It is usual to greet news of a pregnancy and the arrival of a baby with delight. Starting a family is seen as a joyous and fulfilling experience, so the assumption is that every mother is at the peak of contentment. So, why is it that 20% of women report a decline in mental wellbeing in the time before and after the birth of their child?

Adapting to Change

Becoming pregnant and raising a family is a dream come true for many women, but it is not an experience that everyone welcomes or enjoys.

Having a baby is a time of considerable change. Everything from your body and sleep patterns to your career and social life alters. Some mothers accept and adapt to this change more easily than others. For many, it is a process of completely redefining their identity and this can be difficult.

To aid these changes, mothers need strong networks to provide care and practical support. They need adult conversations that aren’t all focused on the baby and meeting up with others can be invaluable. It is all about The Power of Connection.

Why is Mental Health Impacted by Motherhood?

The postnatal period is known to be a period of high risk for new and recurrent mental disorders. There is a correlation between this risk and cases of death by suicide, substance misuse and physical conditions.

Giving birth might be a natural process, but even when all goes to plan, it is physically demanding, and there are often complications during pregnancy and birth. A miscarriage or still birth turn excitement into bereavement in an instant.

For those who become parents, it is emotionally and physically exhausting. Having full responsibility for another human can be overwhelming. Every child is unique and no one is fully trained and equipped in their care and upbringing. Trusting your instincts, giving your love and doing your best should be enough. However, there is always someone commenting on your parenting style or offering advice. Although the intention can be good, it makes parents doubt their approach and skills.

A Position of Disadvantage

Some mothers deal with the demands of motherhood from a position of disadvantage. They may be single parents or in an abusive relationship. The pregnancy might be unplanned or be a cultural or social expectation that they don’t want. They may not have funds to pay for baby groups or may live far from family and friends.

Even parents in privileged positions will reach the end of their tether and want their old life back. The biggest bank balance or most loving partner can’t make you immune from experiencing perinatal depression and other challenges that impact mental health.

Admitting You Are Struggling

A significant factor in poor maternal mental health is the perception of motherhood as a time of joy. It makes parents feel that they can’t admit that they are struggling.

Messages received from others are typically along the lines of ‘What wonderful news’, ‘Aren’t you lucky’, ‘You must be so proud’, ‘How delightful’, ‘We’re so happy for you’. It is difficult to respond to that by saying you aren’t coping and want to give up.

In addition, there is a stigma; a fear of being judged as a bad or incapable parent. Will your child be taken away if you tell someone your thoughts and feelings? These barriers mean that mental health care is only accessed by a small percentage of women with mental health disorders.

UK Maternal Mental Health Matters Week

The theme for this year’s UK Maternal Mental Health Matters Week is The Power of Connection. The campaign aims to open up conversations about the challenges during pregnancy and after birth, as well as highlighting the benefits of connecting with others.

A study into perinatal depression* concluded that:

One-to-one peer support during pregnancy and after birth can have a number of interrelated positive impacts on the emotional wellbeing of mothers. Peer support is a promising and valued intervention, and may have particular salience for ethnic minority women, those who are recent migrants and women experiencing multiple disadvantages.

Connecting with other mothers can be an empowering experience. It is one opportunity to share what you are going through, understand what is normal and discuss challenges. Simply having a conversation with an adult can make all the difference. We need to ensure that local parent and baby groups and facilities are available, publicised and accessible, to encourage these connections.

In a separate study** the importance of early identification of perinatal mental disorders by midwives/obstetricians, GPs and home visiting nurses/paediatricians is highlighted. This requires mental health training to be a much greater part of the study undertaken by these professionals. It also identifies the need for clear referral pathways when risks are identified.

If you are a partner, friend or family of someone who is showing signs of declining mental health during pregnancy or early motherhood, Mind*** offers a range of information and support that could help you to help them.

Maternal Mental Health Matters

Open and honest conversations about the challenges of pregnancy and motherhood are essential for reducing the stigma around admitting struggles. In some cases, a shared experience is enough to help, but for others, early access to support must be available. Maternal mental health matters, not least because the next generation depends on it.

* https://bmcpregnancychildbirth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12884-017-1220-0

**https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7491613/

***https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/postnatal-depression-and-perinatal-mental-health/about-maternal-mental-health-problems/