My personal journey with postnatal depletion syndrome.
This is a personal story of overwhelming postnatal fatigue. When I became a mum I didn't have the energy to enjoy playing with my children the way I had dreamed I would. This is a story about living in a fog, feeling on the outside, being disconnected, watching other mums and wondering what was wrong with me.
I struggled with my health and for about 3 years after the birth of my daughters. In hindsight I realise I had postnatal depletion syndrome. Before I had children I was climbing the ladder of my career and enjoying a busy social life. After children, I was constantly overwhelmed and anxious and many aspects of my health spiralled.
In those first postnatal years I suffered terribly from sleep deprivation, never sleeping more than 3 hours each night. I caught every cold that my kids brought home from day care. The children would recover within a day, but my colds would develop into sinus or chest infections that would take me weeks or months to recover from.
Trying to find help
I consulted 6 or 7 different doctors during my years of being a young mum. All the doctors were kind and sympathised with my problems and reassured me it was normal to feel sick and tired when you're a new mum. The only solution I was offered by the doctors was anti-depressants, however thankfully, I wasn't depressed.
I remember the moment I realised that I couldn't keep going the way I was heading. I had to reach out for help because I couldn't cope with feeling crap all the time and missing out on enjoying those wonderful early years of baby and toddlerhood. This is when I went to see a naturopath for the very first time.
My experience of seeing a naturopath was life changing! My naturopath didn't use the term postnatal depletion, however she advised me on how to make significant dietary changes and supplemented with herbs and nutrients to build my immune system back up.
Now, after studying a Bachelor of Health Science and working as a naturopath myself with pregnant and post natal women, I can see very clearly what lead me into such a state of postnatal depletion:
1. Depleted prenatal state
Many mothers begin their pregnancies in a depleted state because of their busy lives and careers. Some women are also heading into pregnancy with existing health conditions and/or previous miscarriages and pregnancies that have left them overwhelmed and rundown.
My first 2 pregnancies were only 13 months apart. Going into a second pregnancy with a 4 month old baby really set me up for a rough second pregnancy and postnatal depletion!
Today we are seeing more women having their children when they are older and less resilient. It is not uncommon for me to be working with women 40+ who are caring for very young children and trying to balance being a new mum with busy careers.
2. Difficult pregnancy and morning sickness
I had morning sickness with each of my pregnancies which left me quite debilitated and picking at whatever food I could manage to eat. To be honest I found that salt and vinegar chips were one of the few foods that I could tolerate for about 8 weeks of my pregnancies. This is definitely not what I would recommend as a healthy intake for women during pregnancy!
I remember a few mornings getting out of bed to go to work and after showering and washing my hair, I felt so terribly tired that I just went straight back to bed with wet, uncombed hair.
Just over 10% of pregnant women in Australia develop gestational diabetes and around 2% develop gestational thyroid dysfunction. These conditions put extra pressure on the health of the mother during pregnancy and place her at a higher risk for developing postnatal depression and depletion.
3. Depletion of nutrients due to pregnancy, breastfeeding and dietary inadequacies
I was very ignorant about nutrition during my first 2 pregnancies! There's a lot of information about what you should avoid when you're pregnant such as raw fish and other foods with bacteria. But I had no idea what I should be eating. I thought eating for 2 meant to eat twice as much (that's another story), without understanding the nutrition requirements of pregnancy.
A pregnant woman requires much higher levels of essential nutrients than a non-pregnant woman. Much of the information about pregnancy nutrition focusses on the needs of the baby and not necessarily the needs of the mum. Consulting a naturopath during your pregnancy can help you to have both a healthy baby and a healthy post-birth recovery.
Breastfeeding is also depleting for the mother and supplements are recommended during the first months when cooking and shopping can take lower priority. I struggled to breast feed and had a very low milk supply. I felt that I was a failure at breastfeeding but in hindsight I can see that it was part of the postnatal depletion syndrome.
Vegetarian and vegan mothers must seek nutrition advice to ensure adequate levels of iron, vitamin B12, zinc, protein and omega 3 fatty acids. It's routine for doctors to check iron stores these days, however 12 to 15 years ago it wasn't. I had undiagnosed low ferritin levels, which would have contributed significantly to my fatigue.
4. Traumatic birth and post birth stress
About 1 in 3 women experience trauma during child birth, with an increasing number being recognised as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder according to a 2019 abc news report. I was actually one of the lucky ones who experienced only minor traumas during my babies births.
New mothers often run on adrenaline for the first few months after child birth. Stress levels affect our hormones, digestion and mood. It is important for women to have access to rest and sustained support from family and the community for 6 weeks to 6 months after the birth of a baby. Women lacking in support are at higher risk for developing postnatal depletion syndrome.
My first 3 years of being a mum were also spent moving house 3 times, renovating, working part time, getting up at 5:30am to get the day organised, and coping with the sickness and death of a close family member. We actually moved house while I was in hospital having my second daughter, so I came out of hospital and had to search through boxes when I got home to find the nappies!
The other stress I put on myself as a new mum was to exercise and starve myself in an attempt to get my 'pre-baby body' back. This rapid weight loss caused gallstones, so within a year of my second daughters birth I was back in hospital having my gallbladder removed.
I feel lucky to have had my children before the days of facebook and instagram. The pressure on new mums is so much greater with social media.
5. Ongoing hormone disruption
Pregnancy is a time of massive hormonal change. After child birth estrogen levels can take time to return to their pre-pregnancy state. It is believed that postnatal depression is caused mostly by hormone disruption and nutrient depletion. It is so important for women to learn how to take care of themselves after baby to prevent depression.
6. Sleep deprivation
I read somewhere that a new mother will lose approximately 700 hours sleep in a baby's first year. I'm sure I lost a lot more!
I remember after my second daughter was born I was so anxious caring for a 13 month old, who was teething, and a new born, that I didn't sleep for the first 10 weeks. I believe I lost 500 hours sleep in the first 3 months. I remember going about my day feeling like my head was full of cotton wool and being amazed at what the human body can endure.
What is postnatal depletion syndrome?
Women with postnatal depletion syndrome don't feel like they are well, or that they are able to cope in the same way they did before the baby was born. Women with postnatal depletion may experience a number of the following issues:
Fatigue, low libido
Poor recovery from illness
Anxiety, self doubt, worry, heightened inner critic, hyper-vigilance
Hair loss, acne
Worsening of existing medical issues
What to do if you suspect you have postnatal depletion syndrome:
1. Prioritise sleep
For the first 6 months after the baby is born it is important to prioritise rest and sleep if you feel you need it.
2. See a naturopath
When you are very depleted and you may also be breastfeeding, healthy eating may not be enough to supply all the nutrients you need and I usually recommend supplementation and a simple herbal formula.
As you start to feel better and have more time and energy for cooking, I will start to recommend dietary changes to support the recovery of hormones and adrenals. Women need a diet of cooked whole foods and easy to digest proteins and fats, fruits and vegetables.
With supplements, herbal medicine and some simple diet tweaks you should start to see your energy levels improve; the anxiety lessen; and hair, skin and nails will begin to look healthy again. I offer further individualised support to those women experiencing ongoing low immune issues and digestive problems.
3. Meet other new mums
For first time mums it's important not to become socially isolated. I really feel for women who had their first babies during the recent coronavirus lockdowns.
Mothers groups are a great place to start. Look out for the women who are open and honest about how they are coping with a new baby.
4. Be realistic about your new life with a baby
The first few months after having a baby are not the time to take a promotion, start a Masters Degree or join a boot camp or rapid weight loss program.
If you experience anxiety or depression reach out to a therapist who specialises in working with new mums.
I hope that sharing my story will help other women recognise that their physical and emotional postnatal symptoms are common and normal and there are places to go to find support.
Hi! I'm Simone Jeffries. I am a naturopath, nutritionist, herbalist and certified wellness coach.
The information in this blog is from my Bachelor of Health Science degree, experience from working with women in my clinic, and continuing research.
This blog is not intended to take the place of medical advice. Please seek assistance for any medical concerns.