How to support a new mother’s postpartum mental health

Welcoming a new life into the world is an extraordinary experience, yet the postpartum period often brings an array of emotions and adjustments that can be challenging as well as rewarding.

Many women face mental health challenges in the days and months after they deliver their baby. Postpartum mental health can be related to dramatic hormonal changes after birth, genetic factors, stress and trauma.

Being a supportive partner, friend or loved one can be a huge help for the new mom. And understanding the full spectrum of postpartum mental health is key to supporting new mothers during this time. Here’s a look at postpartum mental health and some ways you can help relatives or friends navigate this time.

The spectrum of postpartum mental health

The term “postpartum mental health spectrum” is used to describe the range of mood disorders that affects some women after childbirth. These disorders are divided into three categories.

The baby blues

The baby blues is most common and mildest condition on the spectrum, affecting 50% to 75% of new mothers. Symptoms usually appear within the first few days after delivery and go away within two weeks. With the baby blues, new moms commonly experience mood swings, anxiety, sadness, irritability and difficulty sleeping.

Postpartum depression

Postpartum depression is a more serious and persistent mental health condition. Symptoms can present anytime within the first year after giving birth. It affects one in seven women (approximately 15% of new mothers) and can severely interfere with a mother’s ability to care for themselves and their baby. Symptoms can include:

  • Depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Guilt
  • Hopelessness
  • Insomnia
  • Appetite changes
  • Thoughts of harming themselves or their baby

Women who have a history of depression before or during pregnancy are at increased risk of postpartum depression.

Postpartum psychosis

The most severe condition on the spectrum is postpartum psychosis. It affects about one in 1000 women and can present as hallucinations, delusions, confusion, paranoia, suicidal or homicidal impulses. This rare condition requires immediate inpatient medical and psychiatric care.

How can you support a new mother’s postpartum health?

The postpartum period can be very challenging for a woman. Healthcare providers, family members and friends are a crucial network for new mothers and can support them in several ways.

Education

Learn about the symptoms, risk factors and treatment options available for new moms, and have a game plan in place to offer support, even before any issues arise. Unfortunately, some women may not receive adequate information before giving birth or after the baby arrives, which means that they may feel isolated, misunderstood or judged. Educating yourself on postpartum mental health is the first step to reaching out to someone in your life who may need help.

Offer a helping hand

Taking care of a baby can be overwhelming and exhausting. Offer to help with household chores, errands or taking care of the infant or other children in the home. This can dramatically reduce the burden and stress on the new mom.

Encourage self-care

Self-care allows a new mother to focus on herself and separate herself from her motherly duties. Even if it’s a short 15-minute walk or grabbing a cup of coffee while the baby is safely with another caregiver, a small moment for self-care can make a huge impact.

Be patient and supportive

It takes time to recover from having a baby. New moms need compassion and understanding from their support network. Remind them that they are not alone in this experience and they have people around them that love and support them.

What lifestyle changes can support postpartum mental health?

New mothers often focus on the baby’s health, but looking after themselves is also crucial. There are several lifestyle changes that can boost mood and feelings of well-being.

Exercise

Physical activity can have a valuable antidepressant effect. Taking walks with the baby in a stroller is a great way to get exercise and get some fresh air and Vitamin D, all of which can elevate mood and reduce stress.

Maintain a healthy diet

Eating nutritious food is also critical in optimizing health and mood postpartum. Friends and family can help to prepare meals and healthy snacks that are easy to eat while adjusting to life with a baby.

“Me” time

Taking care of a baby is all encompassing and can quickly become overwhelming and stressful. Mothers need time to relax and unplug to recharge and have a little “me” time throughout the week.

A good night’s sleep

Arguably one of the biggest changes after having a baby is interrupted sleep patterns. Lack of sleep can worsen depression and affect overall health. New moms can try to sleep when baby sleeps, minimize screen time and avoid caffeine or alcohol before bed.

What treatment options are out there for new mothers?

Many people are not aware of the signs and symptoms of postpartum mental disorders, and women may feel too ashamed or guilty to seek help. With education and awareness, my hope is that new mothers understand that postpartum depression or anxiety is not a sign of weakness or failure.

The good news is these postpartum mental health conditions are treatable with medications that are effective and safe with breastfeeding. There are also behavioral therapy options and support groups that can help new moms get support. There is no reason women need to suffer in silence.

It’s vital for any new mom to have an open dialogue with their OBGYN as part of their postpartum recovery. Encourage anyone you know to seek help if they are experiencing these mental health symptoms.

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