What could be more exciting than the birth of a baby? New mothers expect this to be a time of joy and satisfaction. So it can be particularly upsetting and confusing to feel just the opposite. Approximately 85% of new moms experience the “baby blues” — a short-lived state of unhappiness, tearfulness, self-doubt and, as you might expect, fatigue. These feelings typically begin a few days after delivery and disappear after a week or two. But when the sense of sadness is intense or lasts more than two weeks, the condition could be more serious — it could be postpartum depression (PPD).
What are Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs)?
Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders, specifically PPD, are the most common mental health condition for women in their childbearing years. Women suffering from this condition may experience overwhelming feelings of sadness or despair, extreme mood swings, irritability, anger or anxiety. These emotions can be so powerful that they interfere with daily tasks, including caring for themselves and their babies.
PPD is not rare. In fact, as many as one in seven women experience some form of pregnancy-related depression or anxiety. These feelings can develop anytime from a few weeks to a year after delivery, but it’s most common in the first three months postpartum. PPD’s predictors and risk factors can be caused by changes in the mom’s biology, psychology, hormones and environment.
Mothers often feel guilty about not being “good mothers” and worry about not being able to care for their babies properly. Others may feel too ashamed to share how they are feeling. Some women may feel responsible for having PPD, but let’s be clear — mothers are not to blame for their feelings of depression after childbirth.
Taking care of a newborn baby is a real challenge, and some women do not get the emotional and practical help they need. This can be further compounded by being exhausted — which further heightens feelings.
When feelings of intense sadness linger or mood swings after childbirth become extreme, it is important to seek help. The first step is to accept that there is a problem. PPD is a medical condition that needs to be cared for like any other health-related problem. Talk to your doctor, midwife, partner, friend or family member who can help you secure the support and treatment you need. Your healthcare provider can evaluate your symptoms and recommend the best treatment plan for you. You may benefit from therapy, medication or a combination of both. It is critically important to know you are not to blame, you are not alone and with treatment and time you will be well and begin to feel like yourself again.
There are also things you can do at home to help you cope with everyday life. These are not substitutes for medical care, but rather tips to help you deal with the stresses of being a new mother.
- Create “me time”
Breastfeeding may make you feel confined to the house. Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed trying to balance caring for your baby with your job, your household responsibilities or your older children. Don’t try to cope with these stresses alone — ask for help. Ask your partner, a relative or trusted friend to care for the baby for an hour or two. Schedule some “me time” once a week. Take a walk or a drive, go to a movie, meditate, practice yoga, read a book, consider starting a gratitude journal, or even take a long bath or a nap. Taking even just a few minutes to decompress and relax can go a long way toward soothing a new mother’s frazzled nerves.
- Get active
Some studies suggest that the endorphin boost a workout produces may help symptoms in women suffering from depression or any other Perinatal Mood Disorder, such as anxiety. Take your baby for a walk in a stroller and enjoy getting in some steps and getting a little fresh air. If you can’t go to the gym or fit in a long exercise session, try a 10-minute mini-workout a few times throughout the day.
- Maintain a healthy diet
As a new mother, good nutrition is particularly important for both you and your baby. And although healthy eating alone won’t cure PPD, it will help you feel better by supplying the nutrition and energy your body needs. Keep meals simple, and consider planning a week’s worth of meals in advance. You can even prepare healthy snacks that are easy to grab on the run. When friends and family offer to help, ask for a few casseroles that you can freeze for a fast dinner when you need it. If funds permit, consider taking advantage of one or more of the many services that prepare fresh meals and deliver them to your home.
- Get rest
You’ve no doubt heard the advice, sleep when your baby sleeps. Because your baby is not likely to sleep through the night during the first few months, take naps during the day and go to bed early. If you are breastfeeding, consider pumping a bottle so your partner can take care of a nighttime feeding so you can get some solid sleep. Practicing these restorative sleep techniques can go a very long way in helping a new mom avoid complete exhaustion, which can contribute to the onset of depression and anxiety.
- Stay connected
New mothers can sometimes feel a bit lonely and isolated. Having another adult — particularly another mom — with whom to share conversation, feelings, some laughs and even a few tears can give your mood a boost. Arrange playdates or join a mom’s support group — surround yourself with people who make you smile and feel good.
Breastfeeding is not only good for your baby — it is also good for you in many ways. Research shows that breastfeeding may reduce a new mom’s risk of developing PPD or other Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders.
Believe it or not, a good cry is actually good for you. After giving birth, your body is struggling to get your hormone levels back to normal. According to the book Postpartum Mood Disorders: A Guide for Medical, Mental Health and Other Support Providers, one way that your body secretes hormones is through your tears. So go ahead and enjoy a good cry.
- Be gentle and kind to yourself
Postpartum depression is real, and it is nothing to be ashamed of. If your feelings of sadness, despair or anxiety last more than a few weeks or are interfering with your ability to care for yourself or your baby, don’t delay in seeking help. Your healthcare provider is a good place to start.
For a list of additional resources, visit vcumom.com where you will find a Mother’s Guide to Postpartum Depression.
This article was written by:
Janet K. Abraham, MSW
Women’s Health at Nelson Clinic
Associate Field Liaison Instructor, VCU School of Social Work
Janet is a Clinical Social Worker practicing in affiliation with VCU Health’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. She has over 20 years of experience in the fields of Clinical Social Work, health policy and administration as well as fundraising and patient advocacy. She is the recipient of the Medical Center’s 2014 Ambulatory Women’s Health Week of the Nurse Award for “True Collaboration.” She currently serves as a Board Member for Postpartum Support Virginia and Cancer LINC and she recently authored “A Mother’s Guide to Postpartum Depression” for VCU Health.
Janet completed her undergraduate work at Boston University and received her graduate degree from the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work.