As a new mother, you expect to feel tired – probably even exhausted.
You grew a whole new human being and birthed a baby from your body. You will nourish that baby for months, maybe even for years.
And, like many of us, you’ll probably do it again. And again.
Raising children is exhausting.
Mothers are constantly on call. It’s a 24/7 job.
We often take on the lion’s share of the domestic chores too, as well as the mental burden of managing a household.
It’s not uncommon for mothers to feel completely exhausted for years after having babies.
Mothering takes its toll on us hormonally, physically and emotionally.
The last of my babies recently started school. I had big plans for what I was going to do and how I was going to use my time. I certainly wasn’t prepared for how tired I feel. Still.
I don’t have any health problems. My kids sleep well. What’s actually wrong with me?
Postnatal Depletion – What It Is And How To Recover
Dr Oscar Serrallach is a GP based in Byron Bay, and a father of three. He has just completed a book called Mothermorphosis: Your Revolutionary Guide to Postnatal Transformation. According to him, I’m suffering from postnatal depletion. And I’m not alone.
What Is Postnatal Depletion?
We’ve all heard of postnatal depression. Now, postnatal depletion is something else we mamas can look forward to.
Dr Serrallach has coined the term ‘postnatal depletion’ to describe a condition that involves both physical and emotional fatigue.
In a nutshell, postnatal depletion is the huge toll that pregnancy, birth and child care take on mothers.
The dictionary definition of ‘deplete’ is: to decrease seriously or exhaust the abundance or supply of (something).
That sums up exactly how postnatal depletion feels. Ten years after having my first baby and five years after having my last baby, my supply of mama energy is exhausted. There’s virtually nothing left to scrape from the bottom of the barrel.
What Are The Signs Of Postnatal Depletion?
Being tired and overwhelmed is considered part and parcel of becoming a mother. Yet it seems, in today’s busy society, tiredness and that sense of being overwhelmed have been normalised to the point where women are no longer cared for in the way they need to be after the birth and well beyond.
A woman who experiences postnatal depletion feels deep and persistent fatigue, which is unrelieved by sleep. She feels she has to be the perfect mother who can do everything: this expectation contributes to the pervasive state of feeling overwhelmed.
Postnatal depletion often involves:
- Intense fatigue and exhaustion – and falling asleep without meaning to
- Lethargy – and being tired when waking
- Hypervigilance – a feeling of being ‘wired’ or constantly ‘on’
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor memory
- Loss of libido
- Worsening of pre-existing medical conditions
- Poor immune function, leading to other problems such as mastitis, poor gut health or recurring infections.
Women who experience postnatal depletion often express a sense of being lost, or no longer feeling like themselves. They might feel guilty and ashamed they’re not enjoying motherhood the way they are ‘meant’ to.
Constantly putting our own needs behind those of others can leave us feeling unworthy and overwhelmed. It takes our self esteem to an all time low. It also leaves too little room for taking care of ourselves.
Why Does Postnatal Depletion Occur?
Most mothers will tell you after the birth of a baby they experience what is known as ‘mama brain’ or ‘baby brain’.
People often make fun of it, but it’s a very real phenomenon. It occurs because of a physical change your brain undergoes during pregnancy – part of the adjustments your body makes in preparation for motherhood.
During pregnancy, a woman’s brain will shrink by about 5%. At the same time, other parts of her brain will acquire ‘upgrades’ which prime her to be alert and to connect with her baby.
A baby growing in utero will take what it requires from its mother. The fetal brain, for example, has a huge need for energy and fat. Research has shown fat, particularly fatty acids such as DHA, are essential for brain development and function.
During the third trimester, the fetal brain is undergoing the most significant stage of development. About 7 grams of fat pass from mother to baby each day, and approximately 60% of the total energy that goes to the baby is used to fuel the optimal development of the brain, and the immune and nervous systems.
This high transfer of DHA fatty acid is essential for the baby but can leave the mother depleted. She is at risk for the following problems, linked to essential fatty acid deficiency:
- Skin can become dry, scaly and itchy. Nails might be dull, grow slowly and become soft and brittle. Dandruff can develop, with dull and brittle hair or hair loss.
- Breasts might become tender and painful before and during menstruation. Menstrual irregularities can occur, menstrual cramping can develop or become worse, and there might be vaginal dryness.
- Dry eyes; poor night vision; increased sensitivity to light; aura migraines.
- Sleep disturbances, such as difficulty in falling asleep at night and waking in the morning
- Problems with concentration; mood swings; anxiety and depression.
Most pregnant women are warned against consuming foods which are high in DHA, such as fatty fish and seafood, and typically eat a diet high in carbohydrates and low in healthy fats and proteins, which makes the deficiency worse.
Many women begin pregnancy by eating well but, over time, cravings, aversions, time constraints and confusion about what is safe to eat get in the way of their good intentions.
It’s no surprise then to find most women will begin motherhood already depleted in key nutrients such as iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and essential fatty acids.
And after baby is born, the problem seems to be compounded.
Breastfeeding can contribute to further depletion, particularly of essential fatty acids, as a baby’s needs for DHA remain high in the first two years of life.
Although women might receive plenty of support during pregnancy, after birth the focus tends to switch to supporting the baby, rather than the mother.
In traditional societies, such as hunter-gather tribes like the !Kung and Efe tribes, childcare is shared among parents and non parental caregivers. This starts immediately from birth, with babies being passed among nonparental adults an average of eight times per hour.
Whereas in our contemporary, industrialised families, babies and their mothers don’t have this support and contact with a wider community. An !Kung mother is almost always surrounded by other adults.
Our modern culture isn’t compatible with human evolutionary child rearing and it shows. Mothers are left literally and figuratively holding the baby. And as evidence shows us, babies weren’t designed to be left alone. This constant focus on another’s needs becomes wearing, taking its toll as mothers begin to feel exhausted and unable to cope.
Can We Prevent Postnatal Depletion?
Now we know about the effects of postnatal depletion, and the potential for it happening, what can we do to prevent or limit the effects of this condition on mothers?
There are three main ways to prevent postnatal depletion:
Postnatal Depletion #1: Preconception Care Is Vital
In Australia the average age for a woman having her first baby is 30.9 years. This means women go into pregnancy older but with the advantage of being more educated about their needs and care.
Women who plan to become pregnant in the future will benefit from investing in healthy eating now. This means a well balanced, nutrition-rich diet that includes plenty of omega 3 essential fatty acids.
Food sources rich in omega 3 are:
- Wild caught seafood
- Chia seeds
- Egg yolks.
Unfortunately, many people are less likely to eat seafood because of concerns about the presence of heavy metals, such as mercury, in certain types of fish.
Supplementing with fish oil is a safe and recommended way to ensure you get an adequate supply of omega 3 fatty acids.
Studies demonstrate that preconception care is highly important in reducing a number of adverse pregnancy outcomes and helps to improve maternal health.
Postnatal Depletion #2: Pregnancy Care Pays Off
During pregnancy, your baby is growing rapidly. This can take a physical toll on your body, and the effects can last well after birth.
Make sure you continue to eat a nutritious diet to avoid becoming depleted in the vital nutrients that play a role in preventing postnatal depletion.
Continue to take a good quality fish oil supplement. This has added benefits for your baby’s developing brain, as well as ensuring you have plenty of essential fatty acids when you need them.
Think ahead to the time after the birth of your baby. How will you recover from pregnancy and birth? What plans do you have in place for support during this time? Think about the expectations you place on yourself, and prioritise self care.
Postnatal Depletion #3: Mother The Mother
When the baby is born and the novelty wears off, most mothers typically find themselves navigating their new role with very little support.
It’s also very common for women to feel they need to be in control of everything, and many ‘go it alone’ rather than ask for help. This increases their likelihood of becoming depleted.
In traditional cultures, mothers have what is known as a ‘babymoon’ or postnatal month. They essentially take time to rest and recuperate, and to bond with their babies for a month after birth.
The practice acknowledges the incredibly hard physical work a woman’s body has done in growing in a baby. It also honours the transition to motherhood.
This restorative period is virtually unheard of in Western cultures. Most women give birth, return home after a day or two, and are expected to be back on their feet within a week. In today’s busy society, being ‘back on your feet’ is the same as putting your needs on the back burner.
Planning ahead for a postnatal month, asking for support past the first few days, and being mindful of your own needs can help prevent or limit postnatal depletion.
How To Recover From Postnatal Depletion
If you’re a mother, it’s likely you’ve read this information and realised it describes you. Whether it’s been six months or six years since you gave birth, you recognise the signs you are depleted.
There’s also good news: it’s possible to recover from being depleted after having babies. It might take some time, depending on how long you’ve been feeling this way.
- You might need to have your nutritional profile and hormones looked at, in order to determine whether you are suffering from deficiencies.
- Take a good quality fish oil supplement.
- Increase your intake of good fats and proteins. Focus on restocking your essential fatty acid stores with bone broth, oily fish and good quality meat.
- If you are vegetarian or vegan, make sure you get adequate protein, and plenty of healthy fats from nut butter, avocado, coconut oil and tahini.
- Reduce your intake of processed foods, and make sure you eat plenty of nutrient dense vegetables.
- Incorporate gentle exercise into your life. This might be yoga, pilates or walking. As you feel better, you will be able to do more. Exercise promotes mood boosting hormones and increases your energy levels.
- Getting adequate rest is easier said than done, but it’s incredibly important. If you are still caring for small babies or children, try to find ways to increase your overall rest/sleep.
- Invest in your relationship. Becoming parents can really rock its foundations. You might need to reconnect with your partner to rebuild the loving support both of you deserve.
- Ask for help. Don’t push yourself to keep coping alone. This might mean outsourcing the domestic load, grocery deliveries and so on.
- Seek support in finding a healthy balance between your role as a mother and your personal self growth. Talk about it with a trusted health professional, if possible.
There are huge expectations for women to step into motherhood and still maintain all the other aspects of themselves. This puts incredible pressure on women and sets them up for mental health problems such as postnatal depression and anxiety.