To aid in recovery, Dr. Jephtha Tausig, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City, recommended that new mothers outsource some tasks. “If you can have others help with errands and chores (laundry, cleaning, making meals, etc.) that will make a huge difference,” she said. Don’t try to do it all, because that just might not be possible. Be gentle with yourself. “Being tired and slightly overwhelmed is all completely normal — you can’t plan to accomplish much if you are the primary caregiver at home with baby,” noted Dr. Nataki Douglas, M.D., Ph.D., a Newark, N.J.-based ob-gyn and an associate professor and director of translational research for the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at Rutgers-New Jersey Medical School.
Try to sleep.
No one feels good when they’re not sleeping, and lack of sleep is actually linked to mood disorder risk. When sleep rhythms get dysregulated, that leads to an increased risk for bipolar disorder and depression, said Dr. Saxbe. Figure out ways to protect sleep because lack of sleep is a common problem following the birth of a new baby, said Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist Elyse Springer. “I don’t think most parents are truly prepared for the utter devastation following days on end without a good chunk of sleep.” As much as possible, plan ways to ensure that you get rest after the baby arrives. Enlist help from your partner, family, a paid specialist such as a night nurse or friends. “If you’re able to take a break and rest, you’ll be better able to take care of your baby in the long run,” said Dr. Morelen.
Build social bonds – in person and online.
Talk to new parents about what to expect and understand that people have different reactions to new parenthood, said Dr. Saxbe. Hearing that some pregnancies and babies are different from other pregnancies and babies is helpful. Plus, social support is important and linked with decreased postpartum depression risk. “Women without good social support, regardless of socioeconomic status, are at risk,” Dr. Douglas said. Online groups can be very helpful for normalizing feelings and experiences related to new motherhood.
Offline, there are plenty of real-world opportunities for building bonds. Prenatal exercise or parenting classes, breastfeeding classes and mommy-and-me yoga are just a few of the places where new parents can connect in person. “Parenting takes a village, and it’s important to feel connected and supported as you make this transition,” said Dr. Morelen. “I encourage expectant parents to reach out to other parents whom they trust to ask what those people found helpful (or not helpful) in their own preparation journeys.”
When to Worry
Once you’ve had your baby, it’s important to be monitored for significant changes in mood for that first year of your child’s life, said Springer, “because we don’t know the precise impact of the combination of an individual’s ‘ghosts in the nursery’: lack of sleep, pressures of work, finances and relationships and hormonal changes.” Fluctuations are normal, to an extent. The “baby blues,” for instance: Up to 80 percent of new mothers experience mood swings, sadness or anxiety soon after childbirth. But if you notice more serious symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts about hurting the baby or yourself, tell other people and seek support. You can discuss symptoms with your ob-gyn or go to a therapist for help. “It is important to know that anyone, regardless of culture, age or history, is at greater risk for mental health challenges during the perinatal period,” said Dr. Morelen. This risk increases if you have a personal or family history of mental health problems; have experienced significant trauma; have a history of drug or alcohol problems; live in poverty; have major financial stressors; or if you don’t have a good social support system.
Even with adequate support, postpartum depression or other mood disorders can strike. “It’s important that we’re talking and sharing about it so that women realize that PPD is nothing to be ashamed of,” Dr. Douglas said.
Lindsey Hunter Lopez is a freelance writer and mother of two.