The term 'postnatal depression' conjures up a variety of images. Postnatal depression, especially in mothers, is frequently used as a trope in books, films and TV. Some of these representations can be hurtful and some hit home, but it's important not to shy away from the facts. Understanding the basics about postnatal depression can go a long way towards getting the discussion out in the open and helping mothers and their families deal with this complex experience

What is postnatal depression?

It's important to understand that there is a range of feelings that women experience following the birth of their child. There are three categorised postnatal mood disorders that can affect women, with each differing in severity and longevity.

Baby blues

The mildest of these disorders and the most common is referred to as 'baby blues'. This is a range of feelings that mirrors what a lot of people go through whenever drastic change happens in their lives. Women might feel tearful, aimless, anxious and irritable, and they can often go through frequent mood swings. The baby blues usually arise in the first to second week post-birth and, with a bit of understanding and support, are usually gone within a few days.

Postnatal psychosis

Postnatal psychosis is an extreme and far rarer form of postnatal depression. This disorder affects only 1 in 500 mothers and is recognised by wild changes in behaviour and outlook. Affected women can lose their grasp on reality and behave inappropriately and unsafely towards the baby, themselves and others. The baby and the mother can be at risk, which is why hospitalisation is usually required. This is a bio-chemical disorder, and with specialised treatment mum can make a full recovery.

Postnatal depression

Postnatal, or postpartum, depression will affect 1 in 7 mothers. While most women will expect to go through some mood changes following the birth of their baby, it's less understood that they might not have control over these feelings. Dealing with this range of negative emotions is not as simple as 'toughening up' and hoping they go away.

Most postnatal depression occurs within the first 12 months of a new baby's life, and can come on gradually or suddenly, and entirely unexpectedly. Feelings of guilt, fear and inadequacy are all associated with PND, as is interrupted sleep and interruption of normal behaviour.

The risk of letting PND go untreated is that it can affect not only mum, but also those around her, particularly the baby. And if mum's normal behaviour is drastically affected, it can be physically and psychologically dangerous for both mum and the baby.

Remember, also, that mum's partner can be affected by postnatal depression. If mum develops postnatal depression, then it increases the likelihood that her partner will too.

What is it about childbirth that can affect me so much?

As wonderful as childbirth can be, it is also a traumatic and stressful time. Women undergo a range of changes over 9 months of pregnancy only to experience another sudden and drastic change when the baby arrives.

Firstly, a mother must cope with the massive challenge of labour, itself a rollercoaster of hormonal changes and physical and mental tribulation. This can leave her exhausted and her sleep patterns completely disrupted.

Then mum must also adapt to the new responsibility of having another human being whose existence is completely and utterly reliant on her. This idea can be particularly daunting for first-time, single or very young mothers, although older or partnered mothers are no less affected.

Added to this is the societal pressure that comes with a baby. With social media projecting idealised images of parenthood, it can be tough not to compare your own experience to others'. You can help prevent these unhelpful comparisons by accepting that every experience, thought and feeling is legitimate, and that motherhood is a messy, imperfect but rewarding ride.

What are the long term effects of postnatal depression?

Most women who identify or are diagnosed with postnatal depression make a full recovery with no lasting effects to the baby or mother.

Some media outlets and individuals claim that the most important bonding time between a baby and their mother is in the first weeks and months post-childbirth, and that if these opportunities to bond are missed then both suffer. These are opinions.

Postnatal depression is a complication of childbirth, not a lifelong sentence or infectious disease. With care, treatment and understanding, mum and baby can develop a strong and healthy relationship with no long lasting effects. Key to this, however, is early identification and understanding, both from mum and those around her.

Where can I go for help?

If you suspect you or anyone you know might have – or be at risk of developing – postnatal depression, it's vital to talk about it. Consider that talking to a partner, family member or friend is a good way to start the process. But you will want to soon follow this up by speaking to a doctor, midwife, obstetrician or therapist for further information and recommendations on how to deal with postnatal depression.

*The above should not be considered a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of trained medical professionals.