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Having time for self at least once a week beneficial for the mental health of new mums

Research News
Monday, December 21, 2015 - 2:53pm
woman drinking tea
New research suggests that women who have time for themselves once a week or more in the first six months after childbirth have improved mental health.

The findings from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute study of 1500 women found that only 48.5 per cent of new mothers reported having time for themselves each week when someone else looked after their baby. One in six women reported that they never had time for themselves.

As part of the Maternal Health Study, researchers analysed data from questionnaires completed by women at six months postpartum. The team evaluated the results using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale to identify those women with depressive symptoms. At six months postpartum, almost one in 10 women reported depressive symptoms indicative of major clinical depression. A clear relationship was observed between depressive symptoms and the frequency of time for self.

Compared to women who reported less frequent time for self, women who had time for themselves once a week or more were less likely to report depressive symptoms. Among women who had time for self once a week or more, less than 6 per cent reported depressive symptoms.

The prevalence of depressive symptoms almost doubled to 10 per cent in those who had time for self less than fortnightly, and tripled to 15 per cent in those who never had time for themselves.

Women who had more frequent time for themselves were more likely to have higher levels of practical and emotional support. But even after adjusting for other factors related to maternal depression (such as practical and emotional support, maternal age, and relationship status), there was still a significant relationship between depressive symptoms and the frequency of time for self.

“Ensuring women get regular respite from the challenges of caring for a young baby is a relatively simple and effective way of promoting maternal mental health in the year after childbirth,” said lead author Dr Hannah Woolhouse.

“While it makes sense that time for self would improve women’s mental health, what is surprising is the robustness of the relationship we have observed. Frequent time for self appears to protect the mental health of mothers regardless of the more general social support they are receiving.”

The five most common things women did when they had time for themselves were: going shopping for the household (57 per cent); going out with partner (47 per cent); having a long bath or shower (42 per cent); going to the hairdresser or beautician (37 per cent); and relaxing, putting their feet up and watching TV (36 per cent).

“This is the first systematic exploration of the association between postnatal mental health and the frequency of time for self,” said A/Prof Stephanie Brown, Chief Investigator of the Maternal Health Study.

“Taking time-out is recommended by some Australian mental health organisations and it may also be recommended informally by primary care practitioners, such as the family GP or maternal child health nurse. However, we are unaware of the inclusion of this strategy in any formal practice guidelines.”

A/Prof Brown said it is important to acknowledge that getting time for self requires the ongoing and frequent support of others – partners, family, friends, neighbours, or paid childcare services.

“Current research indicates that the majority of childcare and housework responsibilities still fall to women. The more equitably partners can share the practical and emotional responsibilities of having a baby, the more likely we are to have healthy, well-functioning parents, and in turn healthier children.”

Read more about A/Prof Stephanie Brown and Dr Hannah Woolhouse's work here: