Antenatal depression and postnatal depression: what are they?

Antenatal depression and postnatal depression are long-lasting and negative emotional changes that happen during pregnancy or after birth.

Antenatal depression and postnatal depression have the same symptoms and are treated in the same way as each other. It’s just the timing that’s different. Antenatal depression happens during pregnancy, and postnatal depression happens after birth.

Antenatal and postnatal depression are different from emotional changes that you might expect during pregnancy and just after birth. For example, it’s common for expectant mothers to feel quite emotional as they go through big physical and practical changes during this time.

It’s also common for women to experience the ‘baby blues’ a couple of days after having a baby. These include feelings like being teary, irritable, moody and overly sensitive. The baby blues usually go away after a few days.

But with antenatal and postnatal depression, the emotional changes last longer than two weeks and stop you from doing things you need or want to do in your daily life.

You might hear antenatal and postnatal depression referred to together as perinatal depression.

If you or your partner is experiencing symptoms of depression, you need professional help and family support. When you know the signs and symptoms of antenatal and postnatal depression, you can get help as early as possible.

Symptoms of antenatal depression and postnatal depression

The experience of antenatal and postnatal depression can vary from person to person.

If you’ve been in a low mood or have lost interest in things you’d normally enjoy, this is something to take seriously. You might also notice changes in your emotions and thinking, behaviour and social life, and general physical wellbeing, like those listed below.

If you experience any of the changes below for more than two weeks, it’s important to seek professional support. It’s also important to let your health professional know if you’ve experienced mental illness in the past. Past mental illnesses can come back in pregnancy.

Emotional changes
You might:

  • be in a low mood a lot of the time
  • often feel teary or sad
  • lose confidence
  • feel angry or cranky
  • feel overwhelmed or like you can’t cope.

Thinking changes
You might:

  • think that everything that goes wrong is your fault, or that you’re worthless or a failure
  • think your baby would be better off with someone else
  • have trouble thinking clearly, concentrating or making decisions
  • think about hurting yourself or your baby.

Behaviour and social changes
You might:

  • lose interest in activities you normally enjoy
  • find it hard to get moving
  • fear being alone or going out
  • fear being alone with your baby
  • withdraw from close family and friends
  • not look after yourself properly.

Physical changes
You might have:

  • sleep problems – for example, you can’t sleep or you’re sleeping a lot more than usual
  • changes in appetite – for example, you’re not eating or you’re overeating
  • low energy levels.

A small number of women experience postnatal psychosis in the first few weeks after birth. If you’re worried that you or your partner is acting or thinking differently from your usual self, speak to your GP as soon as you can.

If you’re having thoughts about hurting yourself or your family, you should urgently speak to your GP, go to your local hospital’s emergency department or call Lifeline Australia on 131 114. If you believe that someone’s life is in immediate danger, call 000.

Getting help for antenatal depression and postnatal depression

If you think you might have antenatal or postnatal depression, asking for professional help early is important.

There are many people and services you can go to for help with antenatal and postnatal depression:

If you’re unsure, your GP can guide you to the most appropriate services. Getting appropriate support will help you manage symptoms and feel better sooner.

Treatment for antenatal depression and postnatal depression

There are many treatment options that can help you if you’re experiencing symptoms of perinatal depression. Your doctor will talk with you about a treatment plan that suits your personal circumstances and age, as well as the type and severity of your depression.

Here are some treatment options for antenatal and postnatal depression.

Psychological therapy
Psychological treatments for antenatal and postnatal depression include cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and interpersonal therapy (IPT). These therapies aim to help you manage feelings of depression and anxiety.

A counsellor might help you one on one, or in a group with others who are experiencing similar symptoms.

Your GP can give you a Mental Health Care Plan so you can get a Medicare rebate for 6-10 sessions per year.

Medication
Doctors sometimes recommend antidepressant medication for antenatal and postnatal depression. There are many different types of antidepressants, including some that you can safely use during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

For many people, medication used together with psychological therapy can work very well.

Hospital admission
It isn’t common for people to need hospital admission. Admission might be considered if people feel suicidal or like they want to harm themselves or their babies. You should contact your GP urgently or go to your local hospital’s emergency department if you feel like this. GPs and hospital staff can give you the help and support you need.

Practical strategies for antenatal depression and postnatal depression

If you or someone close to you has antenatal or postnatal depression, here are some practical strategies to help. 

Emotional support
Getting emotional support from your partner, family and friends is an important way to manage antenatal and postnatal depression. Talking to someone who can understand how you’re feeling can help you to manage some of the symptoms.

A parents group, playgroup or therapy group can be another source of emotional support. At these groups you can meet other people to share your experiences with.

Help at home
Your partner, family and close friends can give you practical help at home. It's good to ask someone you trust to come over regularly and help with doing household chores or caring for your baby.

Help at home gives you a chance to rest or sleep, and it can help you feel less overwhelmed. It’s also a good source of company, which is important for your recovery.

And there’s no need to feel guilty about asking for this kind of help. Many people like to help out and will be glad if you ask them to do something specific.

Looking after yourself
Your emotional wellbeing and your physical health are directly related. You can look after both by:

  • getting regular exercise – any way you can get some movement into your day is good
  • eating well – keep some simple food handy, like fruit, yoghurt, wholegrain bread and fresh vegetables cut up ready to eat with dips
  • trying to manage stress
  • trying to rest – sleep when your baby is sleeping, go to bed early, and nap whenever you can.
Men experience antenatal and postnatal depression too. In fact, up to 1 in 10 men experiences depression during pregnancy or after baby is born.