By PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia)
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Mother, father and baby
Having a baby is a time of joy, but adjusting to a new baby in the family can be very stressful and demanding for both parents. Postnatal depression (PND) can make this time even more confusing and distressing. But there are ways to support a woman or man experiencing PND.

A partner with postnatal depression: what will it mean for you?

Many of the stressors or problems that you perceive during the period of postnatal depression (PND) might not be an indicator of your relationship with your partner. Rather, they’re consequences of the illness. 

People with PND say things that they don’t really mean. These might be symptoms of the illness and the way they’re feeling at the time. It can help to understand that this is the PND talking. Try not to take these things personally.

You might feel very worried or concerned about your partner’s wellbeing or your partner’s ability to look after the baby and any other children. This experience might be the first contact you’ve ever had with mental illness. You might not even have heard of PND before. 

You might find it more difficult to leave your partner and go to work. Or you might find that your partner calls you frequently or tells you to come home from work. 

People with PND might lose interest in having sex with their partners. Try not to take it personally if your partner doesn’t feel like having sex. Your partner might be feeling inadequate, physically self-conscious or not able to be fully involved in this intimate aspect of your relationship. Other factors such as your partner’s recovery from the pregnancy or childbirth, the effect of medication on libido, and fear of subsequent pregnancy might also be issues. 

Ways to help your partner with postnatal depression

Sometimes it can be very difficult to know how to help your partner. You might feel that whatever you say or do isn’t helping your partner to feel better. You might feel that you’ve tried many different things that haven’t worked.

Although it’s natural to feel that you should be able to help fix your partner’s distress, your partner will need more treatment and support than you can provide. Try to focus on providing practical and emotional support, and ensure that your partner gets these extra services.

Providing support for treatment

  • Make sure that your partner has arranged proper medical assessment and ongoing monitoring. Also check that your partner is accessing other support resources such as counselling, support groups or helpful friends and family. If possible, try to go with your partner to medical appointments and be actively involved in treatment. Ultimately, decisions about care are your partner’s, but you can still discuss health care options and professional advice together, and decide on the best course of treatment.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor or health worker for accurate information about PND and its treatment. Getting information about PND is important for you to understand some of the symptoms of the illness. It will also help you to be aware of what might be the most supportive way to help your partner and to get help yourself. There might be times when you will question whether the illness is real. Be assured that PND and its symptoms are very real. With proper treatment, it can be resolved.
  • Taking medication can present issues for many people. You might like to learn about your partner’s medication and how it should be taken. You can talk to the doctor, pharmacist or a drug information line counsellor. Try to be supportive if your partner needs medication, and encourage your partner to take it until the doctor says otherwise. This is very important for recovery.

Providing emotional support

  • Don’t worry if you feel that you don’t know what to say. It’s a difficult time for you both. You’ll learn the best way to deal with it together. Try to be patient and reassuring. This might be better than responding with logic and advice, which your partner might misunderstand. It could also make your partner feel more incompetent.
  • Try to validate your partner’s experiences or worries and understand that they’re very real. This is the case even if you think your partner’s concerns aren’t warranted.
  • Encourage your partner to express feelings and not bottle them up. Be prepared to listen to your partner talking, even if you feel that you’re hearing the same things over and over. Try to remember that your partner might not need you to fix things or to offer a solution. A person with PND might just want to feel heard and want you to listen. 
  • Try not to be discouraged if your partner seems withdrawn or you don’t get a response. There will be a time when your partner can respond and express gratitude for your support.
  • Encourage and support your partner’s accomplishments, even the little things. Knowing that you’re OK with whatever your partner can manage, and that you’ll chip in when you can, can be enormously supportive.
  • Try not to say your partner is lazy if the housework isn’t done. Your partner might be feeling exhausted, which is a very common symptom of PND. Rest is very important for you both. Other things can wait.
  • At all times, be reassuring of your partner’s relationship with the baby. There might be times when your partner struggles to take care of the baby alone and you or others need to take over. Always reassure your partner about being the baby’s parent. There will come a day when your partner can care for the baby without help again.
  • Try to avoid making any major decisions while your partner has PND – for example, buying a house. If possible, wait until your partner recovers. You might find that many of the problems or issues that you thought existed start to resolve themselves as your partner recovers.
  • Even though PND is temporary, it might feel that it will never go away. This is a symptom of the illness. It might help to reassure your partner if you say something like, ‘I understand that you feel bad now, but the doctor believes that you will return to your old self again’. This is better than saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. You will get over it’.
  • Try to reassure your partner of your support. One of your partner’s fears might be that you’ll get tired of the illness and leave. 
  • Try to reassure your partner that you’re OK if there isn’t much sex for the time being. Touching or cuddling might be more comfortable at this time, without leading to sex. It’s good to communicate what you want and how you feel. If sex is still an issue, you could consider talking it over with your GP.

Providing practical support

  • Try to help out with the housework and baby care as much as you can. This might be difficult if you work long hours, but your partner will benefit from any involvement that you can give. Identify a task that you can make a part of your routine – for example, bathing the baby.
  • If family members offer help, accept it. It’s OK to let others help with things such as housework or shopping.
  • Offer to cook dinner or pick up takeaway food. 

Treatment in a mother-infant unit
Sometimes women with PND will be offered treatment in a mother-infant unit (sometimes known as an infant unit). This can seem very scary for you both, but be assured that your partner will get appropriate treatment for recovery. Having the baby with the mother ensures that the mother-baby relationship is not interrupted and can be enhanced by the stay in hospital.

These ideas might help you handle the situation:

  • You can make the most of visiting times to maintain your contact with your partner and baby. 
  • Going home to an empty house, which you expect to be filled with your partner and baby, can be very disheartening. You could use this time to catch up on some rest. 
  • You could also spend time with your other children if this isn’t your first baby. ​

Postnatal depression: problems that might arise for you

  • You might feel more tired or exhausted if your sleep is disturbed, or you’re worried about the wellbeing of your partner.
  • You might feel anxious and confused about what’s happening to your partner and whether your partner and the baby will be OK.
  • You might feel a sense of loss that the person you knew has gone and that you don’t know how to help that person come back. 
  • You might feel that the demands of your home life and the extra responsibilities of caring for the children are having a big impact on your time and demands at work. You might also feel concerned about your family finances, especially if you’re needed more at home. 
  • You might feel like you want to withdraw from your partner and home life by spending long hours at work. You might also feel like increasing your use of drugs and alcohol. Try to avoid these things because they are likely to cause additional problems.
  • You might be experiencing a loss of social contacts and feeling unsupported. This can happen as the need for you to be at home and cope with other family demands increases. 

Support for yourself

  • Don’t forget that you need special attention at this time too. Make sure that you have someone you can talk to about your concerns and frustrations – for example, a trusted family member, friend or your doctor.
  • Give yourself credit for what you’re doing. It’s OK for you to feel disappointed or frustrated about the situation, without feeling guilty. It’s natural to feel this way, because things aren’t going the way you expected. Try not to let these feelings get the better of you, and avoid expressing anger and resentment towards your partner.
  • Try not to feel that you have to do everything yourself. If you need a break, get a friend or family member to be with your partner and baby if necessary. Make sure that you get help as a family. Postnatal depression (PND) affects you as a family, so you need help that benefits all of you.
  • Don’t blame yourself. PND is no-one’s fault.
  • Get plenty of rest if you can. You might be waking up frequently throughout the night to tend to the baby, or your partner’s sleeplessness might be disturbing you. If so, you’ll need to catch up on your rest and sleep at other times.
This is temporary. Your partner will recover with the appropriate help.

Danger signs to look for

Always trust your instincts if you become more concerned about your partner’s wellbeing, your children’s wellbeing, or any worsening of your partner’s postnatal depression (PND). It might mean that you need to contact your partner’s doctor or support services directly to let them know or to seek advice. 

For example, your partner might show any of the following signs and symptoms:

  • talk of self-harm or harming the baby
  • bizarre thoughts or speech patterns, or risk-taking behaviour
  • behaviour that seems odd or is out of character
  • severe changes in mood
  • withdrawal from all social contact
  • extreme despair
  • obsession with morbid ideas, or statements like, ‘You’d be better off without me’.

When the baby’s mother has postpartum psychosis

This is an extremely uncommon and difficult time for you and the mother of your baby. Communication with your partner will be affected if her thoughts are confused, if she’s saying things that don’t make sense, or if she has delusions or hallucinations. 

Once your partner is receiving care, it can be a good idea to get counselling yourself. Postpartum psychosis has a big impact on partners too, and you’ll also have many questions. Try to find a trusted health professional for yourself. 

Some things your partner says might seem highly distressing or inappropriate, but try to remember that this is her illness talking. With appropriate treatment and support, the rate of full recovery is high.

You will one day have back the woman that you knew.

For the future

If you’re planning future pregnancies, be sure to consult your health professional for medical guidance.

There is a higher risk of postnatal depression (PND) once a person has already experienced it. Most medical practitioners recommend that a person who has had PND discontinue medication for PND for at least a year before attempting a subsequent pregnancy. 

PND is very treatable and most people make a full recovery. It can sometimes take many months. But if you persevere, there's a strong chance that you’ll be rewarded with the family you’ve been waiting for.

Video Practical ways to help new mothers

If you’re a new father whose partner is suffering from PND, it can be hard to know what to do.

A good place to start is with the basics. The dads and mums in this short video have lots of practical suggestions for helping with everyday activities like feeding, changing and settling baby, and giving mum time to rest. Dads also share their experiences of supporting their partners in the period following birth.