Many refer to the three months after birth as “the fourth trimester”, due to its crucial role in babies’ development and the physical demands made of new moms.
During this time, women are at high risk of developing depression, with the World Health Organisation reporting that 40 percent of South African mothers experience symptoms.
During Mental Health Awareness Month, which takes place every year in October, maternity experts are raising awareness of the illness and what can be done to treat it.
“Intense emotion and exhaustion are normal in the days after birth, but many women develop longer term and overwhelming feelings of sadness, irritation, fear, guilt and disconnection - the symptoms of postnatal depression,” says obstetrician and head of The Birthing Team, Dr Howard Manyonga.
If untreated, depression can prevent healthy bonding between mothers and their babies, which is critical to the child’s mental and emotional development. “In some cases, women have thoughts of harming themselves or their baby – and there is a risk that the baby will experience neglect,” Manyonga warns.
“Check-ups with healthcare providers in the days after birth, as well as the six-week mark, are very important, not just for the baby but for mom as well,” says Manyonga.
Women are encouraged to speak about their mood and any concerns they may have during these visits. Dads too, he says, can experience depression in the period after birth, which can take a toll on family relationships and parental bonding with the new born.
Once detected, depression can be addressed with counselling and, in some cases, medication.
“An assessment of home environment and what support networks exist is important for determining what treatment is best,” says Manyonga, who advocates for the delivery of maternity care by teams that include social workers and mental health professionals.