wrong with their baby, regardless of reassurance.

If you think someone you know has postnatal depression, encourage them to open up and talk about their feelings to you, a friend, GP or health visitor. 

Postnatal depression needs to be properly treated and isn’t something you can just snap out of.

Postnatal psychosis

A rarer and more serious mental health condition that can develop after birth is known as postnatal psychosis, thought to affect around 1 in 1,000 women.

Symptoms of postnatal psychosis include:

  • bipolar-like symptoms – feeling depressed one moment and very happy the next
  • believing things that are obviously untrue and illogical (delusions) – often relating to the baby, such as thinking the baby is dying or that either you or the baby have magical powers
  • seeing and hearing things that are not really there (hallucination) – this is often hearing voices telling you to harm the baby

Postnatal psychosis is regarded as an emergency. If you are concerned someone you know may have developed postnatal psychosis, contact your GP immediately. If this is not possible, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 or your local out-of-hours service.

If you think there is a danger of imminent harm to you, your partner or your baby, call your local A&E services and ask to speak to the duty psychiatrist.  

Postnatal OCD

Some women develop a mental health condition called obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) after giving birth. People with OCD experience unwanted (and often unpleasant) thoughts, images or urges (obsessions) that cause them to feel a need to carry out repetitive behaviours (compulsions) to avoid the realisation of these obsessions.

OCD can often be treated with behavioural therapy or medication.

You can find out more about this type of OCD on the Maternal OCD website and the OCD-UK website.

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