One in three women will experience significant depressive symptoms in the first five years after giving birth. But new research has found if mothers regularly take time for themselves in the first six months after giving birth they’re less likely to get postnatal depression.
In the early months after giving birth, women’s physical health, intimate relationships and mental health are strained. Many new mothers experience mental health problems and they do not improve over time.
In fact, depression is commonly episodic rather than acute (meaning that it is most likely to come and go), and the prevalence of depression increases over the first four years after giving birth.
Maternal depression has clear and obvious impacts on women, children and families. Despite the importance of women’s mental health after birth, there has been very limited evidence of effective ways to prevent maternal depression and promote mental well-being at this time.
We studied more than 1,500 women and discovered a strong and robust association between “taking time for themselves, when someone else looks after the baby” at six months after birth and the prevalence of depression symptoms. The prevalence of depressive symptoms steadily decreased as the frequency of time for self increased (see Figure 1).
The lowest prevalence of depression was 6% in women who had time for themselves once a week or more. Compared to women who had personal time at least once a week, women who never had personal time were three times more likely to experience depression in the postnatal period.
Just under half of the women in the study (49%) had regular, weekly personal time. One in six reported they never had personal time when someone else looked after the baby.
We initially thought the relationship between personal time and depression could be explained by other factors such as relationship status, or general practical and emotional support. There was indeed a strong relationship between measures of social support and how often women had time for themselves. However, even after taking these factors into account, the frequency of time for self significantly predicted maternal depression.
Activities commonly reported by women when they had personal time included: going out with their partner; having a long bath or shower; going to the hairdresser; or putting their feet up and watching TV. The most commonly reported activity was doing the supermarket shopping. While probably not an activity usually associated with relaxation, a lot of new mothers can probably relate to the sense of peace that comes from doing the shopping alone, after having attempted it with a baby.
We suspect that what women actually do when they have time for themselves may not matter so much as that someone else looks after the baby for a while – meaning that women get a break from that responsibility.
How to make the most of these findings
Maternal mental health is important because the transition to motherhood can be such a challenging time, but also because maternal depression can have long-lasting impacts on children.
While a weekly time-out for mothers sounds like a simple fix, it may not be straightforward for all mothers to achieve this. It requires the ongoing support of others – such as partners, family and friends.
These significant others can play an important role in promoting women’s mental health after birth – by encouraging women to take time for themselves, and by taking responsibility for looking after the baby for that time.
Many new mothers feel like they should be able to cope with the demands of caring for a new baby on their own. Therefore, asking for help can be difficult.
We know the majority of childcare responsibilities still fall to women. The more we can share the demands of looking after a new baby between partners and other family members, the healthier mothers will be, and thus healthier children and healthier families.
Hannah Woolhouse receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Stephanie Brown receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council and the Australian Research Council.