When expectant or new moms experience depression, known as perinatal depression, loneliness may be a driving factor.
“We found that loneliness was central to the experiences of expectant and new mothers with depression. We know that depression and loneliness are often interconnected — each one can lead to the other — and this may be particularly true for perinatal depression [which includes postpartum depression],” said Dr. Katherine Adlington, an academic clinical fellow at UCL Psychiatry and East London NHS Foundation Trust.
“Having a baby is a period of huge transition and upheaval that can involve losing touch with people and existing networks, such as work colleagues,” Adlington added in a University College London (UCL) news release. “This research suggests that loneliness is a major risk for mental health problems during pregnancy and for new mothers.”
To come to that conclusion, the researchers reviewed accounts from 537 women in 27 research papers in multiple countries.
Depression affects about 1 in 6 pregnant women, and then 1 in 5 women during the first three months after a baby is born.
While significantly affecting new parents' quality of life, it can also have long-term adverse impacts on their child's development.
Researchers studying this say those working with new mothers, including health care providers, should be aware of the importance of loneliness and the value of encouraging new moms to develop and maintain good social connections.
Additionally, increased family support can help reduce loneliness' mental health impact on postpartum moms.
Causes of loneliness included stigma, self-isolation, emotional disconnection and not receiving enough support, the study authors noted.
Many women felt they would be judged as a bad mother, which contributed to them hiding symptoms of mental health issues and often led to self-isolation and withdrawal, according to the study.
The researchers also found that many women had a sudden sense of emotional disconnection after birth, from their previous lives before getting pregnant, from other mothers and from the baby.
Some reported that what they expected and what they received in support by their partner, family or community were not the same.
“Helping women to understand early on in pregnancy how common loneliness is, and how it can lead to mental health problems, and that it's okay to feel such feelings, could be an important way to reduce the impact of perinatal mental ill health,” said senior study author Sonia Johnson. She is a professor of social and community psychiatry at UCL Psychiatry and Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust.
The new findings were published online Feb. 28 in the journal BMC Psychiatry.
Solutions could include validation and understanding from health care providers, which women said was helpful.
“We found that health care professionals also have an important role to play in helping women to feel heard and validated in their experiences of loneliness, so we would suggest that asking expectant and new mothers about potential feelings of loneliness could be highly beneficial, in addition to signposting them to peer support,” Johnson said.
Peer support from other mothers who were experiencing depression was also helpful, but only if those mothers had similar stories to share. Speaking to mothers who appeared to be doing well could make matters worse, according to the study.
“Peer, social and family support are likely to be crucial in reducing perinatal depression; this study helps understand the importance of social connection at this time," Johnson said. "But there is a lot more to be done to understand why loneliness is so important in the perinatal period, and to develop effective ways of preventing or reducing it."
The Office on Women's Health has more on postpartum depression.
SOURCE: University College London, news release, Feb. 28, 2023