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THE EFFECTS OF POST NATAL DEPRESSION ON CHILDREN

Studies show that 10 – 15% of new mothers suffer from Post Natal Depression (PND), and 50 % of those women go untreated. It is also reported that 23 % of women with PND started to get depressed during pregnancy. The bottom line is: Post Natal Depression is common but it is not often treated. But without treatment, it can affect a mother’s functioning as well as her infant’s emotional development. Lets take a closer look at How! How does PND affect a mother’s functioning and her babies’ emotional development.

The birth of a new baby is overwhelming. There are significant amounts of change for you, for your spouse, for your family and for your baby too. In every change there are losses and gains. This is true for you and for your baby. Before your baby was born, he was fed and held and warm and well in your womb. You provided for all his needs before he even knew he had them. Now that he has been born, he has to communicate all of this to you. He has to tell you when he is hungry, tired, sick, cold, etc. So, for your baby the birth experience brings gains and losses.

There are gains and losses for you too. There is a tremendous gain in giving birth, where you can hear your baby breathe and count his fingers and toes. But with the gain of the birth of your new baby, you might loose sleep, independence, spontaneity, adult company, intellectual stimulation, maybe financial security, predictability and control. The adjustment to this new life takes its toll and this is normal! Once you get to know your baby and your baby gets to know you, things usually improve and there is a better balance between the gains and the losses. That first smile, that first step, that first word is a huge gain and often makes up for lost sleep, the lack of independence, identity, control and more!

Post-Natal depression occurs when you feel that things are getting worse rather than better. It also includes feeling highly anxious, withdrawn, angry, irritable, tearful and helpless. Mother’s with PND have described their thoughts and feelings as:

“ I got anxious about the smallest things concerning my baby”
“ I thought I was going crazy”
“ I did not know who I was anymore”
“ I was trying to be the perfect mom but dying inside”
“ I did not feel real”
“ I felt like I was not the mother I wanted to be”
“I felt like the baby would be better off without me”

There are many myths around having a baby, which feed into Post-Natal Depression and prevent parents from getting the help they need. These include:

1. Motherhood and fatherhood is natural and all parents know what to do

Of course this is not the case. Parents need skills, information and training in their new role as parents. If every profession requires some training, surely parenting deserved the same. Why is it that society assumes that love is enough to raise children?

2. Bonding is automatic

Having a baby is like meeting your spouse at the wedding for the very first time! Your attachment grows as you nurture him in a very physical way. As you change his nappy, feed him, wind him and bath him. In the first year of your babies’ life it takes time to bond, and this is normal.

3. Mothers are blissfully happy to raise their children

Parenting is not always a happy time. There are moments of exhilaration and moments of despair. Just like children can’t be happy all the time, neither can their parents.

4. Perfect parenting is the best way to raise happy children

There are no perfect parents, just like there are no perfect children. Our aim is to be “good enough” parents rather than perfect parents (Dr Winnicott). If we can tolerate mistakes in ourselves then our children have a greater chance of tolerating mistakes in themselves too.

5. Mothers can handle their babies on their own

In the first few weeks and months, mothers need social, emotional, financial, and practical support. This is a time when mothers need to be supported by father, family and friends. When the outside world supports mom then she can support the new baby! Providing for her financially, allowing her to rest, helping with some of the practical arrangements of the other kids helps her to give the support that she needs at this time.

These myths leave mothers and fathers feeling helpless, vulnerable and inadequate. Having a baby is not easy. But parents need time and an emotional space to adjust. Parents need time to adjust to the gains and the losses in the experience in order to become real parents with real kids.

But what are the effects of PND on the emotional development of your children?

The most important emotional task for the first 18 months of your baby’s life is to develop an attachment to a significant caregiver. Children need to build a good attachment since this is the basis for building emotional security and emotional relationships later on in life. Generally, a depressed mother is often an emotionally unavailable mother. This might be because her own anxiety or feelings interfere with her capacity to build a good enough attachment. This is supported by a study of two groups of babies at eight weeks of age. The one group had a mother with PND and the other did not. The results show that those babies with a depressed mother were less responsive than those babies without a depressed mother.
PND can disrupt the process of attachment and thereby affect the child’s emotional development. But it is repairable. When PND is treated, mothers are more able to contain their own emotional distress in order to focus on the emotional needs of their newborn. How can this be facilitated?

1. Skin-to-skin contact. A babies’ sense of smell and touch is his connection to you in the world. For 40 weeks he was surrounded by you in all ways. He knows your smell, your voice, and your touch. He builds an attachment when he hears you, feels you and smells you. Using a baby pouch is a wonderful way to maintain skin-to-skin contact while moving around the house.

2. Bathing, holding, feeding, changing, etc are all ways in which parents build an attachment to their babies. The physical is the psychological in the first year! When you attend to his physical needs you are nurturing him and this builds your relationship with him. When he is wet and you change him, when he is hurt and you comfort him, you are listening to his inner feelings and experiences and responding to his needs. He begins to trust that there is someone very important in his world who will look after him. And so the attachment to you begins to grow.

3. To contain his distress when he screams and cries. A study showed that babies were better able to tolerate a loud noise when in their mothers’ arms than in a cot. Babies are allowed to cry because they are babies. But containing your infant’s distress means that you have to tolerate your own too. When the baby is distressed it is easy to become distressed too. But it doesn’t usually help – it only adds to the drama. Being a containing parent means allowing your children to experience happy and sad feelings and being able to support both. It is difficult to build an attachment to a screaming, colicky baby. Your role as parent is to contain your babies’ feelings and your own enough to survive the experience. A deeper attachment might occur when the baby is more settled.

4. Mirror him! Smiling is a fantastic activity because it heralds in the early process of attachment. At first your baby smiles in response to satisfaction. As his needs are satisfied, he begins to associate pleasure with the human face. Your role as parent is to mirror him. To smile back, to copy him. This is an important role in parenting from this day on. When you mirror, you validate his experience – which makes him feel alive and real.

Building an attachment in the first year is the most important psychological task for parents and babies. But it is not confined to this experience. When you move to a new city, you too will need to establish new attachments – to people and to things. First you might complain about what you have left behind. Then you might explore the area around you and find some benefits to the new place. And as it becomes more familiar, so you will feel more attached to the place in order to call it “home”.

PND can disrupt the attachment between mothers and their babies. But it’s never too late to work on this process! It’s never too late to build an attachment to your child. But it is not easy to do so if you are depressed, overwhelmed, insecure and anxious. PND is treatable. If you need help, get it.

Call PNDSA on 082 8820072 (National)
Gauteng 0833272382
Tel/fax 021 797 4498
e-mail: liz@pndsa.co.za
http://www.pndsa.co.za

 
 
 
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