May is Maternal Mental Health Month, so HuffPost Parenting and Wellness are shining a light on postpartum well-being. From how new moms handle those early days as parents while struggling with their own mental health to how to be there for friends and family, we’ve created a space for moms and their loved ones to feel seen and heard in those first trying months of parenthood. See the full series here.
Having a baby, whether it’s your first or fourth, is a surreal experience. Between sustaining a new life to seeing that wrinkly (so wrinkly!) little face for the first time, it can be a truly wonderful time.
But it can also be a little rough once the initial adrenaline starts to subside. There are a lot of unexpected changes happening on top of perhaps the biggest factor: utter and complete exhaustion.
“Most women aren’t used to the immediate sleep deprivation that comes with having a newborn,” said Kameelah Phillips, a board-certified OB-GYN and the founder of Calla Women’s Health in New York City. “Plus, when you are stressed, one of the most important coping mechanisms we have is sleep. When your life is no longer on a 24-hour cycle, that can be really impactful because you’re now missing the defense mechanism of eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.”
The lack of sleep is just the tip of the iceberg ― and all of it can affect your mind. Below, experts explain the most common ways your mental health can be affected after giving birth, why these changes happen and how to find the resources you need to feel better.
The ‘Baby Blues’
Feeling sad after giving birth may freak you out. After all, isn’t this supposed to be a happy time? But rest assured, this dip in your mood is normal — and extremely common.
“In my experience, I would say about 80% of women experience the baby blues,” said Jennifer Schell, a board-certified OB-GYN and postpartum care specialist. “This can be for a mix of reasons, such as the body shifting from a state of pregnancy to postpartum, breastfeeding, any trauma the mother may have experienced ― be it physical or emotional ― during delivery, as well as adding a new person to your family.”
This typically lasts about two weeks, but it can be different for everyone. Just know that it isn’t permanent.
“If you get some relief after crying or take a nap and feel better ― even temporarily ― and you still find comfort and joy in taking care of your baby, those are signs that these feelings are baby blues and they will pass,” Phillips said.
“In my experience, I would say about 80% of women experience the baby blues.”
– Jennifer Schell, board-certified OB-GYN
Trying to tell a new parent not to worry after they bring home a tiny human who is completely dependent on them for survival is like telling a dog not to bark. But there are rational concerns, like wondering if their swaddle is too tight, and there are irrational fears, like not sleeping at night because you’re too scared the baby may stop breathing. Having these irrational fears is called postpartum anxiety, or PPA, and it affects approximately 10% of women, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
“With PPA, mothers may not let anyone else take care of the baby,” Schell said. “They feel like they are the only ones capable of doing it, but this also creates a burden and can lead to guilt when they do have to leave the house or go back to work.”
If you have a sense of impending doom that something is going to happen to your baby or yourself, tell your health care provider.
Postpartum depression, or PPD, affects up to 15% of mothers, according to research published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. This may feel like a more severe, drawn-out version of the baby blues, but there are some other red flags that may indicate you should reach out for professional help.
“If you are experiencing a lack of bonding with your child, feelings that you want to abandon them or not take care of them, you need to share these feelings with your partner, family or friends as well as your health care provider,” Schell said. “This doesn’t mean someone is going to barge in and take your baby away, but they will help provide you with support, therapy and, if needed, temporary medication to help regulate the chemicals in your brain so you can feel like yourself again.”
Negative feelings about yourself should also be noted, Phillips said.
“Thinking that you’re not good enough to take care of your baby and they’d be better off with someone else are unhealthy and dangerous thoughts,” she said. “If you’re playing around with these scenarios in your head, you should reach out sooner rather than later.”
“It’s important to destigmatize maternal mental health, and that family members and partners understand what it means for a woman to bring home a new baby.”
– Kameelah Phillips, board-certified OB-GYN
How To Manage Your Mental Health
Both Schell and Phillips noted that if you’ve dealt with anxiety or depression in the past, you may be more at risk for dealing with them postpartum ― but your mental health history is not the only thing at play.
“Society used to be based around family, friends and a community that would come together to support mothers and help them with a new baby,” Phillips said. “We’re much more isolated now, and that can really be detrimental to a mother’s mental health.”
The same is true for your medical care, Schell added.
“A pregnant mother is very well taken care of, but after the baby is born there are only one or two postpartum visits,” she said. “Many times a mother may start having these mental health struggles after that six-week postpartum visit to their health care provider, which means they may feel like they don’t have the chance to tell them at all.”
If you know you need help but don’t know where to start, there are a few routes you can take. If you have an established relationship with a therapist or mental health provider, start there. If not, reach out to your OB-GYN, who will be able to help you get the resources and care you need.
You can also explore more inexpensive therapy options, like teletherapy or online support groups.
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of telling your loved ones what’s going on with you.
“It’s important to destigmatize maternal mental health, and that family members and partners understand what it means for a woman to bring home a new baby,” Phillips said. By keeping your circle in the loop with how you’re feeling, your loved ones will be able to pitch in and provide the support you need.