What is postnatal depletion?

Published on Wednesday, 19 June 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and keeping up with a little one takes a lot of energy, and many mums feel the strain of parenthood. All those sleepless nights and non-stop days can add up and it's not uncommon for mothers to feel tired, run-down and generally 'out of sorts'.

To explain the physical and emotional toll that mothering can take, an Auckland School of Medicine graduate, Dr Oscar Serrallach, has identified a syndrome called 'postnatal depletion'.

Many mums do feel depleted after having a baby, and his thinking has struck a chord with women around the world, so let's look at this research in more detail.

What is postnatal depletion?

For starters, it's important not to confuse postnatal depletion with postnatal depression. The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand describes postnatal depression as a debilitating and common condition where a mother becomes seriously depressed in the first months after her baby is born and any time during their first year. It can affect how a mother cares for and feels about her baby, and it's important to seek medical help early.

Meanwhile, postnatal depletion is described as 'a physical and mental deterioration caused not just by the process of giving birth and breastfeeding, but by the stresses and strains of modern parenthood'.

Dr Serrallach says women are affected hormonally, nutritionally and emotionally, and that postnatal depletion can last for years (even up to 10 years) after having a child.

Dr Serrallach says that the symptoms of postnatal depletion are:

  • Fatigue and exhaustion
  • Feeling tired when you wake up
  • Falling asleep unintentionally
  • Hyper-vigilance, e.g. feeling 'tired and wired', alert and anxious
  • Loss of self-esteem, feelings of guilt, isolation and vulnerability
  • Feeling frustrated and overwhelmed
  • Brain fogginess or 'baby brain'
  • Loss of libido

Dr Serrallach suspects that up to 50 per cent of mums will experience some level of postnatal depletion and he's also of the view that, 'For some women, postnatal depression occurs at the severe end of the spectrum of postnatal depletion.'

How did the idea of postnatal depletion hit the mainstream and do New Zealand mums get it?

Although there was research into maternal depletion in the 1980s, Dr Serrallach's postnatal depletion idea gained real traction when he wrote about it for Gwyneth Paltrow's health and wellness site, GOOP.

His postnatal depletion article became one of the most viewed ever on GOOP and although postnatal depletion has been described by some as 'medically unrecognised,' its symptoms have resonated with mothers who feel truly depleted after having children.

One of these women is Lorraine Scapens who says that, 'Postnatal depletion is very real and it's not something that will affect you for a couple of months. It is something that can linger for many years.'

The fit triathlete and personal trainer says she got postnatal depletion, and the accompanying constant tiredness and hair loss, after four pregnancies in four years, including a miscarriage, three and half years of breastfeeding; four continuous years of night waking and nursing; establishing a new business and running two more; a house move; and having family overseas.

She says that all mums are different, but that experiences like close together pregnancies, breastfeeding, sleep deprivation and stress can cause varying degrees of postnatal depletion.

How can mums restore their physical and emotional health after suffering postnatal depletion?

Dr Serrallach advises mothers to focus on sleep, purpose, activity, and nutrition. His book The Postnatal Depletion Cure contains tips for worn-down mums, it's stocked at Whitcoulls and Wheelers, and Ms Scapens echoes this advice.

She says that it helps to:

  • Space out pregnancies if possible
  • Rely on your family and a support network, like a night nanny
  • Rest, i.e. make sure you put your feet up for 30 minutes each day
  • Exercise at a light to moderate intensity, i.e. don't push yourself too hard
  • Nourish your body with regular, healthy, energy-giving food and also stay hydrated
  • Enjoy time with your kids
  • Tell a family member or doctor if you're struggling
  • Drink coffee and have a glass of wine if they help you cope – in moderation, of course!

Ms Scapens urges mums to 'Be kind to yourself, remember that you are important, eat, sleep, rest, enjoy easy to moderate exercise and just take each day one step at a time.'

This is good advice. We all get tired, wired and run-down at different times in our parenting journey, so remember to look after yourself as well as your child, and don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

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