What causes postnatal depression

There is no known cause for postnatal depression, and sometimes it can start for no obvious reason. However, some researchers have suggested a number of possibilities.

Some think it is likely to be biological; for example, changes in your body, including hormonal changes. Despite the existing research indicating that changes in level of hormones during pregnancy and after birth can trigger hormones, only some women go on to develop PND, meaning that it is unlikely that hormones are the single cause.

Others think the cause is linked to past experiences or social circumstances. Many suggest that a combination of different issues cause PND. Some situations are considered to put you at particular risk of developing PND:

  • Previous mental health problems
  • Lack of support
  • Experience of abuse
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poverty and poor living conditions
  • Major life events

Previous mental health problems

If you have experienced a mental health problem in the past – including during pregnancy – this may recur after you have given birth. It is also important to be aware that what caused your mental health problem in the past, can also put you at risk of PND.

If you experienced PND after the birth of one child, you are at increased risk of developing PND after the birth of your next child. However, you may have coped well with you first child, and felt depressed after the second, or the other way around.

Lack of support

Several studies suggest that lack of support from a partner or other family members can put you at risk of PND. You are at particular risk if you are a single mother (especially if you are young), recent immigrant, refugee or asylum seeker.

“Depression during pregnancy needs to be published more – because I was never ever asked how I was, even when they knew I was about to be a single parent and aware that I had no support.”

Experience of abuse

If you experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse while growing up, you may find it hard to relate to others, including your baby. If your own parents did not have good parenting skills, you may find it hard to adapt to your new role as a mother. For example, you may feel unsure how to respond when your baby is crying. You may even fear that you are going to harm your baby somehow, because you are unsure how to take care of them.

Domestic violence, including verbal, emotional and financial abuse, can trigger anxiety, depression and lower your self-esteem. It also puts you at risk of developing PND. If you experienced abuse as a child or later in life you may also have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can further add to your risk for postnatal depression.

Low self-esteem

If your self-esteem is low, you may doubt your ability to cope as a new mother. When your baby cries, for example, you may think it is because of something you have done wrong – or because of something you have not done. The way you think about yourself can put you at risk of developing PND.

Poverty and poor living conditions

It can be difficult for anyone to deal with poverty. Having a new baby while living in poor housing and with little money to spend, this adds stress to your life and puts you at risk of developing PND. You may feel that you are unable to provide your baby with everything that he or she needs, and you may feel that you are failing your baby. Dealing with poverty can be particularly difficult if you are also living alone with little or no support from others.

Major life events

Major life events can include:

  • An illness or death in the family
  • The break-up of a relationship
  • Moving houses
  • Losing your job
  • Having a baby
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