Pregnancy can be a hugely exciting time for parents-to-be, but awaiting the arrival of a new baby also comes with its fair share of stresses and pressures. Mums and dads-to-be may naturally feel anxious, particularly if they are expecting their first child, about the dramatic life changes they are about to go through. We asked four RSCPP therapists to offer their advice about how to take care of your mental health and wellbeing when you're expecting a baby.
"Becoming a parent is a huge transition which begins long before the birth," says Accredited Counsellor Katie Leatham. "Pregnancy helpfully gives you time to process some of the inevitable worries about the birth: how you will cope with the new baby, the changed relationship with your partner (if you have one), your career, and your finances. However, for some, the pregnancy might bring more serious anxiety or depression."
Ante-natal depression and anxiety are less commonly discussed than post-natal mental health issues, but some expectant parents are affected by these issues during pregnancy, and it's important that you don't suffer in silence.
Ante-natal depression and anxiety are particularly associated with loss or trauma.
As Katie explains, "Ante-natal depression and anxiety are particularly associated with any recent or past loss or trauma, such as a death, miscarriage or the end of a relationship. Women who have lost their own mothers are more vulnerable to confusing or unmanageable feelings being triggered during pregnancy." Meanwhile, men and women who had difficult childhoods themselves may find anxiety or depression bubbling up in the ante-natal period, she says. "Buried anxieties that you felt when you were a child may come back now that you are going to be a parent yourself."
If you are concerned about your or your partner's mental health during pregnancy, it's important to seek help before the problems get worse - and particularly before your baby arrives. "You shouldn't put up with anxiety or depression during pregnancy," Katie says. "Although for many the birth may bring relief - as you meet your baby and find all the worries drop away - for others, mental health issues prior to parenthood are a strong indicator for post-natal depression. The sooner you seek support, the better it will be for you and your family."
As well as perhaps bringing up feelings from the past, pregnancy is also a time when parents-to-be will inevitably be looking towards the future, anticipating their arrival and perhaps feeling anxiety about the pressure of becoming parents. Registered Counsellor Brenda Silverman says: "Some mothers-to-be express extreme anxiety about being able to be 'good mums'. They may feel unable to draw on their mothers or significant caregivers for many reasons - either they are not physically available due to living in different countries, or are from situations where there was a lack of maternal caregiving."
Understand the difference between being a 'perfect' parent and a 'good enough' parent.
If you are in this position as an expectant mother or father, it can make you feel unsure and anxious, worried about what can go wrong, how you will cope, and who will help you. At this time in particular, "loneliness and fear can seem overwhelming", says Brenda. Seeking help from a therapist may provide a fresh perspective on your situation by helping you talk through your worries with your partner or a close friend, or think about who else might be available to support you.
"I encourage parents-to-be to understand the difference between being a 'perfect' parent (very hard to keep up) and a 'good enough' parent, where baby is kept clean, fed, held and safe," Brenda explains. "Anxiety is part of pregnancy, and asking for help is always better than struggling alone with your worries."
Likewise, Registered Psychotherapist Tara Economakis explains that anxiety about childbirth can have a detrimental impact on your mental wellbeing during pregnancy. "Giving birth is a normal, natural part of life, and for many parents a truly wonderful experience. However, first time mothers are often unprepared for this event and may be overwhelmed by fear and feelings of inadequacy. Dramatic stories from friends, relatives and the media contribute to negative anticipation, tension and anxiety," she says.
Influenced by these kinds of pressures and thought patterns, Tara adds, "the birthing body is inhibited from functioning naturally, and even the baby can be negatively impacted. Birth may become stressful for all involved, and both parents and baby suffer." Any anxiety during pregnancy, she says, "whether it is about the upcoming birth, about becoming a parent, or even something like how the family dog will react to a new arrival, will affect not only the mother's wellbeing, but also that of the baby."
Any anxiety during pregnancy will affect not only the mother's wellbeing, but also that of the baby.
"Babies, even in utero, are aware and they remember. Calm and gentle births that are free of tension and fear produce calm and gentle beings. Mothers and babies immediately bond, and the mental and emotional wellbeing of both is ensured," she explains. Talking through your concerns with experienced friends, relatives and health professionals can help put your mind at ease and improve the wellbeing of both you and your baby.
Finally, Accredited Counsellor Gavin Robinson says it's important also to focus on the relationship between your mental and physical health, and keep your overall wellbeing in mind throughout the pregnancy. "In my clinical experience, learning how to keep yourself repleted is an important part of wellbeing during the pregnancy period. It is so easy, with all of the demands of modern life, to not give yourself time to rest and care for yourself," he says.
"When pregnant, or trying to become pregnant, try and be aware of optimising your energy. Learn to get a sense of balance in life, so you have time to connect with yourself and your unborn child, forming a loving bond," Gavin says. Remember too, he adds, that too much stress and anxiety during pregnancy can impact on your ability to keep a good blood supply flowing to your child, with all the nutrients it needs.
Give yourself time to connect with yourself and your child, forming a loving bond.
"Learning to tune in to your inner sense of the connection [with your baby] may be very helpful indeed, keeping enough awareness of the moment to think: 'I need to care for myself, for my baby's future'. Just a short break can make all of the difference," he says.