Is Postnatal Depression Preventable?

I’m pregnant with my second child. Having experienced postnatal depression after the birth of my now three-and-a-half-year-old, I must admit to being a little worried (okay, terrified!) that I could so easily slide again. The thought of going back down that hole is confronting. It’s tempting to put the topic in the “too hard” basket, ignore it and just hope it doesn’t happen.

“A good diet, supported by the right herbs, will promote happy feelings in the body”

But the fact is, mums who have suffered postnatal depression (PND) in the past are at a higher risk of experiencing those feelings again. Not a happy thought, right? Not so, says one of Australia’s leading experts in the field, Dr. Nicole Highet. As she explains, for mums who’ve been through it before “it’s now familiar; they know what to look out for and ask for help earlier.”

This sentiment brings hope. Using previous experiences for the purposes of awareness and learning really is the key to prevention.

Yes, prevention. At this point in my life – that is, headed into the third trimester of my pregnancy with a preschooler to keep up with – helping myself, rather than waiting for the fog to descend, is an absolute necessity.

Dr. Highet, a psychologist and leader of Beyond Blue’s perinatal health program, shares her tops for preventing PND from returning:

  • Think about what support networks you have and who you can ask for help
  • Which friends can you be open with, without being judged?
  • Be aware of it during your pregnancy
  • Look after yourself
  • Exercise regularly
  • Think beyond the birth
  • Be aware of your expectations
  • Schedule time for yourself – make it a priority to do something you enjoy to temporarily escape the constant demands of motherhood

This isn’t a quick, three-step program to stop the depression from returning. Rather, a reminder that depression affects everyone differently, so prevention relies on the knowledge of your own experiences.

The greatest message from Dr. Highet is to “become familiar with the signs and symptoms you experienced last time. Reflect on what helped last time, and do those things earlier.”

In order to look at this question of prevention in a more holistic sense, I spoke with Sydney Naturopath Victoria O’Sullivan for tips from a natural health perspective.

“Pregnancy is a huge demand on the body; it draws a lot of minerals from the mother, especially in the third trimester,” she said. O’Sullivan believes that maintaining a diet high in the right nutrients, both during pregnancy and after the birth, is the key to helping preventing PND.

Many new mums may find this a struggle – personally, battling against pregnancy cravings seems a nightmare to me – but O’Sullivan maintains that it’s important to train our bodies appropriately. She says that after pregnancy, the body is left nutritionally depleted, heading into a time often filled with periods of sleep deprivation, which then leads to cravings for sugars and starchy foods. This in turn leads to a negative mind frame and mood struggles… and so the vicious circle begins.

“You end up with flat batteries and you’re left with nothing,” she adds.

O’Sullivan’s tips for helping to prevent PND include:

  • Make sure you get your nutrition levels checked after the birth
  • Eat a diet high in wholegrains and proteins
  • Essential fatty acids, found in nuts, seeds, fish oils and cheeses are vital
  • Vitamin D – sunshine – is a must
  • Remove as much sugar  from your diet as possible
  • Eat lots of vegetables for iron and folate
  • Snack healthily during the day to keep up your energy levels, and make sure you’re never left over-hungry
  • Supplement your diet with feel-good hormone, serotonin, via herbs and B-group vitamins

From a naturopathic viewpoint, the overwhelming message from O’Sullivan is that “a good diet, supported by the right herbs, will promote happy feelings in the body.”

My research says that familiarity and awareness are the major factors (rather than sticking my head in the sand about the whole issue, as is quite tempting at times!). Combining this with a good diet and a lifestyle that includes exercise and times of putting yourself as a priority will mean you’re doing the best you can do to prevent entering that dark place again.

Of course, there are no guarantees, and it should be noted that experiencing depression at any time is nothing to be ashamed of.

And never underestimate the importance of surrounding yourself with a supportive team of people who can help you through this. Because although having a baby is a wonderful, amazing experience, it’s also one of the most vulnerable points of your life.

If you feel you may be experiencing depression, visit Beyond Blue’s website, phone them on 1300 22 4636 or visit your GP to discuss your concerns




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