If you recently had a baby, you’re probably feeling a wide range of emotions, including everything from happy, elated, excited, enamored and in love to sad, frustrated, isolated, anxious and even depressed. Going through pregnancy and giving birth, however it happens for you, is an incredibly transformative experience; one that shakes you to your very core in the best and sometimes the worst possible way.
To put it simply, becoming a parent is no small undertaking. It changes the very essence of your being, both in the short and long-term. This is why this period of life often comes with vast mental health struggles. In fact, approximately 70-80 percent of all new mothers experience what’s known as the “baby blues,” per the American Pregnancy Association. The baby blues cause a new mother to feel a wide range of emotions and mood swings that can make her feel rather sad after having a baby, even when she’s happy overall. An estimated 1 in 7 women suffers from a more serious condition, known as postpartum depression, per the National Institute of Health (NIH), which can involve feeling sad, hopeless, guilty, and having a hard time bonding with your baby.
There are a host of other mental health conditions that can follow giving birth, such as postpartum anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, postpartum psychosis, and post-traumatic stress disorder, notes Kiara Luna , L.M.H.C., is owner of Knew You Psychotherapy and author of Becoming a Knew You. “It’s really important to remember that struggling with mental health after having a baby is totally normal and doesn’t mean you’re a bad mom or anything like that,” she says. “If you’re feeling down or having a tough time, don’t be afraid to reach out for help—you can talk to your healthcare provider, a mental health professional, or even just a trusted friend or family member.”
Unfortunately, so many new moms suffer in silence, and there are many reasons for this. First, unlike during the pregnancy stage where you’re at the doctors every few weeks, there is only designated postpartum visit around week 6. “All the focus shifts immediately to the baby’s health and doctors visits, so unless they, their partner, or their social network (which is often limited immediately after birth) are educated on the symptoms and signs of postpartum mental health struggles and paying attention, the person often just doesn’t realize anything is happening,” explains Charlynn Ruan, Ph.D. Clinical Psychologist and founder of Thrive Psychology Group.
Some women even fear that if they talk about their suffering and symptoms, they may be seen by society as an unfit mother, Dr. Ruan points out. “Some even worry that their babies will be taken away from them,” she says. “This fear could be based in mom guilt and miseducation postpartum health or may even be a symptom of a postpartum mental health struggle itself that is causing an increase in anxiety or paranoia.”
Last, but certainly not least, new moms are overworked, overtired and immensely exhausted in the newborn stage of life—and many babies don’t start sleeping regularly for several months after birth. This lack of sleep can significantly contribute to feelings of hopelessness, despair, anger, frustration and more.
If you’re feeling any of these feelings, first know that it’s perfectly normal and that there’s help available to you should you need it. Here, experts share their tips for becoming more attune with recognizing postpartum mental health conditions and avoiding these common pitfalls.
Encourage your loved ones to get educated
While postpartum mental health is starting to get some of the recognition it so deserves, not enough people truly understand the signs associated with the related conditions. For this reason, Dr. Ruan recommends that you encourage your partner, friends and family to get educated about the symptoms and put a plan in place to ask regularly about how you are feeling. “The focus is so much on the baby, that there needs to be a plan in place prior to the birth to take dedicated time to focus on the mental health of the parents and ways to give them rest and relief daily,” she says.
Set realistic expectations
Unfortunately our society places an unrealistic pressure on new mothers to “bounce back” and to have their life perfectly in order when they become a parent. This is not only foolish and fantastical, but also incredibly damaging. “Being a new mom is really hard and it involves a lot of work, so it is extremely important to set realistic expectations for yourself and your baby,” says Luna. “Try to avoid the trap of comparison, and remember that every family’s journey is unique.”
Check in with yourself regularly
Monitoring yourself for signs of the baby blues and postpartum depression and anxiety is critical, notes Emily Guarnotta, Psy.D, psychologist, and blogger at The Mindful Mommy. She recommends keeping a journal or using a mood tracker—activities that can help hold you accountable and even give your healthcare providers insight into fluctuations in your mood. “If you notice that more often than not you are not doing well, or if you notice significant fluctuations in your mood, then you should seek help,” she says.
Find a therapist who specializes in postpartum
Dr. Ruan highly recommends that women look for a good therapist who specializes in postpartum, early in their pregnancy. “Have a few sessions to discuss what they should be aware of, ways to increase support for themselves after the birth, and build a connection so that if they experience symptoms after birth it won’t be so overwhelming to find a therapist,” she says. “Many therapists now do tele-health, so you won’t need to leave the home with a young baby.”
Connect with other moms
If you don’t already have friends who are also moms, and ideally have infants around the same age as yours, consider joining a local moms group. “Social support is a protective factor for postpartum depression and anxiety and can also help women who are already experiencing postpartum mental health issues get better,” says Dr. Guarnotta. “Postpartum Support International is a non-profit organization that offers free ongoing virtual support groups.”