Lack of sleep and worries about the baby are common among new parents. But what do you do when a friend doesn’t seem like themself? Here's how to help...
They’re exhausted, their hormones are all over the place and they're overwhelmed by responsibility. It’s all par for the course when you’ve recently had a baby, and it’s why having friends for support is crucial.
But what happens if one of your mates seems to be struggling. It’s possible that they could be having mental health problems, such as postnatal depression (PND), anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And we’re not just talking about birthing women here – partners can suffer from mental health problems too, so watch out for signs in your partner or among your friendship group.
They’re exhausted, but can’t sleep
‘Sleep while the baby sleeps’ is one of the most annoying clichés new parents hear. If only it was so easy, eh? Particularly when you have an endless flow of visitors to entertain AND a laundry basket full of seemingly multiplying baby clothes.
But if you have a friend who’s really struggling to get their head down, or even mentions that they’ve been having vivid nightmares, it could be a symptom of a mental health problem.
Withdrawing from friends or other people can be a symptom of mental health illness (NHS Inform, 2020). You could help by offering to entertain their baby along with yours for a couple of hours while they get some rest.
Your friend might not be able to sleep (NHS Inform, 2020), but just the time out and the kindness of your gesture will help them feel less overwhelmed, and give them time to reflect on how they’ve been feeling. Depending on the degree of their symptoms, you might have to suggest they or their partner get professional help from healthcare providers to support their mental health (NICE, 2014).
Their eating habits have changed
It can be hard to eat a well-balanced diet when you’ve just had a baby, when your normal routine has gone out of the window. Besides which, frankly, every new parent deserves a chocolate biscuit (or three). But eating habits and mental health are highly intertwined, with many people either comfort eating or, at the opposite end of the scale, experiencing a loss of appetite when they’re depressed or anxious (NHS Inform, 2020).
If you’ve spotted that your friend is displaying some eating habits that worry you, you could have a chat with them. The focus doesn’t have to be about food, but maybe start the conversation with how you’ve noticed they haven’t quite been themselves lately. It could well be the case that they don’t want to discuss it with you because they’re worried about being perceived as a bad parent (NICE, 2014). But if you offer them emotional support, they might share their feelings and situation with you.
You could also sensitively broach your concerns with their partner. New parents can feel overwhelmed in the early days, so neither might not be prioritising healthy eating. Maybe offer to cook them a meal or shop for healthy snacks.
It’s really hard to not feel like you’re interfering. But just by mentioning that you’re a bit worried and asking them if your friend’s been eating OK at home could be enough for them to take action. It is really important that mental health problems are diagnosed and treated, because with the right treatment and support parents can get well and the impact of the illness can be minimised (National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health, 2018).
They’re not engaging in conversation
If you’ve got a gaggle of parent friends who get together en masse, it can be hard to have a proper chat. Conversation threads are often left unfinished due to badly-timed baby meltdowns or unexpected nappy incidents.
Plus, less outgoing personalities can find themselves drowned out by all the chatter. But if one friend seems to be chipping in even less than usual, keep an eye on them. One of the symptoms of many mental health illnesses includes withdrawing from conversation with other people (NHS Inform, 2020).
You could always message them afterwards and say: ‘Feel like I hardly got the chance to talk to you! How are things?’ or even arrange a one-on-one meet-up to see how they’re doing.
If they’re struggling with their mental health, they might find it easier to open up away from a noisy group.
Your friend is really anxious about their baby
As a new parent, it’s totally normal to worry about everything from your newborn’s body temperature to the colour of their poo. But, in parents suffering from a mental health illness, these concerns can be heightened to the point that they’re crippled by them (NHS Inform, 2020). This can lead to being scared to do things that wouldn’t normally bother them, such as taking their little one out to the shops.
Maybe your friend seems to be obsessing about their baby’s well-being, or taking a lot of trips to the doctors about what seem like small things. It’s worth bringing it up with them directly – initially by reassuring them about what a wonderful, caring parent they are and saying that you totally understand how scary it is suddenly being responsible for a tiny human. They may be feeling that they are unable to look after their baby (NHS Inform, 2020), so your reassurance and encouragement could help.
Get them chatting – and always encourage them to seek professional help if they could be experiencing a problem with their mental health (NICE, 2014). For example, they could talk with their GP, health visitor or family support worker. Many parents put on their ‘happy face’ at baby groups or gatherings for fear of being judged or labelled a bad parent if they share their true worries and fears (NICE, 2014).
Research suggests that social support from people who share similar experiences can have a positive impact on parenting experiences, and subsequently on mental health and wellbeing (Shorey et al, 2018).
The more we talk openly and honestly about our mental health, the more chance we have of getting support. And who better is there than your fellow new parents to turn to? Peer support can be great for mental health (Pfeiffer et al, 2011).
You may like to share information about local parenting groups with your friend, or even better arrange to go with them. Local NCT volunteers may run some activities, such as buggy walks and bumps and baby groups, that you could try.
Look after yourself, too
When you’re concerned about a friend’s well-being, it is very easy to let your own come second. Make sure that you are taking care of yourself and accessing the support you have available to you. After all, to look after other people you’ve got to look after yourself as well.
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.
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.
National Collaborating Centre for Mental Health. (2018) The perinatal mental health care pathways. Full implementation guidance. Available at: https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/docs/default-source/improving-care/nccmh/peri… [Accessed 14th January 2022]
NICE. (2014) Antenatal and postnatal mental health: clinical management and service guidance. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg192/chapter/1-recommendations#recogn… [Accessed 26th January 2022]
NHS Inform. (2020) Postnatal depression. Available at: https://www.nhsinform.scot/illnesses-and-conditions/mental-health/postn…
Pfeiffer PN, Heisler M, Piette JD, Rogers MA, Valenstein M. (2011) Efficacy of peer support interventions for depression: a meta-analysis. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 33(1):29-36. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.genhosppsych.2010.10.002
Shorey S, Chee C, Chong YS, Ng ED, Lau Y, Dennis CL. (2018) Evaluation of technology-based peer support intervention program for preventing postnatal depression: protocol for a randomized controlled trial. JMIR Res Protoc. 7(3):e81. Accessed at: https://doi.org/10.2196/resprot.9416