It can be hard to know how to help a friend with postnatal depression.
Postnatal depression sucks.
It creeps up on you when you ought to be at your best, revelling in your new baby.
Instead, postnatal depression can leave new mamas feeling isolated and overwhelmed.
Too busy to read now? Scroll down for the micro-version.
When You Feel Like Your Help Isn’t Wanted.
Maybe your friend doesn’t feel she has postnatal depression, or perhaps she feels too ashamed to let anyone in.
If she ignores your calls and doesn’t read your WhatsApp messages, don’t give up. If your friend suffers from postnatal depression, then keep the channels open and try to help where you can – even if it feels like you’re doing all the running.
Figuring out how to help a friend with postnatal depression isn’t always easy, but there is definitely plenty you can do.
I’m not going to pretend it’s easy to know how to help a friend with postnatal depression. The line between being supportive and plain annoying is sometimes pretty fine. As with most things, though, it’s better to reach out than to ignore someone’s suffering.
The bit at the bottom about professional help is super-important. You have to make a judgement call as to how to help a friend with postnatal depression – sometimes it looks like delivering dinner once in a while, and sometimes it looks like helping her get professional help for depression, even when it feels like the hardest thing in the world to do.
Babysitting and late-night texting can only go so far, and sometimes more help is needed. To learn how to help a friend with postnatal depression, sometimes you need to help her seek that help.
Postnatal Depression Symptoms
If you haven’t experienced postnatal depression yourself, you might not know the signs of PPD (postpartum/postnatal depression). This isn’t an exhaustive list, just a quick guide to the more common postpartum signs and symptoms of depression. When you know what you’re looking for, it’s easier to know how to help a friend with postnatal depression.
- Feeling unable to cope.
- Sleep changes unrelated to her tiny human.
- Crying a lot, or feeling the need to cry but being unable to.
- Withdrawal from friendships, and life in general.
- Feeling isolated and lonely.
- Feeling inadequate.
- Energy changes – Hyper behaviour? Exhaustion?
- Brain fog – poor memory and concentration.
- Loss of confidence and self-esteem.
- Irrational fears and worries.
- Obsessive thoughts and/or behaviours.
- Persistent negative thoughts.
A lot of those things go hand in hand with the exhaustion many of us remember from the early baby days. It’s hard to know when something is a normal result of having a new baby, and when it’s more serious.
My advice is to be alert to signs of postnatal depression but to keep a light touch when offering help. Everything in this post is appropriate for any new mama, not just for knowing how to help a friend with postnatal depression.
The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale is a tool you might find helpful when considering how to help a friend with postnatal depression.
Helping With The Baby – Without Treading On Anyone’s Toes
Having a baby is hard work. Giving birth is hard work, and caring for a tiny human 24/7 is hard work. Any new mama is going through a physically and emotionally demanding time, even without the added layer of postnatal depression.
Most people would agree that a new mama’s most important work is snuggling with that tiny human, and taking care of herself and the baby.
The trick you need to master is the art of helping without stealing those baby snuggles from your friend.
There’s usually no shortage of people lining up wanting to cuddle the baby or take a sneaky sniff of his head. I would happily elbow my way to the front of any queue with a baby cuddle at the end. Those people often aren’t thinking about ‘how to help a friend with postnatal depression’, so much as ‘how to get more of those delicious baby snuggles’.
Sometimes it’s appropriate to drop in and offer to hold the baby a while. Maybe your friend hasn’t taken a shower today, because when she puts the baby down, he wakes up hungry? That’s your chance to be helpful. You might not be able to feed the baby, but you can rock him, or walk him up and down in a pram while she takes twenty minutes to wash her hair.
Mostly, though, look at the other stuff – the dishes lingering in the sink or the basket of wet laundry. If you’re coming in and offering to hold the baby while she gets housework jobs done, then consider who is really benefiting from the arrangement.
Breastfeeding And Postnatal Depression
If your friend is breastfeeding, and it’s not going well, that will add to her feelings of depression, and fuel her worries.
When postnatal depression first kicked me, I had a days-old baby who couldn’t feed properly, and everyone told me to give him a bottle.
No-one understood how awful it felt for me, and even my midwife was next to useless for breastfeeding support. I’d love to say that in the fourteen years since then, breastfeeding support has become better, and more available. Sadly, I still hear stories all too often of mamas left struggling and distraught, and unable to access any decent support.
Positive, proactive support of breastfeeding can be one of the best things you can to when deciding how to help a friend with postnatal depression.
It’s hard, though, to focus on digging out contact details for lactation consultants or breastfeeding support groups, when you’re busy trying to care for a newborn. Those are the kinds of jobs friends were made for. That’s your job.
Practical Ways to Help a Friend With Postpartum Depression.
You know this stuff already. Even if you haven’t had a baby yourself. All the stuff that’s hard to get done when you’re feeling ill? That’s the practical stuff your new-mama friend could use some help with.
But… it’s hard for her to ask.
Depression does weird things to the brain. It amplifies all the feelings of ‘not enough’ that you can squash down when you’re feeling well. Depression looks at last night’s dishes in the sink and makes you feel crappy. It whispers that you shouldn’t let anyone into your home when it looks like this. Depression absolutely does not want you to let someone in who might… *gasp*… wash those dishes.
You need to remember you’re balancing on a tightrope here.
Waltzing in and just doing stuff might work, but it might make your friend feel worse. Figuring out how to help a friend with postnatal depression is hard, it’s a balancing act, and you need to tread very gently.
Offering specific things can be a great tactic. On your way to the shops, and passing her house on the way home? Text to ask if she needs bread and milk (it can’t be just my house that always needs bread and milk?!) Something like that is low-key, and it’s less likely to make depression butt in and stop her from accepting.
Specific, Helpful Things You Can Do For A New Mama.
- Washing dishes – don’t offer, just do them, when you take your coffee cup back to the kitchen. Make it a game to wash as many as possible before getting caught.
- Meal prep – great nutrition is as important post-natally as it was during pregnancy. Now, though, she’s got a small hungry person attached to her all the time. Buy foil dishes with cardboard lids, fill them with something yummy, scrawl instructions on the lid (bearing in mind that ‘Gas 6, 20 minutes’ is the most complicated you want to go). You don’t even have to go into the house – leave them in a cool bag on the doorstep, and text to say they’re there.
- Healthy snacks – obviously cake is always good, but there’s a definite place for a delivery of one-handed snack food she can eat while nursing, or in the thirty seconds while the baby is asleep in someone else’s arms.
- Cleaning and Laundry – maybe it’s me, but these feel a bit more personal than dish-washing and meal prep. Tread with care. If you’ve got the kind of friendship where it wouldn’t seem odd for your friend to run the vacuum around at your house, then knock yourself out. If not, check first. When it comes to learning how to help a friend with postnatal depression, you need to remember that your friend might be ultra-sensitive at the moment.
Babysitting has its place here too. Not the kind of babysitting where she goes out to dinner and leaves you in sole charge of her week-old baby. Think smaller scale. Can you be the loving arms to walk baby up and down while she takes a nap? Or, if she’s got a medical appointment to attend, maybe you could go along and hang out in the waiting room with the baby?
Going to appointments when you’re suffering from depression can be hard. Going to see a doctor to ask for help with depression can feel impossible. A bit of moral support can go a long way in situations like these. I would have loved the offer of a lift, and a promise not to let me back out at the last minute.
Self-care is sometimes one of the first things we let go of when things are hard going. I’m not sure if it’s a mama thing or just a woman thing. Either way, anything you can do that might help your friend get her self-care back on track, would be a great idea. You can check out my post on micro self-care strategies for some ideas.
Keep Your Friendship Strong
How to help a friend with postnatal depression when it feels like they’re turning away from you?
Your friendship might take a beating when one of you is suffering from postnatal depression.
Depression whispers ugly things to you.
Depression doesn’t want you to have friends. It wants to shut you away and keep you to itself.
Be prepared for your calls to go unanswered, your Facebook messages unread, and your invitations to be turned down.
None of those things means you’re not wanted. They mean that everything is super hard right now, even the things that used to be normal, natural, everyday things.
It’s important to stick around. Let her know you’re going nowhere, and you’ll be there when she needs you. If you can do that without being annoying, you’re winning!
Text messages can be great for this. Somehow a text feels less invasive than a phone call.
What seems like a tiny, insignificant outing to you, might feel mountainous to your depressed friend.
If your invitations are being knocked back, give it a while and try again, but more gently this time. Not dinner, but coffee. Not a day at the beach, but a walk to the park five minutes away. Maybe stop at the drive-thru and then park near the sea while baby sleeps. Focus on tiny things and you’ll figure out how to help a friend with postnatal depression.
In the same way that depression might try to stop your friend from spending time with you, maybe it’s also stopping her getting out to baby groups? That’s something you can help with. Yes, maybe you’ll feel a bit awkward rocking up at the library for baby storytime without a baby, but you’ll be doing your friend a favour.
When You Live Too Far Away.
If you don’t live close enough to be able to drop in or help with getting out of the house, gifts can be another way to keep in touch. Something as simple as a funny postcard sent every now and again can let your friend know she’s still on your radar. You might also consider something like these BuddyBoxes from Blurt Foundation or these Healing Boxes.
Hone Your Listening Skills.
Listening is perhaps the most important thing you can do to help any friend going through a tough time. Effective listening is a skill all on its own, but you can teach yourself to be a better listener. The most important key is to listen more than you talk.
Even if you have experience with babies.
Even if you have personal experience with postnatal depression.
Even if you believe you know a better, faster, easier, calmer way to do something.
Listening needs to be about hearing what the other person has to say, rather than voicing your own experience.
Yes, there’s a place for sharing your own experience, but it’s not now. Feeling heard and validated is important to a woman with postnatal depression, and if you can shelve your own experiences for a while, you’ll be a much better listener.
What About Professional Help?
Going to a doctor and saying that you think you have postnatal depression can feel impossible. I bailed out at least three times after making that appointment.
Looking in from the outside, you might find that difficult to understand. Why would someone not take such a basic step towards getting help to cope better? You’re overlooking the power of depression to whisper ugly things in your ear. You and I know that being depressed doesn’t make someone a bad mother, but that’s probably how she’s feeling. We know that it isn’t a sign of failure if someone isn’t enjoying their baby as much as they’d expected to. The thoughts going through a depressed mind won’t be rational, they’ll be insidious, poisonous worms of thought that keep the person trapped in their own head.
There are medications which are appropriate for breastfeeding mothers, and there are alternatives to medication.
I’ve gone down the medication route twice in my life. Both times I found that antidepressants helped me lift the fog enough to get things rolling again. I’ve been dancing with depression for long enough to know there are all kinds of healthy habits which can help me keep the black dog at bay. That doesn’t mean I’m able to access that bit of my mind from my depressed state.
If you think your friend needs to get some professional help to cope with her depression, please do everything you can to help her make that happen.
How To Help A Friend With Postnatal Depression – The Basics
Phew! That was a bit longer than I expected. I wanted to take the time to explain things, though. There are lots of lists floating around of superficial things you can do to help someone with depression. Some of them are helpful, but I feel like it’s important to understand some of the deeper elements as well.
The truth is, sometimes there will be nothing you can do to help.
Sometimes everything you suggest will be rejected out of hand, and all your attempts at contact will be shut down. My hope is that this post has gone a little way to explaining what might be going on in your friend’s head as she battles with postnatal depression.
The Micro Version: How To Help A Friend With Postnatal Depression
If you’ve scrolled down looking for a little bit of advice to take away from this blog post on how to help a friend with postnatal depression, here’s what I’ve got for you:
- Keep offering, keep showing up, make sure she knows she’s not alone.
- Tread carefully, remembering that depression makes people feel crappy and inadequate, and you don’t want your offers of help to make her feel worse.
Hopefully, this post has offered you some helpful suggestions on how to help a friend with postnatal depression. If you enjoyed it, I’d love you to share the love by pinning it.