New research suggests 23% of new mums have postnatal depression. That number seems high, but we all feel low in the first few months. Here’s how you can help

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This week I happened to see a few different friends who are about to have a baby. “Your lives as you know them are about to be shattered,” I told them. “You are starting the toughest, most thankless, highest-stakes job you’ve ever done. By this time next month, you won’t even know who you are any more. At times, you may wonder: ‘What have I done?’”

JUST KIDDING! Clearly nobody wants to hear that, so I followed the social conventions and lied through my teeth . Then I received a press release suggesting that nearly half of mums (44%) felt isolated after giving birth, and nearly a quarter (23%) believed they were affected by postnatal depression (PND).

These numbers seem a bit high - the Royal College of Psychiatrists believes that between 10% and 15% of women get PND, and they just sound a bit more scientific / double-blindey than The Baby Show, who sent out that press release based on a survey of 1,000 mums. (I mean, you’d guess that women who had depression are more likely to answer a survey about depression than women who got their kid and were like, “YAY! A BABY! This completes my life.”) (Then again, I’m basing my own hypothesis on a quick mental run-through of 20-25 mums I know and coming up with a much lower figure than one in four who got postnatal depression, as opposed to just severely p***ed off. So it’s not like I’m Mrs Rigorous Methodology.)

In some ways it’s no bad thing if we start to think of postnatal depression as common - even normal. I’m certain that The Baby Show, who are working with the mental health charity Mind, released their survey hoping to help people. But for me they’ve missed an important distinction:

  1. That postnatal depression is a serious illness that needs to be spotted and treated as quickly as possible.
  2. That having a new baby feels a bit shit quite a lot of the time.

If you feel lonely, unsupported or unhappy - even if you’re out of your mind on hormones - this doesn’t mean you have postnatal depression. It means you’re having a tough time. When I interviewed Dr Michael Craig , a leading doctor who specialises in PND, he was very clear on what the difference was. “It’s not normal to think about ending your life, or to self-harm. To feel that you’re worthless and useless,” he says. “Lots of people feel that way occasionally, but for most of us after a few days or a week or two the feelings would start to disappear. In people who are depressed, they don’t disappear.”

If that applies to you, get help. Go to your GP and/or call Mind (details below). If it applies to someone you know, get them to go to their GP and/or call Mind. Nobody should be feeling that way in the first months of their child’s life. And if they can get to see someone like Dr Craig, they won’t have to.

HOWEVER. *Sticks neck way the hell out* There is a risk that by over-reporting postnatal depression, we risk forgetting that MOST new mums are struggling. Not because we have a medical condition, but because we’ve just moved into a parallel universe where our main purpose in life is to deal with someone else’s bodily functions 24/7 and we feel scared and confused and happy and sad and fat and useless and lucky and resentful. And REALLY BLOODY TIRED because the world’s most stressful alarm clock goes off in our bedroom every two hours at night.

So what can you do to help? It can be hard to know - and even having been through the experience I still don’t always get this right - but here are some ideas.

1. Meet up

First and foremost, new mums need to have a safe space where they can talk about what’s happening with their babies and how they’re feeling generally. Half the reason to do an NCT antenatal class is to meet people who have similar due dates; if you don’t have the funds or inclination for this then your local branch co-ordinator should still be able to put you in touch with your local bumps & babies group.

If you’re a pre-existing friend of a new mum it’s difficult to know if you’re welcome to visit; I tend to think that you are, as long as you don’t stay long and you bring something to eat. (Ideal: a casserole. Good: a cake. Permissible: chocolate.)

2. Speak the truth

When you do meet up, be honest and sympathetic. I definitely overdo complaining about motherhood, but the reason I do it is because I think it’ll help people who are in the same boat. And obviously for the cheap laughs.

3. Don’t judge

Accept new mums on their own terms. You probably think we do nothing all day but we feel quite busy. You probably think you know better how to do it than us but all anyone can do is their best. If she hasn’t washed her hair for a week, ignore that (or if she seems like she might have a sense of humour about it, recommend Batiste).

4. Ignore dad-bashing

One of the favourite pastimes of new mums is finding fault with new dads, who are clearly nowhere near as tired and put-upon as we are. Watching my husband sleep soundly at night, get up and go to work where he was a respected and valued human instead of an indentured slave, and then come home and try to do something normal like go for a run or look at his phone, I HATED HIS LIVING GUTS. Dads, try not to take this personally. Everyone else, forget it immediately. It will pass.

5. Babysit

Leaving the baby is hard at first, but very helpful for maintaining sanity. Recently I looked after a friend’s baby for about 20 minutes while she went to get another child from nursery: she behaved as if I had donated a kidney. So if you are in a position to watch the baby while the new mum goes and has a shower, shops, visits the gym or goes out for dinner, offer. It is the most amazing gift you can give.

Mind has a confidential information and support line, Mind Infoline, available on 0300 123 3393 (lines open 9am - 6pm, Monday – Friday)

What else helped you as a new mum? Tweet Emma @Barters or talk to the team @GetTheGloss