New mothers’ mental health problems going undetected, says charity

Mother holding baby

New mothers are supposed to be asked about their own health, including their mental wellbeing, six weeks after giving birth. Photograph: Gajus/Alamy Stock Photo/Alamy

Mental health problems among new mothers are going undetected because many get as little as three minutes to discuss their feelings at the six-week postnatal checkup, research claims.

A sixth of mothers were given no time at all to talk about their health at the appointments, while 31% had less than three minutes, according to the survey by the parenting charity NCT. A quarter of the 1,025 women polled, who all gave birth in the last two years, were not asked anything about their emotional or mental wellbeing.

New mothers are supposed to be asked about their health, including their mental welfare, six weeks after giving birth, either at a consultation to discuss their baby’s progress or at a separate appointment about them.

NHS guidelines encourage new mothers to tell their GP if they are feeling sad or anxious because looking after a baby can sometimes feel overwhelming. The conversations are meant to identify postnatal depression, anxiety or other conditions related to the birth, which often go undetected.

“Many new mums don’t find it easy to admit they are struggling, so it is impossible to make them feel comfortable enough to discuss their concerns in less than three minutes,” said Sarah McMullen, NCT’s head of knowledge.

The charity is campaigning for the NHS to introduce standalone appointments for mothers, at which they could discuss any physical or mental health problem they are experiencing. However, the Royal College of GPs said it was unrealistic to expect family doctors to have the time to probe women’s health in detail, given the many other pressures on them.

“Even though six-week checks are generally longer than the standard 10-minute appointment, it is still incredibly hard for GPs to explore all the different factors potentially affecting a new mother’s heath within the time constraints, particularly at a time when general practice is facing intense resource and workforce pressures,” said Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, the college’s chair.

She urged ministers to seriously consider the NCT’s call for dedicated appointments for new mothers, which the NHS would fund and promote.

NHS England disputed the NCT’s findings. “There are over 600,000 births every year in England and, according to a recent Care Quality Commission survey, around nine out of 10 new mums actually reported being asked how they were feeling emotionally in checkups and said that they were given enough information postnatally,” a spokesperson said.

The NHS has recently expanded services for mothers with psychological and psychiatric conditions linked to giving birth, including creating more mother and baby units.