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Motherhood is often celebrated as a time of joy and excitement, but it can also be a time of stress and anxiety. Maternal Mental Health Week is an annual event that raises awareness about the mental health challenges that many mothers face during pregnancy and after childbirth. It highlights the importance of mental health support for moms, and encourages women to speak out about their experiences. Up to 20% of women will experience a Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder (PMAD) during pregnancy or in the postpartum period. It’s no surprise that pregnancy and early motherhood is emotional. Becoming a parent is arguably the biggest change many of us will ever go through. But when do those emotional shifts become something more worrisome? And how can we take steps to “safeguard” our mental health?
Here are what the experts had to say. The following are their top tips to protect your mental health throughout all the stages of pregnancy and early motherhood:
Make Sure to Monitor Your Mental Health During Pregnancy:
Clinical psychologist Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, says the chemical changes women experience in their bodies during pregnancy that can intensify their emotions, as well as affect their energy, sleep, and appetite. Pregnant women also deal with stressors involving their relationship with their partner, who is also feeling their own emotions about the pregnancy and the changes that will ensue in the relationship.
1. Know What to Look For:
Suzanne Bovone, M.D., an OB-GYN at Pediatrix Medical Group, says the most common mental health diagnosis she sees in patients is anxiety and depression. She says “If these feelings are new, they may be harder to identify. If you feel more irritable than usual or have trouble sleeping, difficulty focusing, experience changes in your appetite and/or have increased fatigue or insomnia, you should talk to your OB-GYN or another health care provider.” The difference between PMAD in pregnancy versus other types of anxiety and depression during pregnancy is these feelings are extreme, long-lasting, and interrupt your ability to care for yourself or others.
2. Check In Regularly with Your Healthcare Provider:
Make sure that every visit with your healthcare provider includes a check in about your mental health, not just physical health. Your doctor can can prescribe medication if needed and/or refer you to a mental health professional.
3. Follow a Healthy Lifestyle for a Healthy Mind in Pregnancy and Beyond:
Lifestyle changes and habits can help you better manage your emotions during pregnancy. Low impact exercise like walking or swimming, getting plenty of sleep, meditation, mindfulness, and journaling are great options.
Postpartum Mental Health: Recognize When New Mom Emotions Mean Something More Serious:
The importance of monitoring your mental health is just as crucial after your baby arrives. Bethany Warren, LCSW, PMH-C, certified Perinatal Mental Health Therapist says “having a baby is one of the biggest life changes you will ever go through, and coupled with this huge life shift are also tremendous hormonal changes. Even dads, partners, parents through surrogacy, and adoptive parents can experience a myriad of emotions when having a new baby.” She suggests the following factors as a good way to help determine whether you are experiencing emotions related to the adjustment of becoming a new mother, or facing something more serious, like a PMAD.
How long have you been experiencing your mood symptoms? For example, every new mom cries at some point, but do you feel like you’ve been crying for more days than not over the last several weeks or months?
How bad does this feel? Every parent has worrisome thoughts, like “what if I drop my baby?” or “am I feeding the baby enough?" but are these anxious thoughts so bad that you’re now avoiding certain activities or feeling paralyzed and panicked? Is your basic functioning impacted (ex. is it hard to take care of yourself or the baby sometimes)?
How often are you feeling this way? It’s really common with motherhood to doubt yourself, have anxious times, or sometimes wish that you could run away. But are you feeling this way more often than not? Are your anxious thoughts constant, or are you experiencing rage or irritability on a daily basis, or is your “new normal” feeling constantly sad?
if you’re noticing any of the above markers, seeking professional help is important.
Create a Postpartum Plan:
Doula Deundra Hundon says “For every labor and birth book you read, or article or podcast, read one about postpartum care.” She also urges moms to create an actual postpartum plan. She suggests letting your friends and family know upfront what the postpartum experience will look like for you: “If it means you’re not going to be doing anything but picking up your baby, feeding your baby, taking a shower and going back to sleep, set that expectation. Because if we don’t tell people what we need, they may assume, “Oh, you’re at home. Your laptop is sitting there. I can send you an email, right? You’re going to still answer, right?” No, I’m not answering anything during postpartum… Set that expectation really clearly.” Finally, she recommends asking for help when you need it.
Nourish Your Postpartum Body with Healthy Food:
Registered Dietician Nutritionist Crystal Karges suggests “think about body kindness—treating your body with kindness and respect. I think when moms hear this idea of you need to love your body, or you should be so grateful for your body, that can be really arbitrary and sometimes out of reach for new moms who just had a baby and are trying to reconcile all that their bodies have gone through. Remember that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable in your body, but to also feel grateful for your body and everything that it’s brought you… It’s okay to feel those things simultaneously. One doesn’t cancel out the other.” She reminds us that a healthy diet will help replenish all the nutrients that have been lost in order to support your recovery and your healing. Nutrient deficiencies can actually be a risk factor for mental health conditions in postpartum, like postpartum depression, and need to be taken seriously at this stage (and every stage!)
Build a Supportive Community:
You need a community now more than ever. Talk to your partner, family member, or friend so they can help understand what you’re going through and provide support. Would chatting with a postpartum doula or lactation consultant virtually help? Do you need an online moms group? Do you really just need a few moments to yourself? Pinpoint a few forms of support that would help and try to put them into action to lessen your load.
At the end of the day, Maternal Mental Health Week is an important reminder that mental health matters for moms. It's a time to raise awareness, educate others, and provide support to mamas who are struggling. Let's continue to prioritize maternal mental health and ensure that all moms have access to the support and resources they need to thrive.
How to Get Help:To find a therapist, psychiatrist, support group, and other resources online or near you, please go to postpartum.net