Many parents are blindsided by how challenging parenting truly is.
When a mum suffers from postnatal depression (PND), the intensity exacerbates infinitely. The dark feelings are consuming and terrifying with countless hours of sobbing, reduced appetite, and difficulty sleeping despite feeling so exhausted.
This disorder is an unfortunate reality for about 10-15 % of women after childbirth. Oftentimes, PND comes as a rude shock and mothers feel cheated; cheated of the dreams that they might have when they were pregnant.
How does postnatal depression affect the mother-child bond?
PND affects parenting in the most critical way and compromises the bond between the mother and the child. This bond usually grows after the birth of the baby, which becomes the foundation of the mother-child relationship. In the case of a mother who suffers from PND, this bond is missing.
PND mothers notice their lack of interest or love for the baby and this fills them with immense guilt. When a mum is depressed, she is less able to notice or respond to the baby’s cues and needs. She will also be overcome by negative feelings and thoughts such as, ”I am a terrible mum because my baby cries all the time” or “I am not cut out to be a mother”. These thoughts become detrimental voices that play all the time in the head of the mother.
Consequently, depressed mothers develop a negative pattern of interaction where they withdraw and/or become more intrusive, harsh and less warm. Their focus may not be directed towards the needs of the baby, even as they continue with the care of the baby. In moments of extreme tiredness, they may even scream or shake the baby in frustration.
Research has shown that babies born to depressed mothers can be less active and more irritable and have fewer facial expressions. They may have more disrupted sleep patterns, increased fussiness and are harder to soothe. You can see how this will become a vicious cycle in perpetuating the sense of incompetency and failure in the mother. Inevitably, when a mother suffers from PND, the marital satisfaction often dips, and this further contributes to the sense of failure.
Given how critical the bond is in fostering secure attachment and the formation of subsequent relationships, one must pay close attention to the early problems in the mother-baby bond, especially when mum suffers from PND.
What can one do to overcome postnatal depression?
Recognise the symptoms and seek help as soon as possible
Many sufferers are reluctant to seek help because of the strong stigma that is attached to it. There have also been instances whereby the sufferer’s family and/or spouse do not take the symptoms seriously due to the lack of knowledge and understanding about the illness.
Asking the mother to just “snap out of it” doesn’t help at all. In fact, it creates more shame. It takes enormous courage just to step forward and seek help.
One mother expressed the following:
“It is an irony that so many suffer in silence for fear of being labeled as a bad mother. Admitting that one is struggling with post-partum depression doesn’t make one a bad mum; denying the care I need does.”
Let go of perfection and expectations of being a super mum
Accept that you are a regular human being, flawed and ordinary; someone who needs support, affirmation and not constant judgment from yourself and others.
Counter-challenge the mistaken beliefs that you might have like, “I should be able to do this mothering thing”, “how hard is this when women from all generations are able to do this”, or “a good baby is one who doesn’t cry incessantly”.
Ask for help from family and loved ones
Share with your spouse and trusted friends about what you’re going through. Ask for practical help like babysitting while you catch up on sleep, or help to cook and take care of the household chores.
Don’t feel bad about asking for help.
Practice self-compassion and self-care
Remember that you didn’t ask to suffer from postnatal depression and neither did you cause it. Show compassion to yourself just like how you would help a close friend who is going through it.
Find small ways to attend to your own needs better, even if it means taking a shower uninterrupted or getting 15 minutes of extra sleep.
Learn infant-massage to increase bonding between mum and baby
Studies have shown that teaching depressed mothers to massage their infants produced good outcome. Infants become less irritable and have fewer sleep problems. The interaction between mother and child also improved and mothers have a reduction in depressive symptoms. (Goldstein-Ferber, 2004).
Postnatal depression harms more than just the mother if it’s left untreated. In severe cases, lives have been taken.
If a loved one is exhibiting signs of depression, it is critical to engage them in a non-judgmental and supportive manner rather than foist social expectations on them. Do note that it is not only the mother who goes through this – fathers may also experience signs of depression after the birth of baby.
Article contributed by Winifred Ling, co-director at W3ave.