“I would recommend singing groups to any new mum. People don’t realise how powerful the arts can be for your mental health.” – Melodies for Mums singing group participant

It’s totally normal to feel a bit wobbly, tearful, or anxious in the first few weeks of having a baby. After all, your body has basically just done a marathon, you’re adjusting to a completely new role, your hormones are going crazy and you’ve barely slept. People often refer to that feeling as the “baby blues” and it usually lasts for the first few weeks after birth. If it continues longer than that, you might have, or be at risk of postnatal depression (PND).

Postnatal depression – a common problem

PND is more prevalent than you might think. It affects more than 1 in 10 women within the first year of giving birth, and that’s only the ones we know about. There will be lots of women out there who never tell a soul about how they’re feeling. Perhaps they write it off as just anxiety. Or maybe they struggle to ask for help, because they feel that means they’re failing at the parenting game (spoiler: they’re not).

Treatments for postnatal depression

Traditionally, PND has been treated with self-care, medication or talking therapies, but finding the time for self-care is tricky as a new mum, many mums have concerns about taking medication while breastfeeding, and uptake of psychological therapies in new mothers is quite low. Recent research has shown, however, that a more creative approach to improving the mental health of new mothers (such as participation in community arts groups) could be a powerful route to recovery.

The arts and mental health

It’s long been known that the arts can have a positive effect on mental health. Art can provide a way to express difficult emotions without having to put them into words. It can help you make sense of things and work through complicated feelings. Getting involved with something creative, whether it be music, dance, or the visual arts, is also a mindful act – something that takes you away from the noise inside your head, bringing you into the moment.

Can singing help women suffering from PND?

Music therapy and in particular, singing, is a known tool for improving mental health. (The impact on older patients, especially those with dementia, is especially powerful). Until recently, however, there had never been a controlled study specifically on the effect of group singing in mums suffering from PND.

In 2016, the Royal College of Music and Imperial College took 150 mothers with symptoms of PND and gave them ten weeks of care. The mums were split randomly into three groups and were offered the usual care, standard social groups, or social singing sessions.

The study found that the social singing groups had significantly faster improvements in their symptoms, and astonishingly, about three quarters of the participants had recovered from their symptoms within the ten-week period, which was about a month earlier than either of the other groups.

Dr Rosie Perkins, principal investigator for the research, said: “Postnatal depression is debilitating for mothers and their families, yet our research indicates that for some women something as accessible as singing with their baby could help to speed up recovery at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives.”

As well as reducing symptoms, group singing sessions were found to increase mothers’ confidence, reduce feelings of isolation and help them bond with their babies.

It’s a simple solution to a complex problem. No medication, no lengthy programmes of therapy. Just getting together with a group of other women who’re experiencing similar difficulties and sharing something joyful.

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Why does singing feel so good?

Singing boosts your happy hormones in the same way that exercise does. It increases endorphins (the brain’s feel-good chemical), reduces cortisol (the stress hormone), and releases oxytocin, which helps relieve anxiety and trigger feelings of trust. Basically, it’s a natural anti-depressant!

You tend to breathe more deeply when singing, giving you similar health benefits to yoga. Lung capacity is improved, the immune system is enhanced and the increased level of oxygen in the bloodstream has a calming effect.

There’s an added boost to singing in a group as well. In a 2012 study by the Music, Mind and Brain Group at Goldsmiths, group singing was shown to have a semi tribal aspect. It was found that the act of joining together in group song, gave a sense of belonging and of working towards a common purpose, which explains the warm, fuzzy feeling a lot of people get when singing in a choir.

Treating PND with the power of song

There are lots of places you can go to sing with your little one, but up until now, most music workshops have been focused on the babies and their enjoyment, stimulation, and development. However, the results of the 2016 research on singing as a ‘treatment’ for PND, may be about to change that.

Breathe Arts Health Research currently run Melodies for Mums, a ground-breaking singing service, based on the pioneering research by the Royal College of Music and Imperial College.

Groups of 10 – 15 women, experiencing symptoms of PND, come together and sing on a weekly basis. There’s no ‘wind the bobbin up’ or ‘hop little bunnies’ on the menu though. Instead, songs range from folk to gospel, in a number of different languages and sung in three-part harmonies, and workshops are led by a specialist arts and health musician. The babies get a lot out of the sessions, but the focus is firmly on the mums and their health and wellbeing. It’s a joyful experience, in which women who’re undergoing some serious challenges leave their problems at the door and come together in uplifting, life-enhancing song.

“The sessions really increase your energy level and mood… There was no stigma. We were all just there singing and trying to find ourselves through music.”

“It really is able to pull somebody out of their own heads and be able to help them look around and see how nice everything is”

(Melodies for Mums participants)

Due to COVID-19, everything’s a little different right now and classes are currently online, but participants still report a meaningful boost to their wellbeing.

What if group singing isn’t an option?

If you don’t feel comfortable joining a singing group, or are unable to find one in your area, you can still benefit from the healing power of song at home. Sing along with your favourite songs, either to yourself or to your baby. Even humming a few simple melodies is enough to give you a lift, and leave you feeling more positive and energised.

It’s hard to carve out time to practice self-care when you’re a new mum but singing is something you can do while involved in other daily tasks and is a meaningful way of supporting your maternal mental health while benefiting your baby as well.

Find out more

New mothers experiencing anxiety, low mood, stress, loneliness and depression, can sign up for 6 weeks of free online sessions with Melodies for Mums. (The next group starts on 17th February 2021 and ends 24th March 2021. Sessions are every Wednesday morning from 10am to 11am or 11.15am to 12.15pm on Zoom.)

Find out more https://breatheahr.org/melodies-for-mums/ or get in touch at m4m@breatheahr.org / 07858 296855.

Article by Lilli Murdoch, Digital Communications Officer at Breathe Arts Health Research

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