Talking Perinatal Mental Health with INFANT

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that I’m passionate about the topic of mental health and in particular postnatal mental health. It’s something which has personally affected me and others that I love, and in this country, it’s something that isn’t dealt with in a big enough way. So, back in April when I was asked to be part of a public forum organised by INFANT (Irish Centre for Fetal and Neonatal Translational Research) in CUH, on the topic of perinatal mental health, I was thrilled. And then terrified. But mostly thrilled.

Last Thursday night, the 15th of June, INFANT marked Infant Mental Health Awareness Week with a public forum for parents and medical practitioners alike.  The forum revolved around perinatal mental health, and the bond between parent and child in those precious early days/weeks.

The night was opened by Prof Louise Kenny, the Director of INFANT, Professor of Obstetrics at University College Cork and a Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Cork University Maternity Hospital, where she specialises in the management of high risk pregnancy. She spoke about the work that they do, the research they carry out and how important she finds the need for perinatal mental health care. Currently there are two specialised perinatal mental health care professionals working in Ireland, both of them in Dublin, meaning there is a postcode lottery on your treatment if you need it here. 

Helen Shanley, a clinical psychologist with a focus on perinatal mental health, gave a talk about getting your mind ready for the new baby when you are pregnant and the importance of the mental shift you undergo. She compared pregnancy to adolescence, which I found to be a really interesting way to look at it, and it certainly excuses the hormone levels and thought processes!

Her focus was not only on mother and child, but also on the father of the child and their mental health. Her talk spoke about how both previous pregnancy loss or a pre-term delivery can interfere with the imagined baby you have in your head during your pregnancy – it can be difficult to connect the two if it isn’t what you are expecting exactly. She also mentioned the negative effects that social media and the level of sharing how we are can have on your mental health – when you see that people are doing well in their pictures/statuses, you can feel lesser if you’re not feeling wonderful. This is something I could definitely relate to, as a big part of my struggle with PND came down to seeing everyone else saying their baby was sleeping/eating/doing things that mine simply wasn’t doing.

We have to remember that it is rare that people share the brutal honest unfiltered version where they say “Yeah, I’m having a shit day, my child hasn’t slept in a month, I’m living on potato waffles and the thought of leaving the house has brought me out in a cold sweat”. Her talk ended on the thought which was repeated throughout the forum – the importance of being “good enough”, not “perfect” – basically, that doing your best is the best you can do, so to stop applying so much pressure.

Following on from that talk, Paula Hyland, the project manager of the Neoview project, spoke about different ways to bond with your baby if they are in the neonatal unit. She mentioned how it can be difficult with the physical boundaries of the incubator and the wires, and limited time you can spend with them, and how this can lead to PTSD in parents. It’s something I have never really thought about as luckily we never had to use the facilities of the neonatal unit, but listening to her talk it became very clear how much of an issue this is. She spoke about the work of the Neoview Project, which hopes to decrease the amounts of trauma felt by the parents in the event of their child needing the unit. As well as an online resource which combines all of the correct information in one easy to reach place, they’re also making clinical psychologists available to the parents of the babies in the unit. They’re also rolling out a pilot which sounds incredible, where parents will be able to see via webcam how their baby is doing in the Neonatal unit. As well as allowing them to check that baby is doing okay from home, this will also allow siblings/other family members to see and bond with the new baby where they aren’t able to physically visit them. These are all being brought in to follow the research from other countries where these have been highly successful in reducing the trauma felt by parents in this very stressful time of their lives. Paula spoke about ways parents can bond while they are in the NeoNatal Unit, such as reading to their babies (yes, even that early, there are huge benefits), kangaroo care (skin on skin) and speaking softly to them. It was a really interesting talk, and I really want to learn more about the work that the Neoview Project is doing.

Catherine Maguire, a Senior Clinical Psychologist and Infant Mental Health Specialist changed things up a little by talking from the baby’s perspective. She focused on the importance of interaction between parent and child in their emotional development. Using a variety of videos, she showed the difference between an engaged reaction between parent and baby, and the blank face – and what the baby reacts like to the parent not paying attention. This is something which she spoke about passionately. She focused in particular with regard on parents using mobile phones and not looking directly at their baby. The baby is waiting on a reaction that they can bounce off of. Not getting a reaction confuses and upsets them.

It’s something that struck a chord here, because like most of us, I have been one of those mums who checks her phone while doing bedtime/spending time with E. There were a few comments from the audience on this from those working in the midwifery field that I felt were a bit too much on the preachy side – something reflected by one or two parents I spoke to afterwards who felt they’d been talked down to – but the talk itself didn’t have that tone.

Her talk ended on the thing which should be plastered over every note given to parents – You Cannot Spoil A Baby. This is so, so important. It’s something that parents mistakenly often think they have to work against, this “making a rod for your own back” concept. Babies cry when they need to tell you something. It’s their method of communication. Not giving them this attention can lead to problems with attachment further down the line.

I was the last speaker (before questions were laid to the floor for the panel). I spoke about my journey through PostNatal Depression, my pregnancy, the factors that led towards my depression. For the first time, I spoke very honestly to a group of people about this topic. It’s much harder to say the words out loud than it is to write them here, especially with a group of people staring up at you. However, one or two fluffs of words and slides aside, it went really well and I feel that it got a good reception.

I’m glad I took part. It’s a topic which is really close to my heart, something I do feel that we need to have a bigger conversation about. I ended my talk on a quote by Brené Brown which I feel really sums up why I talk so much about this.

The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too”. 

If you’d like to find out more information about the work done by INFANT, check out their website here. They’re a group I really hope to work with again in future. It’s incredible research set to change life for so many parents and babies.

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4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Fair play to you missus. Great that the discussion about mental health is opening up more and more. So important for new mums and dads to know it’s normal if they’re not feeling absolute joy every waking minute in the company of their new baby. Love the emphasis on how it’s enough to be there, rather than driving yourself nuts trying to be the perfect parent!

  2. Sounds like a really valuable and informative event. Well done you – not many people can stand up and share such a personal experience, nevermind with such eloquence as you x

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