By: Heidi Ramos
An estimated one in seven women experiences postpartum (now called peripartum) depression after the birth of their child, according to one study carried out in 2010. It’s also known that peripartum depression has an effect on fathers, although it often goes undiagnosed, partly due to the focus on the mother during the period after birth.
Here is what you should know about the impact of peripartum depression on the mother, father, and child.
What is peripartum depression?
While for many women (and men), having a baby is a wonderful and exciting time, for those who suffer from peripartum depression it can be exhausting, distressing, and difficult.
Peripartum depression used to be commonly known as postpartum depression, and it refers to depression that occurs during pregnancy or after the baby is born. It’s now referred to as peripartum depression because this term recognizes that this type of depression often starts during pregnancy, not only after birth.
It’s important to realize that peripartum depression is not just a case of the ‘baby blues, which affects up to 70 percent of all new mothers. The anxiety, restlessness, irritability, and crying associated with the baby blues generally lasts for a few weeks and usually is resolved without treatment.
Peripartum depression is emotionally and physically draining and can continue for months. Symptoms in the mother include:
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Loss of interest in things she previously enjoyed
- Too much sleep or having trouble sleeping
- Fatigue and loss of energy
- Crying for ‘no reason’
- Lack of interest in the baby, not feeling bonded, or feeling extremely anxious about the baby/being around the baby
- Fear of self-harm or harming the baby
- Thinking of death or suicide
- Changes in appetite
- Feeling guilty or worthless
Peripartum depression can also affect new dads or those who are waiting for their partners to give birth. The peak time for this depression in men is from three to six months after birth, and it often goes undiagnosed because it can look a lot like the stresses and anxiety that are common after having a new baby.
Hormonal changes can also affect new dads – just like with new mums. The changing hormones that play a role include testosterone, cortisol, oestrogen, vasopressin, and prolactin.
Symptoms of peripartum depression in fathers can include:
- Withdrawal from family life, social, and work situations
- Frustration, anger, irritability
- Fear, confusion, and helplessness
- Alcohol and drug use
- Abusive towards partner
- Conflict in the marriage
Can this affect the parent-child relationship?
Yes, absolutely. If peripartum depression is left untreated, it can not only be a problem for the parents but can have a negative effect on the baby. Peripartum depression can often cause bonding problems with the baby, and can add to sleeping and feeding problems. Depression in fathers is associated with the risk of developmental delay, emotional, social, and behavioural problems in their children, and children of mothers with untreated peripartum depression are at greater risk for these problems too.
What kind of anticipatory emotions are related to becoming a parent?
For many parents, the emotions around the pregnancy and birth are positive and joyful, but many new parents struggle to deal with difficult or negative emotions. Everyone seems to expect pregnant women to be happy all the time, and those who don’t feel that way can be embarrassed and ashamed to admit they are not.
It’s normal to have some negative thoughts about becoming a parent, and these often include worries about whether they will be good parents, the birth itself, money problems, or even feeling sad and resentful that their life will completely change.
The reality of fatherhood for dads can come as a big shock, even if they have prepared for it. Some dads will bond with the baby immediately, while others may find it takes longer.
What can friends and family and others do to help?
Support from family and friends is crucial if there is a risk of peripartum depression for either mums or dads, and here are a few important ways loved ones can help:
- Know the signs – those suffering from peripartum depression will often not reach out for help. Keep an eye on the symptoms. If you see signs of depression, let them know that you’re not judging them, but want to help, and urge them to see a health care provider that can offer psychotherapy and/or medication.
- Be a good listener – let the new parents know you’re here to listen when they feel like talking
- Offer support – Do let them know you’re there to help, and offer assistance with household tasks like washing the dishes, or running a load of laundry. You could also offer to watch the baby if you feel comfortable doing so, while mum gets rest or talks to her friends.
- Encourage them to seek help – It can be uncomfortable for many new parents to seek mental health support, as they may see it as a failure on their part. Encourage them to speak to a health care provider or look into therapy, offer to make an appointment, and/or be there with them during the appointment if they want you there.