Bridget Hargreave describes the crippling effects of postnatal depression (PND)
We learn the facts about pre-eclampsia when we diligently read up on pregnancy. However, that doesn’t prepare you for the headaches, swelling or the feeling that something is inexplicably wrong. I felt the same way about postnatal depression. But just as I was shocked by the arrival of pre-eclampsia as I approached the final month of my pregnancy, I was floored a few weeks later by the realisation that I was depressed.
My first son came into the world on a cold January morning, several weeks ahead of schedule. His first day passed in a blur of doctors, midwives, tests, calls to family, and ‘firsts’. The pre-eclampsia that we had thought would disappear when he was born worsened.
As that first day wore on, I felt increasingly exhausted and bewildered. My husband had to leave in the evening and I cannot describe the wrench. I felt desperate. As night approached, the baby who had spent the day peacefully snoozing in his crib suddenly developed a heartrending cry based on hunger and a need to be held.
I was under pressure to feed my underweight baby but there was no consensus on how. On one side, paediatricians sternly warned me of the need to feed him regular set amounts. On the other, the community midwives told me to persevere with breastfeeding and the syringe in the colostrum they described as liquid gold. The battle lines were drawn, and I was in no-man’s land.
Holding him? Well, you’d think I could have done that. The trouble was there was no nascent bond there. I was exhausted. I had been awake for 36 hours and counting, too pumped with adrenaline to rest. I tried periodically to put him down, a pattern that always ended with both of us in tears. At midnight I was told officiously to take him up to the top floor – to the special baby unit – for antibiotics; a plan I apparently should have known about.
I stood up and reached for the baby but again I was admonished (‘Wheel him in his cot! You can’t carry him around. Health and safety!’). I couldn’t get the brake off the cot in my flimsy flip-flops. A healthcare assistant clicked her tongue and did it for me. I moved, and suddenly there was blood all over the floor. Mercifully, she did the antibiotics run for me.
That nightmarish week heralded a plummet into depression that I thought I would never surface from. I envied my husband for escaping every night, even though I know how hard it was on him. I fantasised that maybe I would be discharged before the baby and be allowed to go home, leaving him to be cared for by midwives. That’s how far I had drifted from sanity.
Finally home, the world took on an unreal tinge. You know the feeling you get when you’ve been up all night? Everything just feels a bit off, a bit fragile. That’s how I felt, and of course, like any new parent, I was up most of the night. But my connection with the world, with other people and with my new son was tenuous.
Three weeks in, I had to admit things were getting worse. There were false dawns. We moved to bottles and formula, and for a while things improved. But that unravelled when the baby developed what we thought was a particularly bad bout of nappy rash. We were later to find that our son had a haemangioma (a strawberry mark, not uncommon) – just next to his bottom, of all places. It doesn’t usually pose a health risk unless it obscures the airways. But being so near the nappy area it was prone to infection and ulceration, and he was in agony every time he weed. When I changed his nappy, he would scream the house down. I was a hollow-eyed zombie, and I was robotically following the hospital-instilled routine of feed, change, feed, so those tortuous nappy changes terrorised me. Worst of all was the inevitability that they would keep on coming, like contractions.
I was virtually agoraphobic, and certainly phobic about being out and about with my new baby. Getting to a series of vital doctors’ appointments, let alone telling the doctor I thought I was depressed, was beyond me. My husband and mum were my crutches.
The first time I went to the doctor’s on my own, I was so exhilarated I popped into a shop on the way home and bought a few tops to hide my new lumps and bumps. I phoned my mum, on top of the world, and she was delighted. But I wasn’t OK. It was another false dawn, and there would be several more doctors’ trips before I was properly on the mend.
Antidepressants, counselling, and a great deal of support, affection and patience from my husband, family and friends were what got me through.
Incredibly, a year later, I was ready to start thinking about doing it all over again. Little did I know that I would also be facing the depression all over again…
Find out more about Bridget’s PND experience in Fine (Not Fine): Perspectives and Experiences of Postnatal Depression (Free Association Books)
Reducing stress during pregnancy
A dramatic increase in infant anxiety and depression can be linked to high stress levels in pregnancy, according Angela Spencer, creator of the Babyopathy wellness programme. Amanda is calling for higher awareness of the links between prenatal maternal stress and its impact on cognitive development and psychopathology, both during pregnancy and after birth.
She says: ‘Many people are unaware that stress levels naturally become amplified in pregnancy, as our bodies are out under increasing pressure thanks to an influx of hormones. When we are stressed, our bodies produce cortisol, “the stress hormone”, which causes the fight or flight response and is part of our human nature.
‘A certain amount of cortisol is needed during pregnancy to pass on the natural instincts that we all have. However, too much stress and too much cortisol raises a risk of health problems in your unborn baby.’