by Kyle Beard on Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
Postpartum depression is an episode of major depression triggered by childbirth. While about 80 percent of women will have some symptoms such as depressed mood or increased irritability following childbirth, these “baby blues” typically don’t last long. However, about 10 percent of women will develop major depression, which is more serious and longer lasting.
Postpartum depression has been getting a lot more attention in recent months and that attention has encouraged more women to get help. However, it’s also worth asking whether postpartum depression can be prevented. Afterall, most new mothers have similar hormonal changes and life stress, yet only 10 percent develop depression. Since the precipitating event is relatively predictable, is there any way to reduce the risk of new mothers developing depression? There may be. Depression is complex and not completely understood, but the following may help reduce the risk of postpartum depression.
Perhaps the most important thing is to be aware of the symptoms of postpartum depression and ask for help early if you see the warning signs. Symptoms of postpartum depression include depressed mood, excessive crying, trouble bonding with your baby, social withdrawal, changes in appetite, sleeping too much or too little, fatigue, irritability, loss of interest in things you used to enjoy, feelings of hopelessness, feeling like a bad mother, poor concentration, thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby, or thoughts of suicide or death.
You typically have to have several of these symptoms for at least two weeks to be diagnosed with postpartum depression, but there’s no need to wait that long before talking to your doctor. You may be experiencing temporary “baby blues” but if you address your symptoms early, you may prevent a more serious episode.
It’s often hard for new mothers to discuss what they’re feeling. Symptoms of postpartum depression often include feeling unable to bond with the baby or having unwanted thoughts about hurting the baby, and many women understandably feel guilty about feeling this way. Many women are also embarrassed to tell people they’re feeling depressed because of the lingering stigma attached to mental health issues. However, finding someone to open up to, whether it’s a friend, therapist, doctor, or partner, is often the best way to overcome depression. On the other hand, isolating yourself and not communicating will only make you feel more depressed. In addition to talking to your doctor or therapist about your depression, talk to the people close to you and let them know how they can help.
Babies are a lot of work and new mothers often find themselves with too much to do and too little time and money. This can cause a lot of stress and leave very little time for self-care. Ask for help when you need it. Use every available resource. The idea that an individual or couple can raise a child alone is relatively new and unrealistic. Get help from friends and family. Look into community or government programs. Any time you can share the load, you reduce stress and anxiety and lower your risk of depression.
One major obstacle for new mothers is lack of sleep. Babies keep odd hours and it’s usually the mother that gets up in the middle of the night to feed and change the baby. The common advice is to sleep when your baby sleeps, but many new mothers don’t do that. When the baby sleeps, they more often use the opportunity to get other things done. However, you can’t go on indefinitely with hardly any sleep. Studies have shown that even one night of sleep deprivation significantly increases feelings of anxiety and that even moderate sleep deprivation increases suicidal thoughts. Getting sleep whenever you can is essential to good mental health. You may need to occasionally ask for help so you can get some sleep without letting too much slide.
Many new mothers run into trouble because they have unrealistic expectations of what it’s like to have a new baby. It’s a tremendous amount of work and you often have to do it on too little sleep. If it’s much harder than you expect, you are likely to feel discouraged or like you’ve somehow failed. It can also be disappointing if you try to do too much while caring for a baby. Other big projects will probably have to wait until you have the time, energy, and money to devote to them. One approach might be to look at raising a baby the same way you would starting a new job; it’s a full-time commitment rather than just an addition to your normal life.
Many studies have found that exercise significantly reduces your risk of depression and reduces symptoms in people who have depression. Exercise improves your mood and emotional regulation. It makes you more focused and helps you sleep better. Try to exercise regularly before and after the baby is born. It doesn’t have to be anything too intense. A 30 minute walk every day can help a lot. That’s typically manageable, even for new mothers, especially since they can often bring the baby along.
It’s understandable that new mothers want to do everything just right. After all, they’re responsible for keeping a new human alive, healthy, and happy. However, it’s also important to understand that even the best parents come nowhere close to perfection. Things go wrong all the time, especially early on, especially when you aren’t getting enough sleep. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Nothing ever goes perfectly, but most things turn out ok. Perfectionism is a major risk factor for developing depression, so it’s especially important for new mothers to cut themselves some slack.
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