Feeling blue after having your baby? Here’s why & what you can do

Reading time: 6 min

You arrive at home with your beautiful new baby and he is completely dependent on you. Suddenly your mind is flooded with thoughts of your hopes and dreams for him; you are conscious of his needs and the fact that he will have aspirations of his own one day. Suddenly you feel completely out of your depth and unable to embrace this gift you have been given: motherhood.

As Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz says, “There’s no place like home!” You’ve brought your newborn home and joy has filled the rooms. Why then are you suddenly behaving strangely, feeling odd and having erratic thoughts? Rest assured that what you are experiencing makes you no different from any other new mother. You have the “baby or postpartum blues”.

Normal postpartum emotional reactions

  • You feel low or down, sad without a reason
  • You are tearful and moody
  • You have feelings of confusion, fear and inadequacy as well as thoughts of failure

Be kind and allow yourself to experience these understandable emotional responses to childbirth without self-judgement or self-guilt. While you are struggling to ride these turbulent waves of emotion, you are trying to make sense of the different forms of advice about what and what not to do to that you have received from professionals, family and friends, and even well-intentioned strangers. Nursing moms will experience intensified emotions.

Will it pass?

The baby blues may creep in three or four days after birth and may last for a couple of weeks. Everyone is unique and you may still find you have a mood swing or two, or shed a few “irrational” tears six weeks down the line. However, these are not consistent, unrelenting actions or emotions.

 How do I get through this?

  • Talk to a member of your family or a friend; cry if you need to; be quiet when you need to, and cuddle and spend time alone with your baby getting to know each other.
  • Your partner may be feeling helpless and desperate to comfort you – allow this special person to be there for you.
  • Consider the facts and remember that the rest is just what it is – advice. You and your baby will decide what works for the two of you!

Postpartum depression wordcloud on writing board

These feelings are getting worse …

If there is no improvement, you’re feeling worse or what you feel is more intense than has been described, you may be suffering something more serious like postnatal depression (PND) or perinatal distress. According to the Perinatal Mental Health Project, one in three South African women will experience depression during or after childbirth. PND can set in as early as the first week after birth and can be triggered by the following:

  • Pre-existing depression
  • A difficult or traumatic delivery
  • Lack of family or support during pregnancy and postpartum

Signs and symptoms

  • Consistent feelings of worthlessness, despair and the inability to cope
  • A sense of impending doom and suicidal thoughts
  • No sense of emotional connection to your baby – you know you should feel something “special”, but you don’t?
  • Inappropriate feelings towards the well-being of the baby: extreme concern or complete disinterest
  • Loss of or change in appetite
  • Fatigue and exhaustion during the daytime but inability to sleep
  • Headaches, chest pains and numbness – caused by anxiety
  • Unexplained anger

What to do?

  1. Early identification is the key, and treatment is essential for recovery.
  2. Partners, friends and family need to be aware of the signs and symptoms as they will very often be the first to notice if all is not well.
  3. Trust your instincts! If you or your partner feels that something is seriously wrong with you, seek help from your doctor.

“Baby blues affects 60-80% of mothers. PND affects 10-20% of mothers.”

Diagnosis, treatment and recovery

After diagnosis, you will be prescribed suitable antidepressants that will be safe to take if you are breastfeeding. These are essential to:

  • Increase the level of serotonin (feel-good hormone) in your brain and restore a chemical balance
  • Help calm you and enable you to sleep

You may be advised to seek individual therapy and/or group counselling. There are various support groups available as there are many other mothers out there who are also suffering from PND.

How others can help?

Partners, friends and family can provide help and support on two levels:

  • Practical: Help with household chores where possible. Remember to first ask the new mother what help she needs as you don’t want to add to her feelings of worthlessness or inadequacy.
  • Emotional: Listen to the tears and respect her space; ask whether or not she wants to be consoled or comforted and do not force her to talk about her feelings.
  • Ask her if you can accompany her to some therapy sessions: How else will you know what she is thinking and feeling?

Risk factors for PND

PND can affect anyone! However, there are certain characteristics to alert you to the possibility:

  • Perfectionists
  • Anxious or highly strung individuals
  • Mothers of multiples
  • Women who suffer from severe PMS
  • A history of depression

Warning signs for depression in dads

Yes, dad, you too can be depressed. Are you:

  • Very anxious about being a father?
  • Concerned by the change that is happening in your life; overwhelmed by the upheaval?
  • Confused and hurt because you should be happy about the baby and you aren’t?
  • Afraid of the future?
  • Reacting to situations in unpredictable ways?

If so, you may be suffering from depression after the birth of your baby and should seek the help and advice of your doctor! There is never any shame in admitting your feelings, acknowledging your depression and embracing treatment. Depression is serious and requires medical intervention.

Contact the following for help:

  • South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG): 011 262 6396 or 0800 567 567, or visit www.sadag.org.