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Objective To investigate the relationship between maternal physical and emotional health problems six to nine months after childbirth.

Design Statewide postal survey, incorporating the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale, distributed to women six to seven months after childbirth, with telephone interview follow up of a sub-sample of participants at seven to nine months postpartum.

Participants The postal survey was distributed to all women who gave birth in a two-week period in Victoria, Australia in September 1993, except those who had a stillbirth or known neonatal death. Follow up interviews were conducted with respondents to the postal survey who provided contact details and expressed interest in participating in further research selected to recruit three groups of equivalent size according to scores on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale: a low scoring group (< 9); a borderline group (9–12); and a group with scores indicating probable depression (> 13).

Results The response rate to the postal survey was 62.5% (n= 1336). Respondents were representative of the total sample in terms of mode of delivery, parity and infant birthweight; young women, single women and women of non-English speaking background were under-represented. The participation rate in telephone follow up interviews was: 89.1% (n= 204), comprising 66 women with an Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale score of < 9; 72 women scoring 9–12; and 66 scoring ≥ 13. The point prevalence of depression at six to seven months postpartum was 16.9% (225/1331, 95% CI 14.9–18.9%). Physical and related health problems associated with significantly increased odds of (OR 3.42 [2.2–5.3]); urinary incontinence (OR 2.23 [1.5–3.4]); back pain (OR 2.20 [1.6–3.0]); sexual problems (OR 2.16 [1.6–3.0]); more coughs, colds and minor illnesses than usual (OR 2.78 [1.9–4.1]); bowel problems (OR 1.93 [1.3–2.9]) and relationship difficulties (OR 3.88 [2.8–5.4]). At follow up, three physical health factors were associated with statistically significant linear trends with poorer levels of emotional wellbeing. These were: tiredness (χ2 for linear trend = 12.38, P < 0.001); urinary incontinence (χ2 for linear trend = 5.63, P= 0.02); and more minor illnesses than usual (χ2 for linear trend = 7.94, P= 0.005).

Conclusion The study confirms a link between maternal emotional wellbeing and physical health and recovery in the postnatal period and has important implications for clinical practice. Strategies for encouraging greater disclosure of physical and emotional health problems, assessment of the physical health of recent mothers presenting with depression, and emotional health of recent mothers presenting with other morbidity should be high priorities for all health professionals in contact with mothers in the year following childbirth.