Women's Health

Postnatal depletion: How long does it last and how do you treat it?

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There's no doubt that motherhood can be a physically and mentally demanding experience.

From the physical strain of pregnancy and childbirth to dealing with sleep deprivation and the demands of breastfeeding in the months that follow, it's no surprise that many mothers end up feeling, quite literally, sucked dry.

And that's because you actually might be.

For the last nine months, your body has been passing vital nutrients onto your growing baby.

With your baby taking even more during breastfeeding, and your body still recovering from the loss of blood and fluid during childbirth, you might find yourself deficient in some pretty important nutrients.

This is known as postnatal depletion.

What is postnatal depletion?

The term postnatal depletion was first coined by Dr. Oscar Serrallach in his popular book, The Postnatal Depletion Cure.

Also known as postpartum depletion, the term refers to the combination of physical, hormonal and emotional depletion that a mother can experience after giving birth.

Postnatal depletion usually raises its head in the postpartum period, when women are still recovering from childbirth and attempting to keep up with the new demands of motherhood.

The condition basically zaps your energy just when you need it the most, leaving new mothers feeling completely exhausted and overwhelmed.

The symptoms of postnatal depletion

The symptoms of postnatal depletion may sound pretty familiar and that's because the condition can manifest in a collection of symptoms that many women will simply brush off as a normal part of early motherhood.

Fatigue is one of the most common problems that women experience during the postpartum period, and it's also a pretty big indicator of postnatal depletion.

If you find yourself accidentally falling asleep or struggling to wake up in the morning then you could be experiencing one of the effects of postnatal depletion.

Likewise, many women report experiencing baby brain or brain fog, hypervigilance, self-doubt, low energy levels, hair loss and a sense of frustration, overwhelm and anxiety in the months after giving birth.

These seemingly harmless symptoms could all point to a case of postnatal depletion.

And, these are exactly the indicators that led Kin to develop its Postnatal Vitamins, which are designed by dietitians to help look after you, so you can look after your baby.

Postnatal depletion vs depression

Postnatal depletion shouldn’t be confused with postpartum depression.

While both conditions arise during the postnatal period, there are a number of key differences to be aware of.

Postpartum depression or postnatal depression is a serious mental illness that causes intense feelings of anxiety, sadness and despair.

Mothers may struggle to connect with their new baby and experience intrusive thoughts about harming themselves or their child.

The two conditions do have some overlapping symptoms, including anxiety, mood swings and overwhelm, which can make it a little tricky to figure out which one you might be actually dealing with.

Usually, postpartum depression tends to be much more severe and debilitating than postnatal depletion but if you’re unsure about which condition you might be experiencing then it’s best to seek professional medical advice from a health practitioner.

How common is postnatal depletion?

Postnatal depletion is actually a relatively common condition.

In fact, Dr. Oscar Serrallach believes that over 50 per cent of mothers suffer from some degree of postnatal depletion.

And while pregnancy and the postpartum period have always been nutritionally demanding on mothers, Dr. Serrallach suspects that our busy modern lifestyles have a lot to do with the rise in the condition.

In western culture, the rising average age of new mothers means that women are taking longer to recover from pregnancy and birth while increasing pressure on mothers to 'do it all' sees many women juggling an overwhelming amount of responsibilities with a distinct lack of postnatal support.

Add on a nutritionally deficient diet (who can say no ordering takeaway when you have a newborn to look after) and mothers are finding themselves in a more depleted state than ever before.

How long does postnatal depletion last?

Everyone's experience of postnatal depletion is different and some women may deal with the condition for longer than others.

Typically, mothers begin feeling the first effects of postnatal depletion in the months after giving birth and gradually start feeling better as their nutrition and sleep improves.

But for some women, postnatal depletion lasts much longer and it's possible for the condition to hang around for up to 10 years after giving birth.

While that might sound scary, postnatal depletion is actually relatively easy to treat with the right tools and information.

Am I at risk for postnatal depletion?

While postnatal depletion can affect any mother, there are some factors that make you more likely to experience the condition.

If you have chosen to breastfeed then you might be at a higher risk for postnatal depletion. This is because a breastfeeding woman's daily nutrient requirement is at an even higher level than it is during pregnancy.

Unfortunately, this daily requirement is pretty hard to meet without supplements and many mothers end up developing nutrient deficiencies while their babies get all the good stuff, resulting in a form of postnatal depletion.

Likewise, mothers who have given birth to multiple children within the same calendar year or a particularly short time period are more at risk for developing postnatal depletion.

This is because their bodies haven't been given the chance to properly recover and replenish the nutrients that were lost during pregnancy and breastfeeding.

How do you fix postnatal depletion?

The good news is that you can easily prevent postnatal depletion by making a few small changes to your lifestyle during the postnatal period — and it all starts with looking after yourself.

It's completely normal for a new mother to put all of their energy into looking after her baby.

When you even don't have time to sit down and drink a hot coffee, finding the time for self-care can seem a little unrealistic.

And while you might not have the time to take a long bath or read your favourite book, taking care of your basic needs should still be a priority.

Replenishing your key nutrients

Postpartum depletion care should always start with making sure that you're getting enough of the right nutrients. This is because nutrients are essential for maintaining our physical and mental health. The right combination of nutrients can support your energy levels, stabilise your mood, boost your immune system and even prevent depression.

During the postnatal period, it's important to get enough of the following key nutrients:

  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Choline
  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Selenium
  • Iodine
  • Omega 3 fatty acids

Eating a healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, protein and healthy fats is important but it can also sometimes be hard to meet your daily nutrient requirement from diet alone.

For this reason, we recommend taking a vitamin supplement for at least six months after giving birth.

Kin's Postnatal Vitamins have been designed to address postnatal depletion and help to support the nutritional needs of new mothers after birth and while breastfeeding.

Not only do the Postnatal Vitamins assist with energy levels (thanks to the inclusion of iron, vitamin B1, B2, B3 and biotin) but they also help protect against illness and support brain function so you can feel more alert and present.

The Postnatal by Kin is formulated with bioavailable ingredients (including 18 essential micronutrients!) in the optimal dosage.

Getting enough sleep

Sleep deprivation is one of the main culprits of postnatal depletion but when your sleeping pattern relies on a newborn who sees nightfall as a time to party, getting enough sleep can feel a little outside of your control.

While this may be the case, there are still a few strategies that are worth trying if it means that you can get a few hours extra rest.

  • Sleep when the baby sleeps: We all know that this advice isn't as easy as everyone makes out but there's still some serious logic behind it. Even closing your eyes on the couch for half an hour in the afternoon can do wonders for your exhaustion.
  • Split shifts: If you're the one taking the baby during the night then your partner could take the baby between 5am and 8am, giving you a few more hours to sleep. Alternatively, you could ask a grandparent or babysitter to look after the baby while you get some rest.
  • Start sleep training: From around four months old, you can start gently helping your baby settle into healthy sleeping habits by finding a method of sleep training that suits your parenting style.

Taking the pressure off

In some cultures, women are prescribed a restorative period of rest after birth that's known as the fourth trimester.

Surrounded by family and community support, this period is crucial to the mother's recovery from birth and her adjustment to motherhood.

Western cultures don't prioritise postnatal care in the same way and many women are left feeling overwhelmed and unsupported in the weeks after giving birth.

It's important to give yourself a period of grace where you take the pressure off and accept help from your family and friends.

We sometimes feel as though we need to do everything ourselves and that asking for help is a sign that we have failed. But that's just not true.

Accepting help from others is a key part of reducing your risk for postnatal depletion.

Some ways to take the pressure off include:

  • Learn to say no: It's normal for people to be excited about meeting your new bundle of joy but you're allowed to take some time out before introducing your baby to everyone who asks. You don't need to feel guilty for setting boundaries around your time.
  • Ask for what you need: If someone offers to hold the baby while you take a nap and you would really prefer them to throw a pile of washing on then simply ask. You might be surprised at how willing people are to help when they are asked.
  • Organise a meal train: Ask one of your friends to coordinate a series of meals to be dropped off during your first few weeks back home with your newborn. Even one week of meals can take a significant load off.

Remember that looking after yourself will give you the best chance at beating postnatal depletion so that you can enjoy this precious time with your new baby.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/labs/pmc/articles/PMC6661702/

https://goop.com/wellness/health/postnatal-depletion-even-10-years-later/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33230681/

https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/postpartum-depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20376617

https://aifs.gov.au/facts-and-figures/births-in-australia

https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/11/12/2891/htm

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29296279/