The covid-19 pandemic has not been easy for anyone. But it's safe to say that new mothers have had a particularly hard time of it. From giving birth in isolation to raising a newborn without the support of family and friends, a new study led by researchers at UCL has revealed that new mothers are twice as likely to suffer from postnatal depression in lockdown.
Postnatal depression can affect people in different ways. It might come on suddenly or develop over a period of time, but usually affects mothers within the first year after giving birth.
Pre-pandemic it was reported that postnatal depression affected around one in 10 women, but the findings published on 11 May 2021 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology suggest that number has almost doubled, with 47.5% of women meeting the threshold for postnatal depression during the first covid-19 lockdown.
These women (who all had babies aged six-months or younger) described feelings of isolation, exhaustion, worry, inadequacy, guilt, and increased stress.
Many grieved for what they felt were lost opportunities for them and their baby, and worried about the developmental impact of social isolation on their new little one.
What are the symptoms of postnatal depression?
Not to be confused with the "baby blues," (a period of time where new mother's often feel teary or anxious for the 2-weeks following birth— something that is so common it's considered normal), postnatal depression symptoms often last much longer or start later on.
Symptoms of postnatal depression can include:
- a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
- no longer enjoying things that used to give you pleasure
- lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
- trouble sleeping and feeling exhausted during the day
- feeling that you're unable to look after your baby
- problems concentrating and making decisions
- loss of appetite or an increased appetite (comfort eating)
- feeling agitated, irritable or very apathetic
- feelings of guilt, hopelessness and self-blame
- difficulty bonding with your baby or a feeling of indifference
- frightening thoughts – for example, about hurting your baby; these can be scary, but they're very rarely acted upon
- thinking about suicide and self-harm
Researchers surveyed 162 mums in London between May and June 2020 using a unique social network survey designed in response to lockdown. Participants listed up to 25 people who were important to them and shared who they had interacted with and how, whether in person, by phone, video call or messaging on social media.
The women also reported on their well-being with researchers, basing depression ratings on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, the most commonly used tool. This allowed them to capture the full range of mothers’ social interactions, as well as their mental health.
How lockdown has impacted new mothers
Dr Sarah Myers at UCL Anthropology said, “Caring for a new baby is challenging and all new mothers suffer some level of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion. Low social support is one of the key risk factors for developing postnatal depression. Social distancing measures during lockdown created so many barriers to having practical help and meaningful support from others in the weeks and months after their baby’s arrival, leading many new mothers to feel totally overwhelmed.
“It really does take a village to raise a child, especially in a crisis when everyone is dealing with increased demands, stresses and significant life events. Our survey shows that lockdowns leave new mothers more vulnerable to postnatal depression, and that digital solutions might help but they are not the answer. Policy makers must take this into account as we continue to deal with COVID-19, for the sake of mums, babies and whole families.”
Reduced social contact can lead to an increased risk of postnatal depression
The report found that the more contact new mums had with people, either remotely or face-to-face, the fewer depressive symptoms they reported, suggesting reduced social contact during lockdown may have increased the risk of postnatal depression.
Many mothers felt that lockdown created a ‘burden of constant mothering’ without anyone around to help, and that while virtual contact (video calls/phone calls/texts/social media messages) helped, it was still inadequate. Virtual contact meant women had to actively ask for help, because friends and family couldn’t see them struggling, which they felt amplified the stresses of motherhood.
Dr Emily Emmott at UCL Anthropology said, “New mothers with more than one child were hardest hit, left to deal with newborns on top of multiple demands like home schooling. First-time mothers often felt cheated out of precious time spent together with their babies and family or friends, making coming to terms with the change of identity and isolation that new mothers often feel even harder.
“But, where partners were at home more because of lockdown, and able to share the relentless tasks and household chores or take care of existing children, new mums felt the benefits. Some reported that it helped everyone develop closer relationships and that the family benefited overall from spending this time together. This should also be food for thought when we look at support for parents with new babies, not just in a pandemic.”
If you have been experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above for more than two to three weeks, contact your GP for advice.
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