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The moment new mum knew she needed help

Katrina Davenport knew she needed help three months after giving birth to her much longed-for baby when she couldn’t leave the house or control her emotions.

St John of God Health Care perinatal mental health 

11 November 2019

“It came to the point where I wouldn’t leave the house because my daughter would cry in the car and wherever we went. I felt embarrassed that I couldn’t console her,” Katrina said.

Caring for her newborn daughter, Olivia, was an around the clock job for Katrina and her husband as she had silent reflux. 

“I worried a lot during pregnancy because it had been our final round of IVF and it was our last hope. My pregnancy was great and her delivery couldn’t have gone better,” Katrina said.

“As a newborn she had silent reflux and was nearly impossible to settle before her next feed. So I became very sleep deprived. 

“I also had a lot of anxiety about leaving Olivia as I thought she was all my responsibility and had to be with me 24/7 rather than being a team with my husband. I had never experienced something so out of my control that I couldn’t handle. We had massive adjustments to make, no longer was our life about what we wanted to do, Olivia controlled everything.”

Katrina’s sister told her about the St John of God Burwood Hospital Mother and Baby Unit, which is the only specialist inpatient program for mothers and their babies up to 12 months of age in New South Wales.

She got a referral to the unit from her GP. Within days she arrived at the unit for her three-week stay with Olivia, receiving care from psychiatrists and psychologists, with midwives and nurses caring for Olivia too.

“I remember the day before I went into the Mother and Baby Unit, I was a mess, I was crying, thinking I was leaving my family – but I knew I needed to do it and I didn’t want to give up this opportunity,” Katrina said.

More than one in seven new mums and up to one in 10 new dads experience postnatal depression each year in Australia. Postnatal anxiety is just as common, and many parents experience anxiety and depression at the same time.

St John of God Health Care Chair Perinatal and Women’s Mental Health Research Unit Professor Marie-Paule Austin, who leads the Mother and Baby Unit, said it was not uncommon for anxiety to surface during pregnancy, and continue and worsen as a result of the additional pressures that come with early parenting.

“Mental health conditions are as common as physical ones in pregnancy such as diabetes and hypertension yet they are often overlooked in favour of the mother’s physical care,” she said.

“Providing holistic support that looks after women’s physical and emotional wellbeing during pregnancy and early parenting is key. 

“We know that the first few months of a baby’s life are extremely important in establishing strong connections with their parents and if you are just a little bit off they can pick up on that and their connection with their parents suffer which can affect their life going forward.”

Katrina said while she was apprehensive about going to the unit she knew she was in the right place the moment she arrived.

“To tell you the truth, the first few days were a little bit fuzzy. The psychiatrist reassured me that the midwives and nurses would look after Olivia for the first seven nights and I was able to have some sleep,” she said.

“Parenting a newborn is a hard gig – it really is. After a week or so on the unit Olivia was starting to give me the rewards, she was smiling at me and it helped me know that this was all going to be worth it.”

Importantly, before leaving the unit Katrina was referred to St John of God Raphael Services to receive ongoing care to maintain her wellbeing away from the hospital.

St John of God Raphael Services NSW Clinical Lead Psychiatrist Dr Alice Dwyer said ongoing care was essential.

“The care we provide for the woman can make a big difference not only to her but to the child’s outcomes for the rest of their life,” she said.

“We work with mums and families so that they can cope with the inevitable triggers that emerge when they return home and reinforce skills so that they can continue building strong relationships with their baby, be confident and enjoy parenting.

“At St John of God Raphael Services we aim to shift the trajectory of parents and their children to a better destination.”

Olivia is now approaching her second birthday and Katrina says she feels like she is enjoying parenthood.

“My anxiety is never going to go away, but it is about managing it. We need to make people who don’t have mental health issues understand what it is and that there is stuff going on inside that needs to be, and can be treated,” she said.

“I want all new mums to know that help is available. I recently reached out to a mum I know on Facebook who looked tired in her recent photo to ask if she was doing OK. I think this is so important, to let them know that you care, that they are not alone and that help is available.”