We all know that when it comes to our emotional wellbeing there are many factors that contribute to our feeling healthy. No more so is this true than when it comes to healthy relationships, as they can have a massive impact on our mental health and wellbeing. This can be relationships within the family, the workplace or with friends and colleagues.
When it comes to perinatal mental health and wellbeing, relationships are especially important. If we are suffering difficulties with our mental health it can affect our relationship with our partner, our baby and also how we then feel about ourselves.
Relationship with Baby
Bonding and attachment with our baby is important. It helps with feeding, development and the emotional skills that are needed for a child to grow physically and mentally. As parents being aware of the importance of bonding and communicating with baby is important. A child’s earliest experiences shape how their brains develop, which can determine their future emotional, physical health and wellbeing. Right from the start children need secure, consistent relationships with others, especially their caregivers in order to thrive, learn and have the ability to form good future relationships. This needs to start pre-birth in pregnancy with parents building a bond with their growing baby. This can be done by talking, singing, and spending time emotionally connecting. This then needs to continue after birth and is vital to prevent problems in emotional development for the child.
This is something that parents can struggle with if they are struggling with a perinatal mental health condition and sometimes support is needed to help the building of a positive relationship with their baby. Some struggle to bond due to a traumatic birth, anxiety, depression or others facts such as social or economic difficulties. Not every parent feels the rush of love at birth, others may struggle to cope with the changes their new infant has brought to their life or the new demands made upon them. It is vital that help is given to help parents so they can process feelings they may have around their birth, or the new relationship they now have with their new baby.
Many areas provide parenting groups or ‘classes’ both before and after birth, that allow time for women and their partners to connect and get to know their baby. Health Visitors, Midwives and other services can play a vital role in helping new parents adjust to life with a new baby by giving accurate information and practical advice as well as being a source of support for families in emotional ways. Support groups too can bring mothers together to provide peer support, encouragement and advice.
If a mother has a previous mental health condition, support through pregnancy and after is vital to provide help that means she will feel more prepared to cope and less overwhelmed with the arrival of her baby. Concerns and anxieties need to be addressed and acknowledged to lessen anxiety. Especially in the early days can anxiety be heightened and this can trigger a reappearing of previously managed mental health conditions.
Keeping mothers and babies together is especially important and sadly the lack of mother and baby units nationally often means being separated if mothers need more specialist support for their mental health. Many areas are lacking in specialist perinatal mental health services, but especially to support those who may have general anxiety or low mood but do not meet the criteria for the specialist services. This needs to be addressed if we are to help families build secure, positive relationships that mean good outcomes for all.
Partners and Family
The perinatal period is challenging for even the most strongest of relationships as new parents try to adjust to their new role as caregivers. Having a new baby brings changes to their relationship. No longer just a couple, they have another little person to consider and who has never ending needs to be met.
When perinatal mental health too is part of the mix, the strain can be great on all. Often not knowing how to help, partners and family can feel at a loss becoming frustrated and anxious. When caring for mothers with perinatal mental health it is important that is it a whole family approach and partners in particular are included, listened to and supported. Of course sometimes it is the partner themselves that have a mental health condition who will need support and this needs equally to be addressed.
Making sure that we provide services that support whole families is important. Care pathways when being developed need to consider the needs of all the family and be reflected in the care offered and support given. Dads will often voice that they feel left out of pregnancy and also the postnatal period. Dads may struggle with adjusting to parenthood too and as much as possible should be supported to seek help.
Wider family ensure a community or ‘village’ of support that is vital for new parents. Practical support as well as emotional support can go a long way especially in the early days. It can be challenging to not offer ‘advice’ but instead respectfully offering a helping hand as new parents navigate their new journey. Relationships in families can be supportive but also a cause of great strain.
If we support families either before birth, after or both, then the relationships we are building with them is vitally important. Having relationships that are built on trust, respect, accurate advice and support mean that families can assess the help they desperately need. When it comes to perinatal mental health, as a healthcare professional you maybe the first port of call for the families that you care for. With strong relationships built on trust a family will feel more free to seek support and help. It also requires time, which we all know is sadly in short supply, but relationships with families are early interventions that can give a stable source of support in difficult times. However a listening ear is often the biggest way that we can support families and build lasting relationships with them.
In order for you to build good relationships and give families the correct support it is important that you keep up to date with your own training and skills. Assessing training on perinatal mental health is invaluable and will enable you to spot signs that families may need extra support. Being aware of what is available locally but also nationally will enable you to signpost those needing support to the help that is right for them.
If we are service providers, what pathways do we have in place to support staff and families and allows for easy access to perinatal mental health provisions? Do we have specialist services in place that mean the correct treatment and help is being given to vulnerable families? While currently there is investment and awareness of the need to support families emotionally, making sure that this continues long term is vital. Also that while funding is allocated for specialist PNMH services that there is an understanding of the new to provide support to low level mental health as this is preventative work that supports the whole system.
When we value relationships, when we value families, when we value emotional wellbeing, we will make sure that the support we give helps build and encourage bonding and attachment. This will help develop stable relationships with parents, partners, and professionals which will help improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children and families.