I’ll never forget bonding with my firstborn in our hospital room after her birth. Never have I felt so in love and absolutely, utterly unprepared. My husband and I joked about the fact that the hospital personnel were actually going to let us leave with her – couldn’t they see we had no idea what we were doing?
We managed just fine, but those first few months were marked with sheer exhaustion. There were many, many crying spells, some of them mine.
The hormonal aftermath of giving birth and adjusting to feeding, bathing and caring for an infant is a difficult transition for new parents to navigate, says Lesley Hetterscheidt, PhD, and social worker Kerrie Van Weelden, LMSW.
The pair both work for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in West Michigan and recently gave a presentation about how to cope physically and mentally, as well as the warning signs to watch for that distinguish routine baby blues from the more serious perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD).
Here are their top tips for new moms and their partners:
Practice physical self-care. Yes, this is easier said than done, Hetterscheidt admits, but the value of taking care of yourself after birth can’t be overstated. If you’re not feeling like yourself with a newborn at home, try some of these strategies:
- Have a grandparent or your partner take over baby’s care for a few hours so you can get some sleep.
- Keep taking your prenatal vitamin, especially if you’re breastfeeding, and try adding omega 3s or a B complex for their mood- and energy-enhancing properties.
- Talk to your doctor about screening for any potential thyroid conditions or low vitamin D and iron levels – these can all affect your mood.
- Choose healthy foods and limit caffeine and alcohol.
- Even if it’s just a short walk around the block, try to move and get some exercise as soon as you’re physically able to do so.
Take stock of your mental state. Reconciling an idealized vision of what motherhood will look like with the reality is difficult, Van Weelden said. Try some of these tips to refocus yourself:
- Allow yourself dual feelings. Love the baby, but feel mad or frustrated about how they’ve changed your life? That’s okay. Having feelings that conflict is perfectly normal and doesn’t make you a bad parent.
- Focus on the present moment, rather than what you’d like to change about the past or worry about what the future holds.
- Try a mindfulness exercise, such as a body scan.
- Journal your feelings as a way to work through them.
- Assess your self-talk. If you’re being meaner to yourself than you ever would be to a close friend, try to show yourself a little more kindness.
If physical and mental self-care aren’t doing the trick and you’re feeling off for more than two weeks, consider PMAD as a possibility. PMAD can include depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and in rare cases, postpartum psychosis.
Depression peaks three to six months postpartum and is often missed, although it affects 15-20 percent of women and 10 percent of men. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the postpartum time period. Risk factors for PMAD include:
- A history of anxiety or depression during pregnancy.
- Having a difficult pregnancy.
- Experiencing a traumatic delivery.
- Having a baby with medical complications or illness.
- Having a history of infertility or previous pregnancy or infant loss.
Van Weelden noted that moms with all of the risk factors might never develop PMAD, while a woman with no risk factors could still develop it. Partners can also develop postpartum depression, as they too are dealing with sleepless nights and adjusting to a needy infant. Additionally, they might feel a sense of exclusion from mom and baby.
Both urged new parents to seek treatment if the feelings associated with caring for a new baby get to be overwhelming or too much. If you have a loved one who is a new parent, watch this video about what to say and perhaps more importantly, what not to say. Van Weelden and Hetterscheidt’s presentation was part of an ongoing series of talks designed to raise awareness about mental health, put on by PR Connect. Learn more here.
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