Depression around childbirth is one of the most common yet least discussed medical conditions in Australia.
Having a baby can be a time of joy for some mothers, but can cause anxiety and depression for others. It’s very common for new mothers to experience a short period of distress following childbirth, often referred to as “baby blues”. Usually this passes quite quickly. For more than one in 10 women, however, this distressing experience can be more prolonged and may be diagnosed as postnatal or postpartum depression (PND/PPD).
But women aren’t the only ones who experience this. Research has found that fathers can also have postnatal depression, which can affect their children’s early behaviour.
“Our findings indicate that paternal depression has a specific and persisting detrimental effect on their children’s early behavioural and emotional development,” says psychiatrist Dr Paul Ramchandani of the University of Oxford.
Baby boys are more affected when their fathers are depressed and, as they grow, experience double the behavioural, emotional or social problems, including hyperactivity, that other children do.
“It may be that boys are specifically sensitive to the effects of parenting by fathers, perhaps because of different involvement by fathers with their sons.”
Elly Taylor, author of Becoming Us, says, “Studies have shown that the higher the stress levels in expectant fathers, the lower the level of satisfaction in the relationship, in their attachment to their unknown baby, and the more likely they are to become depressed afterwards.”
Men suffering from PPD report feelings of uselessness, inadequacy or failure, and of resentment or jealousy towards the baby.
Other indicators include:
- Irritability, anger and anxiety
- Headaches, pain and tiredness
- Feelings of being overwhelmed, out of control and unable to cope
- Changes in appetite
- Risk-taking behaviour, including increased use of drugs and alcohol
- Disrupted sleep (not associated with the baby waking)
- Feeling isolated or disconnected from his partner, family or friends
- Withdrawing from family, friends and community
- Increased working hours.
What to do
There are support networks available to assist men to recover from PPD and it is important that they seek help.
Like any major depression, PPD requires early intervention to recover without any long-term negative outcomes. There are many things that can be done to aid recovery:
Seek professional help
Postpartum depression can affect the whole family.
Research has shown that dads with PPD find it difficult to support their partner, which can impact the way she feels about caring for the baby. Seek outside help.
Look after yourself
Take time out for yourself and build a support network. Look after your physical and mental wellbeing by doing things such as hobbies or practical activities. Get regular exercise. Improve your relationship with your partner.
Get involved with the baby
Fathers who feel confident caring for their baby develop a strong bond with them, making them less likely to become depressed.
Supporting a partner with postnatal depression
Whether it’s mum or dad struggling with PPD, there are some ways partners or others can offer support.
A depressive illness can be seen as a roller-coaster ride—some days are more “up” than others. There will be good days when the person feels happy and plans something positive yet when the time comes they may not be able to cope. Remain optimistic that this will pass, even on days that feel like such a struggle.
Be emotionally supportive
It’s common for new parents to feel emotional as they go through the physical (for mum) and practical changes of pregnancy and birth. Listening and reassuring your partner that these feelings are normal will go a long way.
Looking after a new baby is a demanding and exhausting job, so it’s really important to let your partner know that you appreciate what a great job she’s doing. You can also recognise that they might be tired and let them know that you appreciate everything they are doing.
You can do a lot to help your partner in practical ways, like doing household chores and extra baby care jobs. If you can do these things without being asked, it will be one less thing your partner has to worry about. It’s also important that you’re an emotional presence for your partner.
When looking after someone else it’s important that you also take care of yourself. By looking after your own wellbeing you are in a better position to provide support to your partner.
Eating healthy food gives you the energy needed to care for your baby and support your partner. Finding time to cook may be difficult, so if friends and family offer to cook meals for you, accept them. You can buy prepared meals, soups and salads and, if you have time, you can prepare and freeze some other healthy meals to eat during the week.
Family and friends
Support and patience from family and friends are important factors in a parent’s recovery. Discussing their feelings, especially in support groups or to a professional counsellor, is very helpful. Depending on the severity of the depression, anti-depressant medications and other treatments may help. It’s important to be aware that PND is a temporary condition that will improve with time.
Hints for dads: How to support your partner during her postnatal depression
- Be patient.
- Encourage your partner to talk about her feelings.
- Try to understand her point of view.
- Don’t take her negative feelings or criticisms personally.
- Tactfully limit visitors if she doesn’t feel like socialising.
- Enlist the aid of other family members to help around the house, if and when they can, including with babysitting.
- Tell her often that you love her.
- Show her you love her with cuddles, baby care and housework.
- Don’t criticise her post-pregnancy body or demand she lose weight, as she may already feel low about her appearance.
- Care for the baby after work to promote your parent–child relationship, while giving your partner a much-needed break.
- If you are worried, encourage her to see a doctor.
- Go to the doctor yourself for information and advice, if your partner initially refuses to go.
- Reassure her that, with appropriate help and support, she will recover from PPD.
Source: Postnatal depression www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/postnatal-depression-pnd
- Another Twinkle in the Eye, Elaine A Hanzak, CRC Press, Florida, U.S.A, 2016
- Becoming Us, Elly Taylor, Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney, Australia, 2011