The internet is full of tips for a healthy pregnancy – eat healthily, do gentle exercise, take your vitamins yada yada yada. All important stuff of course, but what about mentally preparing for this baby? When I was pregnant I was totally focussed on excitedly ticking off the weeks as my due date approached and thinking about the birth. Of course you need to be prepared for the birth, but actually, every mum I’ve spoken to said they didn’t follow their birth plan. You have to go with the flow to a certain extent. And once it’s over, although it provides a great story (I almost gave birth in a deserted corridor but I’ll save that tale for another time) it actually forms a small part of the whole journey of becoming a mother. You don’t want to think that postnatal depression and anxiety will happen to you, but at least if you’ve thought about it and can recognise it, you might be a little better equipped to deal with the black fog if it does seep in. Obviously I didn’t manage to avoid PND but I think these things might have helped…
1. Think about whether you’re likely to be affected.
Unfortunately, postnatal depression affects a lot of women whether they’ve had mental health problems in the past or not.(I haven’t included a statistic here because from what I’ve read it ranges from 1 in 10 to 1 in 3 and that’s only the women who seek help.) If you have had mental health problems in the past, you won’t necessarily get postnatal depression but I think there is no harm in preparing yourself. Other factors which might make you more susceptible include:
- Pregnancy sickness or Hyperemesis Gravidarum – I had horrendous pregnancy sickness which left me bed bound for several weeks. Although I didn’t feel depressed at the time I’m sure it must have contributed to my mental state.
- Having no close friends or family
- Relationship problems
- Stressful life events such as bereavement, loss of job or divorce
- Financial problems
- Illness of your baby
- Difficulty breastfeeding
“Check yourself before you wreck yourself,” says Matt. I think we can shoehorn his input here…
2. Know the symptoms.
Because I’ve had brushes with depression and anxiety in the past, I could recognise the symptoms and was able to get help. It felt like one of the old bouts but worse. But women get all kinds of different symptoms and it must be really scary if you have never had mental health problems before and think you’re just going a bit mad. I know I spent a lot of time googling the symptoms and just feel worse because I didn’t tick all the symptoms on a list or because I seemed to have it very different to other women. That led to all kinds of confusion and inevitably made me feel worse. “Oh, they have it worse than me, therefore I am useless for not being able to cope when mine isn’t even as bad as that” or “Oh, I have it worse than them, therefore I am useless for letting it get this bad and I will probably never get better.” (You absolutely will get better, by the way, so please remember that because you might feel like you’ll never be able to outrun the black dog of PND.) Anyway, the NHS website list of symptoms can be found here.
I didn’t actually get any of the symptoms about Mabel so it must be so much more difficult when you have negative thoughts about your baby as well as everything else…
3. Think about who you could talk to.
I was lucky enough to have Matt, my parents and some friends that I could talk to, as well as a health visitor and doctor, and even then it was hard. So make sure you have someone you can talk to about how you feel.
4. Talk about it early if you think the dark clouds are gathering.
Just start talking to your partner or a friend or parent or whoever. Talk rather than looking on the internet: 99% of the time, what I found on the internet just made me feel worse. Nip this in the bud!
5. Be selfish.
‘Selfish’ is a strong word, actually. It’s not selfish to put yourself first sometimes and say what you want, especially in the early days. For instance, if you decide you don’t want any visitors in the first couple of weeks, then insist on it and stick to it. My wishes weren’t listened to when this is what I wanted, and I had people coming in and out while I was a hormonal, blubbering, milk-leaking zombie with a baby constantly attached to my boob, while also contending with a slow flow of midwives coming and going. And when I did get a bit of time where neither me nor the baby was crying or breastfeeding, I felt like I had to pass my brand new parcel of loveliness to all the people I didn’t want there in the first place! You will never get those first few days back so make sure you make the most of those cuddles and don’t feel pressure to hand him or her over. I wish I had been more insistent about this. I think getting support and making yourself happy in the early days can help prevent the black demons of PND creeping in.
6. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t breastfeed.
I’m going to write a whole post on this another time, but in brief, don’t worry about it. I breastfed for a month and then changed to formula and I think we can all agree that Mabel is hardly wasting away. Don’t compare yourself to other mothers and don’t google things. Just because you don’t have it as bad as some mums it doesn’t mean you have to carry on if it’s not working for you. Also, be aware that midwives and health visitors will all tell you different things which can be really confusing. I’m not sure what to advise about this really; lots of people would say trust your instincts but I overthink things so much that I have no idea what my instincts are trying to tell me!
7. Be aware of your thoughts when you’re on your own.
Having a baby is so wonderful, but they can’t chat much to you at first! In that bit of time around when my PND kicked in, so when Mabel was about 2 months old, I spent a lot of time being pinned down by her napping. If you can enjoy this time that’s fab, but I think it gave me way too much time to think and worry. I didn’t even notice it was happening at first so watch out for the signs. For me, I started to feel anxious and worries about every decision I had ever made and beat myself up about anything I could think of. It was a horrible grotty feeling. I’ve heard it described as a black dog before; sometimes it’s an overweight Labrador squashing the life out of me but most of the time it’s a wiry Jack Russell yapping at my ankles, reminding me of every mistake I’ve ever made.
It can sometimes take a bit of time to identify it, but the sooner you recognise it the sooner you can challenge the thoughts and talk to someone.
8. Don’t feel guilty about anything.
You can’t just switch your feelings off, but you really shouldn’t feel guilty. You’ve done an amazing thing bringing a baby into the world and that little bundle of joy is all you need to concentrate on. Very simply, there is no point worrying about the past because you can’t change it, and there is no point worrying about the future because it isn’t here yet. Of course it’s normal to worry a bit about the future and make some plans, but lots of the ‘what if…’ worries aren’t helpful. I’m going to talk more about this in a post about the cognitive behavioural therapy I had.
9. Postpone other stuff.
If you didn’t manage to divert that pesky thought train before it derailed and caused havoc then try postponing the worries to when you’re feeling stronger. Maternity leave is not the time to reassess your life and make big changes, in my opinion. You have enough on your plate with looking after a shiny new baby and you don’t want to miss out by trying to map out the rest of your life. I think I tried to do this to give me a bit of security because having a baby shakes up your world so much. It might be helpful for some people but I just felt like I was going around in circles. You also tend to be financially worse off during maternity leave because new baby + maternity pay or no pay = poor mama. So you feel like you’ll never afford to do any of these grand plans. Remember that it’s normal to not have much spare money now and as long as you can afford to live, that’s OK. As my brother George says, “You can earn more money but you can’t earn more time.” One of his wiser sayings.
10. Try to get as much sleep as you can.
I’m not saying ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ because I got sick of hearing that! Do it if you can, but you’re not failing if your baby only wants to nap on you and therefore you can’t sleep, or if when you lie down for a nap you’re so hyped up on adrenaline that’s trying to help you cope with this brand new life that you can’t sleep. It’s been proven that anxiety is linked to sleep deprivation so do try and get some zeds if you can.
11. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
It can be tempting to reach for the coffee when you’re exhausted but caffeine can exacerbate anxiety and it certainly makes me more jittery. Any more than one coffee and I get twitchy. Personally I’d rather battle tiredness than anxiety. Alcohol, on the other hand, doesn’t make me anxious but it affects my sleep and the demons come back ten fold the next day. It’s really not worth it.
12. And finally, know that it gets easier.
Having a newborn is totally amazing but it’s pretty difficult! If you love every minute of it that’s brilliant but if you’re finding it hard then just know it will get easier. You won’t always feel like you have no clue what you’re doing and you won’t always be functioning on 2 hours of broken sleep per night. Mabel is almost 7 months old and I actually feel like I know what I’m doing! I’ve even weaned her onto solid food which seemed like an impossible task just a few weeks ago and she is sleeping through the night at last, even though we’ve had about a week of 5am get-ups! Each phase will pass, so enjoy it as much as you can, but if you can’t then remember it will pass soon.