Antenatal depression and postnatal depression: what are they?

Antenatal depression is depression that happens during pregnancy. Postnatal depression is depression that happens after birth. Both are serious, negative emotional changes that last longer than two weeks and stop you from doing things you need or want to do in your daily life.

Antenatal and postnatal depression have the same symptoms and are treated in the same way. The only difference between them is the timing.

Antenatal and postnatal depression are more than the emotional changes that you might expect during pregnancy and just after birth. For example, pregnant women might expect to feel quite emotional as they go through big physical and practical changes during this time. And new mothers can expect to get the ‘baby blues’ a couple of days after having a baby. But these kinds of emotional changes don’t last long.

You might hear antenatal and postnatal depression referred to together as perinatal depression.

If you or your partner is experiencing symptoms of depression, you need professional help and family support. When you know the signs and symptoms of antenatal and postnatal depression, you can get help as early as possible.

Symptoms of antenatal depression and postnatal depression

The experience of antenatal and postnatal depression can vary from person to person.

If you’ve been in a low or irritable mood or have lost interest in things you’d normally enjoy, this is something to take seriously. You might also notice changes in your emotions and thinking, behaviour and social life, and general physical wellbeing, like those listed below.

If you experience any of the changes below for more than two weeks, it’s important to seek professional support. It’s also important to let your health professional know if you’ve experienced mental illness in the past. Past mental illnesses can come back in pregnancy.

Emotional changes
You might:

  • be in a low mood a lot of the time
  • often feel teary or sad
  • lose confidence
  • feel angry or cranky
  • feel overwhelmed
  • fear being alone or going out
  • fear being alone with your baby.

Thinking changes
You might:

  • think that everything that goes wrong is your fault, or that you’re worthless or a failure
  • think your baby would be better off with someone else
  • think ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I can’t cope’
  • have trouble thinking clearly, concentrating or making decisions
  • think that your baby doesn’t love you
  • think about hurting yourself or your baby.

Behaviour and social changes
You might:

  • lose interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • find it hard to get moving
  • struggle with everyday tasks like cooking or shopping
  • withdraw from close family and friends
  • not look after yourself properly.

Physical changes
You might have:

  • sleep problems – for example, you can’t sleep or you’re sleeping a lot more than usual
  • changes in appetite – for example, you’re not eating or you’re overeating
  • low energy levels.

A small number of women experience postnatal psychosis in the first few weeks after birth. If you’re worried that you or your partner is acting or thinking differently from your usual self, speak to your GP as soon as you can.

If you’re having thoughts about hurting yourself or your family, you should urgently speak to your GP or call Lifeline Asia on 131 114. If you believe that someone’s life is in immediate danger, call 000 or go to your local hospital’s emergency department.

Getting help for antenatal depression and postnatal depression

If you think you might have antenatal or postnatal depression, early professional help is important.

There are many people and services you can go to for help with antenatal and postnatal depression:

If you’re unsure, your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services. Getting appropriate support will help you manage symptoms and feel better sooner.

Some women think that asking for help means they’ll be separated from their babies. But health services are there to help you recover so that you can bond with your baby and be the parent you want to be.

Treatment for antenatal depression and postnatal depression

There are many treatment options that can help you if you’re experiencing symptoms of antenatal or postnatal depression. Your doctor will talk with you about a treatment plan that suits your personal circumstances and age, as well as the type and severity of your depression.

Here are some treatment options for antenatal and postnatal depression.

Psychological therapy
Psychological treatments for antenatal and postnatal depression include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT). These therapies aim to help you manage feelings of depression and anxiety.

A counsellor might help you one on one, or in a group with others who are experiencing similar symptoms.

Your GP can give you a Mental Health Care Plan so you can get a Medicare rebate for 6-10 sessions per year.

Medication
Doctors sometimes recommend antidepressant medication for antenatal and postnatal depression. There are many different types of antidepressants, including some that you can safely use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

For many people, medication used together with psychological therapy can work very well.

Hospital admission
It isn’t common for women to need hospital admission for antenatal or postnatal depression. Health professionals might consider admitting women to hospital if women feel suicidal or have thoughts of harming themselves or their babies. You should your GP urgently or go to your local hospital’s emergency department if you feel like this. GPs and hospital staff can give you the help and support you need.

Practical strategies for antenatal depression and postnatal depression

If you or someone close to you has antenatal or postnatal depression, here are some practical strategies to help.

Emotional support
Getting emotional support from your partner, family and friends is an important way to cope with antenatal and postnatal depression. Talking to someone who can understand how you’re feeling can help you to manage some of the symptoms.

A parent group, playgroup or therapy group can be another source of emotional support. At these groups you can meet other people to share your experiences with.

Help at home
Your partner, family and close friends can give you practical help at home. It's good to ask someone you trust to come over regularly and help with household chores or baby care. Help at home gives you a chance to rest, sleep or do something relaxing. It’s also a good source of company, which is important for your recovery.

There’s no need to feel guilty about asking for this kind of help. Many people like to help out and will be glad if you ask them to do something specific.

Looking after yourself
Your emotional wellbeing and your physical health are directly related. You can look after both by:

  • getting regular exercise – any way you can get some movement into your day is good
  • eating well – keep some simple food handy, like fruit, yoghurt, wholegrain bread and fresh vegetables cut up ready to eat with dips
  • trying to manage stress
  • trying to rest – sleep when your baby is sleeping, go to bed early, and nap whenever you can.

Men experience antenatal and postnatal depression too. In fact, up to 1 in 10 men experiences depression during pregnancy or after baby is born.

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