New mum? 11 ways to prevent postnatal depression

Caring for a newborn can stress out a new mother ― recognise the signs and learn how you can help…

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A self-described “happy person”, Tan says she suffered from depression and anxiety for years after giving birth to her son. What Tan, now 47, didn’t know was that she was then suffering from postnatal depression (PND).

What’s worse, her then-husband was involved in extramarital affairs and didn’t help with childcare duties, even when their child was ill — leaving her alone to tend to him around the clock.

It all came to a head one day.

Tan recalls, “I was shivering. I didn’t know what I could do. The pain was there but I couldn’t do anything. I felt like I had no one to turn to.” So, she took a stool to the window, wanting to jump.

She would have, too, had the police not arrived at the scene in time. It was the words of one policeman that changed her mind, she notes.

“He told me that he was divorced, too. His wife walked away from him and left their three kids behind. He said, ‘Your child already has a dad who doesn't love him. If you’re going to do this, you are no different from his father.’”

“Your child already has a dad who doesn't love him. If you’re going to do this, you are no different from his father.”

Tan adds that the policeman’s words made her realise that if she died, her son — who recently turned 21 — would be an orphan and “that’s not fair to him”. Soon after the incident, Tan divorced her husband of 10 years and got help at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH). She eventually returned to work in the retail industry.

If you think Tan’s experience is uncommon — think again. Dr Helen Chen, KKH's head of the Department of Psychological Medicine, points out that depression affects some six to eight per cent of postnatal women in Singapore — or one out of every 12 to 16 women.

“There are usually many factors that contribute to the development of postnatal depression in women: Hormonal, biological, psychosocial and emotional changes,” Dr Chen said, adding that some of the causes are distress about weight gain, sleep deprivation, marital discord and financial difficulties. 

She notes that our fast-paced lives and high stress levels can contribute to a greater risk of depression. “Many mothers also wear multiple hats. They care for their children and organise the household, in addition to holding down jobs. Some also need to tend to their elderly parents and support their husbands. Having to meet all these demands may wear mothers out.”

However, Dr Chen notes that while suicidal feelings are not uncommon among those who go through treatment for postnatal depression, actual suicides are rare. “This is because most mothers who struggle with dark thoughts are actually greatly distressed and the thought of their babies often gives them strength to fight the dark thoughts.”

Dr Chen lists the risk factors for postnatal depression:

-          A family history of postnatal depression, pregnancy complications and difficult deliveries.

-          Both young mothers under 21 years of age and mature mothers, especially if the pregnancy was unplanned, are also at a higher risk.

She adds, “During the postnatal period, breastfeeding and confinement may become significant stressors if they do not progress smoothly.”