New or impending motherhood can be a challenging time. While many women struggle with adjusting to pregnancy or caring for an infant, for some, maternal mental health becomes a bigger issue.
Maternal Mental Health (MMH) disorders occur during pregnancy or postpartum. They encompass a range of conditions, including depression, anxiety, and psychosis. These illnesses often go undiagnosed and untreated, especially given the time demands and additional health worries that accompany pregnancy and the postpartum period.
These issues are not rare. According to research, 6% of pregnant women and 10% of new mothers develop anxiety, while up to 15% of women develop postpartum depression. It’s crucial to understand that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that these mental disorders take hold as a type of severe “baby blues,” two-thirds of new mothers with severe depression began to experience it before childbirth.
That is to say: Maternal mental health disorders should be monitored and the symptoms mitigated early. It’s important for women to know their risk factors, take preventive measures, and counter pregnancy-related mental distress before it takes hold.
A number of factors can elevate a woman’s risk for MMH disorders. These include a history of anxiety or depression, unhealthy diet, professional or family stress, pronounced premenstrual syndrome, sedentary lifestyle, and alcohol or tobacco use.
Women who become pregnant via fertility treatments like in-vitro fertilization may be at a higher risk.
Monitoring potential symptoms early on is critical. We are conditioned to focus on the physical changes that go along with pregnancy, but it’s just as important to pay close attention to changes in mood or thought patterns.
Many women with prenatal or postpartum depression feel hopeless and much sadder than usual. Others may notice they’re angrier or more irritable than they used to be. If mood shifts like these last longer than a few days, it could be a sign of depression.
Moms who feel consumed by worry for their baby may be dealing with prenatal or postpartum anxiety. Irritability, obsessing about the care or safety of your child, or insomnia are also common symptoms.
Obsessive-compulsive symptoms, before or after childbirth, typically include intrusive, persistent thoughts or images pertaining to the baby, or repetitive actions intended to quell those obsessions.
Although less commonly experience among new moms, postpartum psychosis is a maternal mental health disorder indicated by delusions, hallucinations, extreme irritability, trouble sleeping and communicating, and paranoia.
First onset of bipolar disorder isn’t commonly experienced by new moms. Moms at the highest risk of developing bipolar disorder after the birth of a child typically have already experienced at least one bipolar episode or have a family history of this mental illness, according to the journal Women’s Health. The most common symptoms of bipolar disorder include mania, sleepless, extreme changes in mood or personality, and rapid speech.
The key is to create a lifestyle where these conditions and symptoms are less likely to take root. Beyond knowing your personal risk factors and monitoring for signs of illness, a commitment to preventive self-care is vital.
Exercise: Just a few minutes of physical activity each day can greatly reduce the risk of anxiety and depression. Movement boosts brain chemicals like serotonin, helping to regulate your mood. A fitness routine, even a light one, keeps you more focused and less susceptible to illness.
Nutrition: Eating a balanced diet is critical to keeping your mind healthy before, during, and after pregnancy. Processed foods exacerbate depression, while nutrients like vitamin D and vitamin B12 have been shown to lower the risk of mood disorders.
Sleep: Getting adequate rest has to be a top priority for pregnant women and new mothers alike. While it can be an especially difficult period to get easy sleep, it’s among the most important preventive steps against MMH disorders. Make sure there is time built into your schedule for rest, even if it means relying on a partner or family.
De-Stress: Meditation can be enormously helpful in preventing anxiety, depression, and other MMH distress. It requires only a few minutes a day.
Community: It’s critical to speak openly with your partner, friends, and family to ask for help and prepare them for the changes a baby will bring to your life. Having everyone “on board” before you experience symptoms, or in their early stages, will help logistically and emotionally.
Comprehensive Care: Speak with your OBGYN and other providers about taking a holistic approach to good mental health care during and after pregnancy.