There’s so much attention given to the physical changes of a woman’s body during pregnancy, and yet the common emotional changes that many women experience often do not get discussed. The arrival of a new baby can be both exciting and challenging, and it’s normal to have a mix of emotions coupled with exhaustion. For about 80% of mothers, childbirth brings the “baby blues,” and another 15% experience postpartum depression. How can expectant mothers mentally prepare for their new role?
Postpartum depression can be linked to trying to meet or exceed societal expectations about what new motherhood is supposed to look like. There are unrealistic expectations often placed on new mothers such as being happy and functional at all times, immediately knowing how to soothe their babies and never feeling alone or isolated. In reality, new motherhood is full of highs and lows, new experiences, tears and sheer joy. There is no one correct way to feel, and each mother will adjust on her own time period.
Although it's common for this transitional period to cause raised emotions, it’s important to pay attention to extreme and unusual feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety. Crying often, feeling angry, withdrawing from loved ones or feeling numb or disconnected from your baby are all unique signs for postpartum depression.
Paying attention to and acknowledging your thoughts and feelings can help you be a better partner and parent. Develop a mindfulness practice and internalize your breath to be in the moment. Be aware of your own thoughts and be prepared to step back when necessary and applaud yourself for the work you’re doing. Repeating phrases such as “This is temporary” and “I am a great mom doing my best” can be helpful for some mothers when they are experiencing a difficult period.
Consider learning to practice meditation during your pregnancy. For some, it may be as simple as quieting your mind through focused breathing. Other women may find it helpful to take a class or retreat to your own created space in your home with a yoga mat and complete silence. Benefits of meditation include improved sleep, revitalized energy, anxiety and stress relief and an opportunity to connect to your changing body and new baby.
If you are looking to increase your flexibility, concentrate on your breath and connect with your new baby and evolving body during pregnancy, prenatal yoga may be right for you. In a typical prenatal yoga class, you can expect stretching, mental centering and focused breathing. Yoga can be adaptable for all levels of experience. Check with your physician before beginning a new exercise regimen.
Poor sleep has been shown to significantly worsen the symptoms of many mental health conditions. Since newborns rarely sleep more than two to three hours at a time, a mother’s sleep is constantly interrupted. This continuous sleep deprivation can lead to physical discomfort and exhaustion, which can then contribute to the symptoms of postpartum depression. Try to nap when the baby naps, as this will help prevent you from reaching exhaustion. Don’t hesitate to ask a friend or family member to watch your newborn for a short period so you can rest.
Seek out a therapist ahead of time
Locating a therapist in your area that is familiar with counseling mothers can be especially helpful for any new mom. It’s important to develop a relationship ahead of your delivery so the therapist can get to know you prior to this life-changing event, even if it’s just for one introductory visit. Finding a therapist that’s right for you can also take time, so identifying one ahead of your delivery will only ease the stress if you’re in need of one after having your baby. This is especially important if you have experienced depression in the past, since you are at a higher risk of developing postpartum depression. Talk to your primary care physician for a referral.
Shelley H.K. Howell, Ph.D., J.D. is the Outpatient Manager at El Camino Hospital Mental Health and Addiction Services. El Camino Hospital offers a full spectrum of mother-baby care and services, including a specialized support program for women experiencing prenatal or postpartum depression and anxiety. The Maternal Outreach Mood Services (MOMS) program provides education, counseling and evaluation for mothers in a supportive, nurturing environment.