Depression is common among new moms. A 2003 University of Michigan study revealed that one in five women may struggle with symptoms of depression during pregnancy. Despite the high number of expectant moms facing depression, few of these women are getting the help they need. Further research from the University of Michigan School of Medicine in 2010 shows that babies born to women who suffer from depression while pregnant have “higher levels of stress hormones … as well as with other neurological and behavioral differences.” The impact of a mother’s mental state on her growing baby is powerful well beyond birth and throughout the child’s development.
Some women struggle with depression at various points throughout their lives. Others may notice symptoms of depression starting to arise around the time they start having children. Common symptoms of depression include: disrupted sleep patterns, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy, a feeling of emptiness, a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, a tendency to overeat or a loss of appetite, feelings of guilt or shame, and at its most extreme, even thoughts of suicide. These symptoms can arise at any point in a mother’s life, and it’s important not to ignore them both for the woman’s sake and for the sake of her child.
From the moment they’re born, babies will look to their parents’ faces for a response. If they don’t experience warmth or a smile reflected in the parent’s expression, the baby can become upset or frustrated. Studies in which mothers were instructed to keep a blank face when looking at their babies resulted in the infants feeling agitated and upset.
Mothers who struggle with depression may find it challenging to respond to their baby with joy or expression. They may have trouble taking pleasure in their child. When depressed, a mother may unintentionally find herself feeling distracted or out of it and neglectful of the baby’s needs. The baby may lack supervision or environmental stimulation.
Too often, women feel guilty or ashamed when they experience signs of depression. Instead of treating it like any physical illness or ailment, they see it as a sign of weakness or failure. As a mother, they may indulge in destructive thoughts about themselves, “critical inner voices” that tell them they are bad or “fundamentally different” from other mothers. They may punish themselves for not experiencing the “joys of motherhood” that they imagine other women are experiencing.
The truth is, many mothers struggle with a degree of post-pregnancy blues, and one in five women experiences depression at some point in her life. Some mothers suffer from more severe, longer lasting symptoms of postpartum depression. This can result from hormonal changes or even traumatic birth experiences. It’s important to remember that neither clinical nor postpartum depression are uncommon among women, and most importantly, that both can be treated.
There are many effective ways to treat depression. These include several forms of talk therapy, mindfulness meditation, and certain medications. There are also steps a woman can take in her daily life to help actively fight symptoms of depression.
As a new parent, so much worry goes into your child’s well-being. Yet, one of the most important things a woman can do when becoming a mother is to work on being in good mental health herself. If she starts to notice symptoms of depression, she shouldn’t be afraid or ashamed to seek help.
If you’re pregnant or a mother struggling with symptoms of depression, it is essential to remember that you are not alone. Never allow yourself to turn on yourself or become self-hating. There are many resources that can help you, starting with a depression screening test you can take online to see if you may be experiencing signs of depression. If you are feeling depressed, know that your condition is treatable and temporary. You can find resources for women at ­ the National Institute of Mental Health. Getting the help you need is the most important thing you can do for your child.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org