How can we support new mums?

Becoming a mum can be a conflicting time; so many of us feel lonely and overwhelmed. No matter what round of kids we’re on. Following the recent research on new mums and loneliness by AXA PPP Healthcare and Netmums I asked Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Director of psychological health for AXA PPP, a few questions about how we might manage this better. With 10 years of experience as a senior psychologist, he offers expert insight on managing stress, anxiety and depression effectively. Well, that’s three things that most mums have some daily experience of…

How can we better prepare women and support them during this transition? What can we do to help ourselves?

As our research shows, a quarter of new mums feel lonely after the birth of their child, which is understandable particularly once their partners have returned to work. A key way to tackle this is through education: if new mums speak to their friends and family members who have been through the same experience, they can set realistic expectations about the post-birth period. A lot of people don’t speak out about the isolation they experienced on maternity leave. Being open and honest about this experience allows others to help you if you are a new mum, and helps other new mums know what to expect.

We were also surprised to find that a fifth of people don’t go to antenatal classes. Everybody should be going to these as they are readily available and free. They provide a valuable source of education, as well being a great way to meet other people preparing for the arrival of their baby. They are a fantastic tool for establishing a network of other new mums.

In other cultures, new mums are nurtured and looked after for several weeks after birth by the extended family. Here, beyond the first couple of weeks, new mums are pretty much left to their own devices. In your opinion, how does this impact on them psychologically and does it contribute to conditions such as post natal depression?

Due to changes in social circumstances, for example living further away for families due to work, and women waiting longer to become a mother due to their careers, it is now quite common for women to be without the traditional family network. Our research found that a quarter of new mums have no family nearby. 

This can, of course, have a big effect on the mental wellbeing of new mums, and increase feelings of isolation and loneliness.

I’d advise roping in as many people as you can to help in the weeks immediately after the birth. Make sure you’ve had a conversation with your partner – where possible – to discuss how they can help and what their role can be. Try and do the same with local friends.

As I mentioned above, antenatal classes help to create an instant network with other new mums so you can share your experiences. A lot of places will have mum and baby groups, or coffee mornings, which you can go to.

Social media can also help you to forge new relationships, putting you in touch with others nearby.

What do we know about the causes of post natal depression? Can it be avoided? 

Postnatal depression (PND) is more common than people think, and affects 10-15% of new mums, or 1 in 10. Because it’s a reasonable likelihood, it’s important for both new mums and their families to be aware of the signs and symptoms to look out for.

There are various risk factors that can contribute to developing PND. Pre-existing mental health problems, feelings of isolation and loneliness, going through major life events such as moving house or changing jobs, and the breakdown of a relationship or marriage can all put new people at greater risk.

The symptoms are similar to the symptoms of depression. With PND the feelings of isolation that are normal for new mums become overwhelming. Sufferers will often withdraw from wanting to see people and lose their appetite or sex drive. It is also common to have trouble sleeping. In more severe cases, thoughts about self harm can develop, and in extreme cases thoughts about harming the baby can occur.

To avoid PND it is crucial to identify it early, both by the mother herself and by her support network, or the medical professionals involved in her care. The baby blues is a normal phenomenon – I will discuss this further on – however if the feelings last for two or more weeks, or become more severe, then you must make people aware so they can help.

It’s also important to be realistic: sometimes PND is nobody’s fault and it just happens. If it happens to you, you and your partner shouldn’t blame yourselves. You should seek support, like you would for any other illness.

Lots of women develop anxiety, particularly health anxiety and a fear of their own mortality, after having a baby. Is this a natural reaction to suddenly being responsible for another life? How can an anxious mum deal with this?

It is a completely normal reaction to develop concern and worries about caring for and being responsible for a new life. All new mums will have periods like this. Up to 10% of new mums develop Postpartum Anxiety Disorder when they have more pronounced symptoms including feelings of extreme anxiety and recurring panic attacks, including shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, agitation, and excessive worry or fears.  The three common fears experienced by women with a Postpartum Panic Disorder are: 1) fear of dying, 2) fear of losing control, and/or 3) fear that one is going crazy. It is known to be associated with a previous history of anxiety or panic disorder, and thyroid dysfunction.

New mums who are anxious should be reassured that is it normal to have concerns and worries, however if they develop into something more they should talk to their GP or health visitor. Support and treatment can include counselling, medication and talking therapies.

Another major cause of anxiety is breast-feeding: new mums who feel they are failing at breastfeeding often withdraw because of feelings of failure and embarrassment. Don’t withdraw,  seek help and advice, three quarters of women really struggle so you’re not alone.

Lack of sleep is one of the hardest things new mums have to get to grips with. We are told to sleep when the baby sleeps but this isn’t always realistic. Is there anything a new mum can do to maximise the benefits of any sleep she IS able to get? 

Even though babies sleep for 18 hours a day or more, it is incredibly difficult to get a good amount of quality sleep. Try to sleep and rest when your baby is sleeping as far as possible. It can be challenging to juggle all the other activities you’d like to do in the day, but be realistic about what you can achieve. Setting reachable goals can reduce anxiety about sleep and activity. Maximising sleep time and quality of sleep depends very much on syncing with the baby’s sleep patterns. Use all the support available from your partner, family and friends – once the baby is fed and settled, let them look after it for a while so you can catch up on some rest.

Experts are now saying that baby brain isn’t a real phenomenon? But us mums know differently! Do we ever recover from it?

During pregnancy mums to be often feel different and may be thinking differently. This could be due to a number of factors including hormones, emotions, increased distractions and tiredness. Concerns about the pregnancy, future birth and baby can be overwhelming at times.

Baby brain, or the baby blues, are very real. We know that most new mums between 3 and 10 days will feel some form of emotional upset as their hormones change and revert back to their pre-pregnancy state. It’s important that new mums and their partners accept this phenomenon, and trust that it will be resolved of its own accord.

Supporting new mums is important. We all have a responsibility to look after them. If you know of a new mum, check in on them. If you’re a new mum yourself and you’re struggling, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. From your partner, a friend, a neighbour, your health visitor. There’s no shame in putting your hand up and saying, ‘I’m finding this hard.’ We all do. For an online community come and join Surviving Life and Motherhood. Where empathy, humour and cake reign… Also check out the New Baby Trilogy and learn about the wonderful Fourth Trimester. Where yes, there’s more cake.

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