More than one in five new mums suffer post-natal depression, and the number is rising.
Australian researchers have proven that women who are perfectionists are at a higher risk of developing post-natal depression. They’re now trialling a way to treat these women before they give birth, to reduce their risk of suffering from it.
Dr Sarah Egan from Perth’s Curtin University has been researching perfectionism for years.
“We know that it’s related to all sorts of problems generally: anxiety, depression, eating disorders,” she tells The Motherish.
Dr Egan says there’s nothing wrong with people striving for higher standards.
“The sort of perfectionism that might become a problem or might make you more likely to get anxious and depressed is when you’re really self-critical,” she adds. “You really beat yourself up when you make mistakes. You base your whole self-esteem on how well you’re going at meeting your standards.”
A mother to a toddler herself, with another baby on the way, Dr Egan has seen that perfectionism is a real issue for pregnant women and mums. They might be expecting to keep the house as clean as it was before the baby came along. They might be imagining they'll have a "perfect bond" with their baby immediately after the birth. They might be assuming things like sleeping and feeding will go according to plan.
"There's so much about babies that you just can't control, particularly in that period when you're a new mum," Dr Egan explains. "People might be saying, 'I’m not doing a good enough job because my baby’s not sleeping well,' or, 'I’m not able to breastfeed well enough.' It’s actually got nothing to do with you."
Women with established careers, having their first child later in life, often fall victim to that kind of perfectionist thinking.
"They’re probably used to being able to get things done and achieve deadlines. If you work hard enough, then you do well. But you can’t apply those standards to having a baby. No matter how hard you work, they're just going to do what they’re going to do anyway. You might be doing a great job, but they just won’t sleep or they just won’t feed or whatever the issue is."
Dr Egan did a study two years ago that followed women from their third trimester through to after the birth of their baby.
"The study looked at whether perfectionism predicted higher anxiety and depression, and it did. So we’re trying to do something about it."
It's been found that self-help treatments work well to reduce anxiety and depression generally. Dr Egan is now doing a study to see if this kind of treatment can reduce the rate of post-natal depression among perfectionist women. She has a self-help booklet that she'll be sending out to pregnant women who take part in the study.
"Anyone can do it, around Australia," she says. "We just mail out the information and ask them to read it over a four-week period, and do some of the exercises in there."
Dr Egan believes treating women before they give birth is worth a shot.
"If we could prevent stuff before it happens, then it’s going to be a lot better than trying to treat people down the track once the anxiety and depression set in."
To register for the study, click here.
Have you suffered from post-natal depression?