What is postpartum depletion? (And how to avoid it)

We can all agree: parenthood is hard. Like, really hard. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Mums, you’re amazing.

It’s not just the fact that you have a small human to look after 24/7 – it’s the toll that birthing, breastfeeding and chasing a baby around has on your poor body. Women are wired to focus solely on their babies’ needs – often to the detriment of their own health. But your body needs adequate care and attention so you can keep on mumming!

This is the lesson that postpartum depletion teaches us. By caring properly for ourselves, we can be better mums. We love this quote that Amy Pasfield, nutritionist and postpartum doula, shared with us:

“Mothers cannot give from a depleted source. Every mother needs emotional, physical and spiritual validation, nourishment and support. When a mother is respected and well cared for, she and her whole family will benefit.” – A Motherwoman Principle

We got some thoughts from Amy, along with herbalist and nutritionist Louise Loader, on what postpartum depletion looks like, and how we can avoid it. Do yourself a favour and read on!

What does postpartum depletion look like?

Louise gave us a great description of postpartum depletion.

“It’s a term coined by Australian doctor Dr Oscar Serrallach,” she explained. “It’s a condition thought to affect around 50% of mothers, characterised by exhaustion, nutritional deficiencies and feelings of overwhelm.”

“A depleted mother may feel anxious or hypervigilant. She will often feel a deep fatigue that is not relieved by sleep, she may lose her libido, suffer brain fog, and have recurrent infections or a worsening of pre-existing medical conditions.”

The condition is linked to a lack of adequate nutrition combined with mental strain and sleep deprivation. Dr Serrallach suggests it doesn’t have to appear straight after birth – it can actually arise years later! And in worst case scenarios, it can lead to conditions like postnatal depression.

How does it happen?

As Louise noted, depletion is often an outcome of insufficient nutritional intake either before, during or after pregnancy. 

“If a women’s nutritional intake is inadequate throughout pregnancy, or if subsequent pregnancies have been spaced closely together, deficiencies may develop as her body struggles to keep up with her baby’s needs,” she said. “Many women then begin their motherhood journey with significant deficiencies that are further compounded by breastfeeding and poor dietary habits postpartum.”

Louise strongly believes that nutrition helps postpartum recovery, which is why it’s so important to prioritise health and wellness in the postpartum period.

“If a new mother doesn’t prioritise her health and have adequate support around her, she will fall into the common trap of eating ‘whatever she can get her hands on’. Exacerbated by sleep deprivation and an intense focus on the wellbeing of her new baby, a mother will often neglect her own health until she is severely depleted.”

How to avoid postpartum depletion

So as you’ve probably gathered, postpartum depletion is the worst. Louise suggests a few ways to avoid it.

Bump up your nutrient intake while trying to conceive

“Avoiding postpartum depletion really begins in preconception,” she said. “Ensuring you’re nutritionally replete going into pregnancy is the best way to stay ahead of the huge demands of a developing baby.” 

A good pregnancy supplement can help, but try to squeeze more iron, folic acid and iodine into your pre-pregnancy diet to give your system a good boost.

Eat lots of wholefoods during pregnancy

“Throughout pregnancy, continue with an abundance of nutrient-dense wholefoods, including plenty of fatty fish, grass-fed meat and eggs,” Louise suggested. 

Plan ahead for postpartum

Louise recommended planning for the postpartum period while you’re still pregnant.

“Before the baby is born, ensure family, friends or a postpartum doula are organised to help with cooking and cleaning,” she said. “Make sure the freezer is stocked with nutritious meals and snacks.”

Amy Pasfield echoed these sentiments about planning ahead for postpartum:

“It’s vital to include how you plan to keep the mother well nourished and hydrated in the postpartum plan, including who will be preparing nourishing meals, e.g. neighbourhood meal train, a healthy food delivery service, pre-prepared freezer meals or a support person making sure there are enough meals in the fridge to get the mother through the day.” 

Being prepared on the food front can ensure you’ve got nourishing meals on hand to help replenish your body after giving birth and while breastfeeding.

The role that breastfeeding has to play

“Many women aren’t aware that the nutrient requirements of lactation are actually higher than during pregnancy,” Amy told us. “In saying that, postpartum is often a time when the mother is so busy nourishing the baby that she forgets to nourish herself, relying on cold pieces of toast and coffee to get her through the day.” (Or in this Mumli author’s case, banana bread. Nothing but banana bread. Oops.)

“This is a recipe for postpartum depletion,” she said. “It’s essential to replace lost nutrients after birth or the body will pull from its own stores to ensure that the breast milk is always enriched.” 

A mama’s nutrition requirements and breastfeeding go hand in hand! Good nutrition can really help support breastfeeding. 

What to do if you think you have postpartum depletion

 Amy said, “If you suspect you are deficient or display symptoms of deficiency, you can request full blood panels from your GP and work with a local health care practitioner to replete lost nutrients.” 

She also recommended the services of an acupuncturist to deal with hormone balance and depletion.

If you do suspect you’re experiencing postpartum depletion, it’s important to get plenty of support (ask for help if you need it) and take care of your emotional wellbeing during postpartum too. It’s an intense time for both your mind and your body.

Have you had an experience with postpartum depletion? We’d love to hear your story.

Expert contributor: Bernadette Lack

Bernadette is a midwife, personal trainer and Founder of Core & Floor Restore. Get more excellent information on labour techniques by following her on Instagram and checking out her FREE and very helpful online antenatal classes.

Expert contributor: Louise Loader

Louise is a nutritionist, herbalist and mumma to two boys. Louise works with women as they make the momentous transition to motherhood, using a mix of modern science and traditional wisdom to support them through a nourished pregnancy and postpartum.

You can follow her on Instagram here.

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