Taking a Slower Pace; exploring postnatal depression
“In the depths of winter I finally learned that within me there lay, an invincible summer”
Winter is upon us and with it the beautiful cold, crisp air, brisk mornings, icy car windows and commutes in complete darkness. Naturally, at this time of year our bodies prepare for a long winter’s nap. As darkness begins to impinge on our days we feel a sense of heaviness as our internal systems tell us to ‘slow down.’ Metabolic rates may decrease with repeated exposure to lower temperatures. And the shortened days allow our bodies to relax more easily, often inducing tiredness earlier in the day. It is no wonder there is a constant chorus of ‘I’m so tired,’ and ‘I just feel exhausted’ echoing around us. Adding to our already busy bodies and minds.
We can feel a bit overwhelmed by it all as we fight our instincts of slowing down, often acting contrary to our biological needs.
When we are pregnant or parenting a newborn, these feelings can be felt even more acutely. The delicate transition to motherhood requires a great deal of time and support. With all the best preparation in the world we are still entering the unknown. Attempting to learn all that this new role involves can be tiring and often leaves us feeling insecure and disorientated. These feelings require time to explore and resolve.
Mothering the mother
In Dominica, women who have recently given birth follow the custom of la cuarentena, a forty-day post-partum period where the mother recuperates from labour and bonds with her baby. During this time rest is mandated and traditional food is provided by female relatives and friends, who also support the mother by doing household chores and looking after any older children. This tradition is common throughout Latin America. It is a highly ritualised time and one that many women describe as being supportive. Similar traditions are followed elsewhere in the world, for example in China, Japan and North Africa. Many of these traditions root themselves in a notion that new mothers themselves need to be mothered.
In our culture a sign of ‘normality’ is often described as moving soon after birth. One need only look at the glossy magazines to witness this month’s newest celebrity mum who has shed her baby weight mere weeks after giving birth. Our tradition is no longer one of rest and recovery. We live in a busier culture, where families are often separated by greater distances and often older generations are in careers longer, making extended familial support more difficult than in the past. For today’s new mothers this means that they are often left on their own (sooner than they may have been in the past), taking care of a baby in isolation without a large amount of community support.
So it may come as no surprise that various medical sources estimate that around 10-15% of new mothers in the United Kingdom are affected by postnatal depression ((O'Hara & Swain, 1996); indeed according to the charity 4Children around 3 in 10 new mothers may experience the condition.
‘Baby Blues’ vs. Postnatal Depression
Women may go through a brief period, 3-10 days after giving birth, when they feel emotional and/or tearful. This is often called the ‘baby blues’ and is considered normal. However 10-15 out of every hundred women will experience something much deeper and longer lasting, and this is considered postnatal depression. Some symptoms of postnatal depression are feeling:
sad and low
tearful for no apparent reason
hopeless about the future
unable to cope
irritable and angry
hostile or indifferent to your husband or partner
hostile or indifferent to your baby.
A new mother may further find that she
has disturbed sleep
has a reduced appetite
lacks interest in sex
has thoughts about death.
(It is important to note that newborn sleeping patterns often require new mothers to feed frequently throughout the night, leaving a new mother feeling quite tired. This tiredness should not be confused with depression. One possible symptom of postnatal depression would be a feeling of exhaustion but an inability to fall asleep).
What to do
If you sense you are feeling any of the above symptoms you should talk to a good friend or trusted family member and consult a midwife or GP. The most important thing for new mothers is to trust their own inner voice. In Birthlight perinatal yoga classes we are taught to listen to our bodies and connect with our breath. These practices allow us the opportunity to reconnect with our instincts and to trust that inner voice. If you are feeling disconnected, sad, distracted etc. take the time to verbalise this to someone you trust. You may not be depressed, and speaking the words will act as a release. Or if these symptoms are deeper and greater, then speaking to someone can be the first step in receiving support. Once you’ve voiced your concerns take the step to seek professional support, by speaking to your midwife or GP (see below for other postnatal depression support options).
Shore up your support
People want to help new mothers but often don’t know how. Give friends/family members tasks that you feel would best support you (cook dinner, look after older children, do housework).
If you are separated from family consider seeking the support of a Doula: an experienced woman who offers emotional and practical support to a woman (or family) before, during and after childbirth. Postnatal doulas work flexible hours to suit the family, offering practical and emotional support to the new mother and father in the home following the birth of baby (for more information, and a directory of local doulas, see Doula UK’s website at www.doula.org.uk).
Schedule some time for self-care. Get a gentle postnatal massage, order in your favourite food, watch your favourite TV show, make time for a close friend.
Birthllight perinatal teachers and now postnatal teachers can offer one to one sessions to new mums at home between birth and the time when they feel ready to go to a class, to help with continuity that we think is essential. Birthlight have designed postnatal sessions' vouchers, the teacher can charge what they feel is fair in their area.
A review of studies stretching back to 1981 concluded that regular exercise can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression (Harvard Medical review). Gentle postnatal exercise can help not only the body to recover but can support the mind and emotions as well. If you can, join a Birthlight postnatal yoga class, baby and mum yoga class or baby swim classes. Find a Birthlight class in your area. All of these practices can help to make a new mum feel better and more active. If you are struggling to get out of the house, new mums can practice simple pranayama (breathing exercises) like the relaxing golden thread breath learned in perinatal classes or the calming nadi shodhana, alternate nostril breath. A gentle postnatal morning practice of sun salutation or an evening practice of viparita karani (resting pose with legs up the wall) practised for a few minutes every day can lift the mood and ease the nervous system.
What we can do if we are supporting a new mother
Remember not to take a new baby from a new mother without asking. If a new mother is feeling low, having her baby near her promotes elevated levels of oxytocin, which can support her in feeling good, promote connectedness and allow for bonding
Cook and clean, and keep older children occupied
LISTEN. Advice is a-plenty for new mums in our culture. Instead of offering your experience or a piece of advice that worked for you, just listen, reflect back, empathise and allow her an opportunity to open up. Offer her a non-judgemental, unconditionally supportive ear
Suggest a walk. Some fresh air, being together outside and taking in some light exercise can be extremely beneficial
Attend a postnatal yoga, baby massage, baby yoga or baby swim class with your friend. Sometimes it is easier to get out the door when we’re not doing it alone. Find a Birthlight class in your area.
At this time of year, allow for a slower, reflective pace to your daily life. Allow yourself to connect inwardly giving yourself the opportunity to check-in with how you are feeling. As the winter day continue find time to connect with your breath, allow your prana (breath – life force) to bring energy, taking just five minutes can make a big difference to your day.
Seek peace, accept support and grant yourself permission for a slower place this winter.
Resources for postnatal depression
Ashley MacDonald is a Birthlight pregnancy yoga teacher who teaches classes in the Cambridge area with Joyful Babies. Ashley also works, when she is not busy being a mother herself, as a birth and postnatal doula supporting a variety of families in and around Cambridgeshire. Alongside her work with pregnant women, Ashley is also a bereavement support volunteer for Cruse where she provides counselling for individuals who have been bereaved. The combination of her work as a doula, yoga teacher and bereavement supporter has lead Ashley to developed a deep compassion for new mothers who find themselves feeling isolated and unable to seek support. Her interest in postnatal depression comes from experience supporting women and families who have been affected by postnatal depression and through her studies in counselling.