Perinatal and infant mental health

Perinatal mental health

Perinatal mental health describes the mental health and emotional wellbeing of parents, from conception until two years after the end of pregnancy. For most families, this is a time of excitement and joy. However, adjusting to pregnancy and parenthood can be stressful.

‘Perinatal mental illness’ covers a range of emotional and mental health disorders from mild and transient to severe and disabling. These can occur at any time during or after a pregnancy, including after termination of a pregnancy.

In the days after birth, up to 80% of women experience a degree of emotional distress which may include becoming teary, irritable, moody or overly sensitive. This distress, called ‘baby blues’ or ‘three-day blues’, usually clears up in a week or so with support from family and friends.

Sometimes these emotional experiences do not go away and may become more serious. The most commonly experienced perinatal mental health disorders are anxiety, depression, or a combination of both. Other more serious illnesses such as postpartum psychosis or bipolar disorder can also occur, however these are far less common. Both mothers and fathers can experience perinatal mental health difficulties, and can benefit from support and treatment.

Depression and anxiety in the perinatal period can have a significant impact on a parent’s ability to cope with day-to-day life, including taking care of themselves, their infant and other family members. Parents with a pre-existing mental health issue may find the perinatal period particularly challenging. Unplanned or unexpected outcomes of pregnancy, such as a difficult birth, can have significant emotional impacts. Early intervention and treatment of symptoms may prevent more serious episodes of illness and also improve a parent’s ability to cope.

The mental health and wellbeing of parents is critically important to the emotional and physical development of their baby. If left untreated, parental mental health issues can have negative impacts on the parents, their baby and the whole family. It is important to identify parents at risk of mental health issues, and support them, as early as possible.

The type of treatment and support will vary according to individual need and the severity of the illness. Treatment can involve supportive counselling, medication, extra supports from health professionals, and sometimes hospitalisation. Often a combination of treatments, for example medication and psychotherapy, is most effective to recovery.

The most important thing is to talk to a health professional if you feel that ‘something is not right’. They can support you to find the right treatment for you or other family members.

Infant mental health

Infant mental health describes the emotional wellbeing of infants and young children from conception to age three. Infant mental health refers to the infant’s ability to:

  • experience, express and manage emotions
  • form close and secure relationships with parents and caregivers
  • explore their environment and learn about the world

The relationship between the infant and their parent or primary caregiver is central to the infant’s emotional wellbeing.