Beyond labor a candid look at postnatal mental health difficulties 

Beyond labor a candid look at postnatal mental health difficulties 

The journey to motherhood is a journey of many stages, each with their own unique challenges and opportunities. When all goes smoothly, we start with conception, move through to pregnancy, which is followed by birth and then the postnatal period.  

For many of us we expect the postnatal period to be filled with relief at no longer feeling as physically uncomfortable as we did towards the end of our pregnancy and joy that our baby is here, and we can finally hold them in our arms. We may have developed fantasies about this part of our journey, delighting at the thought of watching TV during the day whilst our baby naps and going to mother and baby groups with our new mum friends. The reality is that the postnatal period is a complex and often tumultuous time, with lots that surprises us or that we did not expect to be part of this phase of our journey.  

The postnatal period marks a time of significant change and transition. You are suddenly responsible for keeping another person alive, a responsibility that understandably feels overwhelming to most new parents. You are likely to only get very broken and minimal sleep, which can have a huge impact on how we feel emotionally and physically. In addition, you are recovering physically and psychologically from your experience of birth. You are also adjusting psychologically to your new role as a mother, and your body will be expending huge amounts of emotional energy on getting to know and forming a relationship with your baby. As if this isn’t already enough, your body is also going through huge hormonal surges and changes, especially in the first week after birth and as your milk comes in. This is an awful lot for anyone to deal with, and so really when we think about it not all that surprising that our mental health is affected, and many women experience mental health difficulties during the postnatal period.  

In recent years research has started to explore women’s experiences of postnatal mental health problems within the UAE. However, there are substantial discrepancies in the prevalence ratings cited in research to date, which makes it difficult for us to know the true number of women experiencing mental health difficulties in the postnatal period in the UAE. This is possibly in part due to the cultural diversity within Dubai, and the fact that there will be significant differences between the various cultural groups that reside in Dubai in terms of risk factors, understanding and awareness of postnatal mental health difficulties. Therefore, in the future it will be important for research to include all cultural groups that reside within Dubai to give an accurate representation of prevalence within different cultural groups and the Dubai population as a whole. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 13% or 1 in 8 women that have recently given birth experience a mental health difficulty.  

When we hear the term postnatal mental health difficulties most of us will think about postnatal depression. Whilst postnatal depression is the most common mental health difficulties there are a wide range of mental health difficulties women experience in the postnatal period. Some of these difficulties include anxiety, which can present in a variety of ways, and birth trauma, which is a term used when a woman is traumatized, and experiences post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of their experience of giving birth.  

Let’s think about some of the signs of postnatal mental health difficulties, these include:  

  • persistently feeling sad, empty or numb,  
  • consistently high levels of anxiety, fear or worry which often but not always relates to the health and safety of your baby 
  • feeling completely overwhelmed and unable to cope 
  • avoiding thinking or talking about your experience of birth because it is too frightening or upsetting 
  • struggling to develop a relationship or feelings of love and warmth towards your baby.  

When a mental health difficulty is present during the postnatal period, we know that it can have a significant impact on the whole family. However, there is a wide range of evidence-based treatments available, including psychological therapy and medication. If you recognize any of the signs mentioned above in yourself or in a loved one, please do seek support. Please do reach out to a qualified mental health professional, with expertise in postnatal mental health difficulties, because with the right treatment things can improve. 

Whilst it is important for us to shine a spotlight on and raise awareness and understanding of postnatal mental health difficulties and how challenging the postnatal period can be we need to balance this with how wonderful this period can be too. A potential risk of talking openly and honestly about how challenging motherhood can be is that it puts women off or women approach motherhood with a sense of fear or dread. Even for women with severe postnatal mental health difficulties the postnatal period can and does include moments of joy, connection and growth as an individual, a mother and a family.  



Written by: Private: Dr Charlotte Cousins

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