Sometimes, partners will be the first to notice something isn’t right. But what are the signs of postnatal depression and how can you find support?
Between 10% to 20% of women get postnatal depression (PND) in the first year after they give birth (NICE, 2016). And around 10% of men get postnatal depression too (Paulson et al, 2006). So you’re definitely not alone in this.
Watch our video where one dad talks about his experience and read on to see how two other dads helped themselves and their partners.
Noticing signs of postnatal depression
Postnatal depression has many different symptoms. Changes in your partner’s physical wellbeing and behaviour are signs to look out for.
Mark began to feel something wasn’t right with his wife Michelle soon after their son Ethan was born.
“It was clear from day one that Michelle wasn't herself. She became withdrawn and scared when left alone. I could see in her eyes that something wasn't right.”
You might find that your partner becomes more withdrawn and is reluctant to leave the house. Their appetite or eating patterns might change, and they might be more irritable than usual or have sleep problems (Boots Alliance Trust, 2013).
Ben noticed his wife Abi became anxious and distant after their daughter Chloe was born.
“Abi started to have feelings of being worthless and acted obsessively. She spent hours cleaning baby things and writing lists of what needed to happen each day.
"She couldn’t sleep, began to lose weight dramatically and started saying Chloe would be better off without her. It was like she was a shell of a person and not the same woman anymore.”
Does my partner have postnatal depression?
It can be hard to spot the signs of PND. Especially as some of the symptoms, such as disturbed sleep, low sex drive and lack of concentration, are common among new mums (MIND, 2020). After all, it’s normal to experience some stress and feel overwhelmed as a new parent. This is why it’s so important to check in with your partner regularly to ask how they are feeling to help you both be more aware of any persistent mood changes.
“Always try to use open-ended questions. You could ask how her day has been, how she’s feeling, what she’s struggled with or if there’s anything you can do to help,” suggests Mark.
“My advice is to ask questions and check for any changes in behaviour, like whether they’re withdrawing from friends and family,” says Ben.
As the onset of PND is often gradual, many people don’t realise they have it (Public Health England, 2019). Some might try to hide their feelings because they think they’re a bad parent, a failure, or that they’ll be judged (RCOG, 2017). Others fear that social services might get involved or that their baby may be taken away from them if they admit to being unwell (NICE, 2018). In fact, 30% never get professional help (Boots Family Trust Alliance, 2013).
"So, partners need to watch that bit closer and trust their instincts if they feel something isn’t right.
“Be aware of listening to your partner. Let them talk uninterrupted. Sometimes, all they needs to know is that you’re there and you understand,” suggested Mark.
Postnatal depression: the symptoms
- A persistent feeling of sadness and low mood.
- Frequently crying for no obvious reason.
- Loss of interest in the world and no longer enjoying things that used to bring happiness.
- Speaking negatively all the time.
- Withdrawing from contact with other people.
- A lack of energy and feeling tired all the time.
- Trouble sleeping at night and feeling sleepy during the day.
- Feeling unable to look after the baby.
- Problems concentrating and making decisions.
- A loss of appetite or an increased appetite (comfort eating).
- Being agitated and irritable or having an apathetic ‘can’t be bothered’ feeling.
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness and self-blame.
- Difficulty bonding with baby – a feeling of indifference, not wanting to play and no sense of enjoyment in their company.
- Frightening thoughts – perhaps about hurting the baby (though these are very rarely acted upon).
- Thinking about suicide and self-harm.
- Neglecting appearance, such as not washing or changing clothes.
- Losing all sense of time, for example, not being aware whether 10 minutes or two hours have passed.
- Constantly worrying that something is wrong with baby.
(NHS, 2018; Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2018a,b; MIND, 2020)
Encouraging your partner to be open with their feelings
Making time to talk… and to listen is important (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2018b). You might also need to be extra careful with your language and assumptions. PND is a mental health illness, and it’s not possible to ‘snap out of it’ or cure it with positive thinking (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2018b).
It can be tricky to find the right words to talk about PND. You could try phrases like:
- ‘I know you’ve been having a tough time lately.’
- ‘I’ve noticed you haven’t quite been yourself.’
If talking face-to-face is proving difficult, you could try to connect by sending a message.
You could encourage your partner to write things down in a mood diary if they’re struggling to talk. Journals and mood diaries can help people with PND to notice which people, places and activities can improve or worsen their mood (MIND, 2020). You can find some more tips here on how to talk and listen to your partner.
Being understanding: when your partner has postnatal depression
Being kind and gentle is essential as this is a difficult and sensitive subject. It might take time for your partner to feel ready to talk, or to acknowledge that they may be experiencing PND.
“Try not to make negative comments as this may be the only opportunity they will really open up to you,” cautions Mark.
If your partner opens up about distressing thoughts they’re having, try not to show you’re too alarmed. The best thing you can do is not judge.
If you are worried your partner might harm themself or the baby, it’s very important to take this seriously. Seek urgent help from your GP, local mental health service or accident and emergency department (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2018a).
Try to understand what your partner might be going through by reading about and researching the nature of the illness. You could look up local and national support groups, forums or blogs. They might be comforted to see they’re not alone in feeling the way they do.
It’s good to trust your instincts too.
“If you don’t see things improving, speak to other specialists as there could be something else triggering the PND. Doctors can sometimes be wrong,” adds Ben.
What helps postnatal depression?
It’s vital that your partner gets support. You might want to offer to schedule a visit from your health visitor or make a GP appointment. You could also accompany your partner so they don’t feel alone.
“Tell your health visitor and your family. Please don't suffer in silence as the quicker you get help the quicker the recovery is for families,” advises Mark.
Remember that health professionals are there to help. They might offer psychological (talking therapies), medication or a combination of both. It’ll depend on the illness and your partner’s wishes (NHS, 2018).
Will their postnatal depression ever go away?
When your partner has PND, it’s so important to offer them reassurance. Tell them:
- they’re a good parent
- they’re doing a great job under tough circumstances
- the baby won’t be taken away (this can be a common fear among parents with PND)
- you’re there to help
- you’re proud of them for getting treatment
- they will get better.
How to offer practical help to your partner
Support from loved ones is one of the greatest healers (Boots Alliance Trust, 2013). There are also lots of practical ways you can support them and help ease the burden.
Tips for helping your partner who has PND
- Help around the house.
- Be at home as much as you can.
- Take the pressure off when you are not at work.
- Take on more responsibility – or enlist more help if you can’t – particularly in the first year when there’s a lot of change, exhaustion and stress.
- Make sure your partner gets enough sleep.
- Support them with feeding the baby the way they want to.
- Try to make healthy meals, and encourage them to eat even though they may not have much of an appetite; cutting down on alcohol and caffeine is also helpful.
- Make thoughtful suggestions – would she like a relaxing bath or to do some exercise, which can work wonders for how you feel.
- Take her lead as well – ask her what she needs or wants to do.
(Cooney et al, 2013; NHS, 2018)
Giving her time out is important but so is spending time together. New mums can feel like they’ve lost sight of who they are, so you may want to find things you can still enjoy together like going for walks, watching DVDs for a simple date night or seeing friends.
For more self-care tips, see our article Postnatal depression: the questions you really want to ask.
Coping with a partner with postnatal depression
It is normal to feel shocked, disappointed, scared, frustrated or helpless to discover your partner has PND (Royal College of Psychiatrists, 2018a). And it can be upsetting, stressful and exhausting to live with someone with PND (MIND, 2020). Here's how one dad coped with his wife's depression.
Ben explains the impact PND had on him:
“It’s the most scared and anxious I have ever felt. I had heart palpitations and mild panic symptoms. It made me angry not being able to get through to her and I was worried she’d do something terrible that would impact our child for ever.”
In fact, partners of those suffering PND can be more susceptible to depression – with between 24% and 50% also getting depression themselves (Fatherhood Institute, 2010).
This was certainly the case for Mark:
“I blamed myself and became angry. I couldn’t tell Michelle as I didn’t want it to affect her mental health so I carried on hiding it every day. Men don't share and talk about our feelings due to the stigma. But if you don't look after yourself, how can you look after your family?”
The most important thing to remember is that help is available for both of you – and that things can improve for your family.
If you feel your mental health is being affected, speak to you GP.
This page was last reviewed in January 2022.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby: 0300 330 0700.
You might find attending one of our NCT New Baby courses helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.
Mind, a leading mental health charity, provides information on a range of mental health topics, including postnatal depression, and has an infoline for support: 0300 123 3393.
You can call the Samaritans for free for listening and support any time of the day on 116 123.
PANDAS (PND Awareness & Support) is support service for families and their networks who are experiencing a perinatal mental illness. They have a free helpline that you can call on 0808 1961 776.
To find out more about postnatal depression from a partner's perspective, see this article from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Read about our Hidden Half campaign, which aims to get postnatal mental illness out of hiding.
Boots Family Trust Alliance. (2013) Perinatal mental health: experiences of women and health professionals. Available at: https://www.basw.co.uk/resources/perinatal-mental-health-experiences-wo… [Accessed 6th January 2022]
Cooney GM, Dwan K, Greig CA, Lawlor DA, Rimer J, Waugh FR, et al. (2013) Exercise for depression. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (9):CD004366. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004366.pub6
Fatherhood Institute. (2010) Research summary: fathers and postnatal depression. Available at: http://www.fatherhoodinstitute.org/2018/fatherhood-institute-research-s… [Accessed 26th January 2022]
MIND. (2020) What is perinatal depression? Available at: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-prob… [Accessed 26th January 2022]
NHS. (2018) Overview - postnatal depression. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Postnataldepression/Pages/Introduction.aspx [Accessed 26th January 2022]
NICE. (2014) Antenatal and postnatal mental health. Clinical management and service guidance CG192. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg192 [Accessed 26th January 2022]
NICE. (2016) Antenatal and postnatal mental health. Quality standard QS115. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/qs115/chapter/Introduction [Accessed 26th January 2022]
Paulson JF, Dauber S, Leiferman JA. (2006) Individual and combined effects of postpartum depression in mothers and fathers on parenting behavior. Pediatrics. 118(2):659-668. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2005-2948
Public Health England. (2019) Better mental health: joint strategic needs assessment toolkit, guidance on perinatal mental health. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/better-mental-health-jsna-to… [Accessed 26th January 2022]
RCOG. (2017) Maternal mental health - women’s voices. Available at: https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/patients/information/mat… [Accessed 14th January 2022]
Royal College of Psychiatrists. (2018a) Postnatal depression – how partners and family can help. Available at: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/problems-disorders/post-natal-depression [Accessed 26th January 2022]
Royal College of Psychiatrists. (2018b) Postnatal depression – information for carers. Available at: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/problems-disorders/postnatal-depression-information-for-carers [Accessed 26th January 2022]