Mother and baby holding hands

Perinatal mental health

Supporting the mental health and wellbeing of new parents

Reviewed by Ternity Group, Maternity and Early Parenting Education


Pregnancy and having a baby can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences – a new life, tiny fingers and toes, that newborn smell! But as many new parents will report, it can also be one of the most challenging. Whether you’re a first-time parent or a seasoned professional, with each pregnancy and new baby comes highs and lows, so it’s important not to overlook your mental health or that of someone you love.

What is perinatal mental health?

Depression and anxiety can start before or during pregnancy and can continue after the baby’s been born. Antenatal depression or anxiety refers to the period during pregnancy and before birth, while postnatal depression or anxiety occurs after giving birth and, without treatment, can last for months or even years. Perinatal covers both antenatal and postnatal (the whole period from conception to when the baby is 12 months old).

Many new parents will experience some degree of anxiety at this time (it’s a time of great adjustment after all). But for some it’s a more pronounced anxiety or depression. While the symptoms and severity vary from person to person, according to PANDA perinatal anxiety and/or depression affects up to 1 in 5 new mums and up to 1 in 10 new dads [1].

Tiny baby, BIG changes!

Many biological and physical changes (not just the obvious ones!) happen during pregnancy and birth, and the psychological and emotional impacts of such a big life change shouldn’t be underestimated.

As a new parent you can feel like you’re expected to become a change management expert overnight (amongst other jobs!) – juggling changes to sleep patterns, normal routines, household responsibilities, finances, relationships, and sense of identity (including things like career and hobbies) to name just a few. Throw sleep deprivation and exhaustion into the mix and it’s easy to see how feelings of stress and overwhelm can be heightened during this time.

While mixed emotions (love, happiness, fear, doubt … the list goes on!) are to be expected, it’s important to recognise if it’s more than that and ask for help.

What to look out for

There’s no one symptom of perinatal depression or anxiety – women and men may find their mood, behaviour and relationships are affected. While symptoms vary, PANDA reports that some common changes to look out for include:


Changes to mood

Changes to behaviour

Anxiety and relationships

Persistent generalised worry, often focused on the health or wellbeing of your baby

Panic attacks (racing heart, chest pain, breathless, shaking – feeling like you might pass out)

Avoiding people or places that might trigger anxiety or a panic attack

Feeling nervous, on edge, stressed and panicky

Easily startled, feeling scared for no good reason

Worry about telling your postnatal care team what’s happening

Abrupt mood swings, easily irritated

Disrupted sleep patterns

Withdrawing from friends and family

Feelings of dread or impending doom

Elevated breathing and heart rate, muscle tension

Increased arguments with loved ones

Excessive fears about life with your baby and your identity as a parent

Vertigo: feeling dizzy, faint, trembly


Racing thoughts, thinking about all the ‘what if’s’ (catastrophising)

Appetite changes


Developing obsessive or compulsive thoughts

Changes to libido


Intrusive thoughts

Urges to self-harm


Feeling isolated, scared and lonely even around loved ones

Developing obsessive or compulsive behaviours (e.g. excessive checking of baby’s breathing when they’re asleep, cleaning, endless internet searches related to infant health or other concerns)



Changes to mood

Changes to behaviour

Anxiety and relationships

Feeling sad, low, hopeless, frequent crying

Lacking energy or motivation

Withdrawing from friends and family

Difficulty with focus, concentration or memory, ‘brain fog’

Persistent fatigue

Increased arguments with loved ones

Feeling disconnected from your baby and loved ones

Disrupted sleep patterns

Little or no interest in daily activities that usually bring joy (time with baby, partner or friends, exercise, eating, career, study or hobbies)

Abrupt mood swings

Appetite changes


Feeling worthless, ashamed, critical self-talk

Changes to libido


Feeling isolated and lonely even around others

Engaging in risk-taking behaviour (e.g. substance use, overspending)


Thoughts of death or suicide

Urges to self-harm


Risk factors to keep in mind

We’re all different – physically, emotionally, and mentally. And this make-up, in addition to our exposure to stressful situations, can affect how likely we are to develop symptoms of perinatal anxiety and/or depression.

According to COPE there are also a number of specific risk factors that may increase the likelihood. While it’s important to remember that having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll experience perinatal mental health issues, it’s good to be aware of them as it can help early diagnosis and treatment if needed.

The risk factors include:

  • A personal or family history of mental health problems
  • Having an anxious or perfectionistic personality
  • History of abuse (sexual, physical or psychological)
  • Current drug and/or alcohol use
  • Increased current life stressors (this can include things like moving house, financial worries, relationship problems, IVF, multiple birth, a difficult or traumatic pregnancy or birth, or ongoing health problem with the baby)
  • Lacking practical, social and/or emotional support [2].

You’re not alone

The main thing to remember is that you’re not alone. Talk to others about how you’re feeling – you might know someone who’s been in a similar position (it’s often more common than people realise). Ask for help from family or friends – even little things like having a friend or family member sit with your baby while you sleep, shower or visit your GP can be a big help!

Chat to your GP or health professional about treatment or medication (there are pregnancy and breastfeeding safe options). And remember, there’s no shame in asking for help. Early diagnosis and management are important steps in managing perinatal mental health, so the sooner you ask for help the better.

If you’re concerned about yourself or someone you know, you can:

Teachers Health New Families Program

Help is also at hand for eligible Teachers Health members through our New Families Program. The program includes:

  • Online antenatal and early parenting short courses on pregnancy health, labour, birth, breastfeeding, parenting, infant and toddler sleep and settling
  • Telephone support from an Early Parenting Consultant, including personalised advice on sleep, settling and breastfeeding
  • A welcome pack with foundations and fundamentals handbook guide and infant massage fact sheet with expert advice from allied health professionals.


Find out how else your Teachers Health cover can support you during pregnancy and birth.