Baby Blues or Something More?
How to prevent and cope with Postpartum Mood Disorders.
Posted Jun 25, 2019
Social media can be a minefield for anyone. But for someone struggling to adjust to their role as a new parent, the filtered, flawless photos of smiling moms seeming to bond effortlessly with their babies can be a serious setup for comparison and even despair.
What if you’re not feeling great during and after pregnancy? What if you feel downright terrible? How can you make sense of your emotions and reach out for help when every image you see seems to directly oppose your own experience? And how do you know if what you’re dealing with is a case of the baby blues or something more serious?
The difference between the baby blues and Postpartum Mood Disorders (PMD)
First thing’s first: while you may feel alone and different, know that the vast majority of new moms deal with some form of mood issue after giving birth.
One to two weeks of postpartum emotional ups and downs are perfectly normal and often referred to as the “baby blues.” About 80% of new moms experience this condition, which may include feeling sad, irritable, or overwhelmed. You may lose your appetite or have trouble sleeping — as uncomfortable this all may be, it’s totally okay and may not merit clinical treatment as long as it resolves within two weeks.
If your symptoms last beyond two weeks, there’s no need to panic. I’ve seen patients who don’t feel connected to their child after giving birth or who even start to have seemingly uncontrollable thoughts of hurting their babies. While this can certainly feel terrifying, it shouldn’t be embarrassing or shameful. It should, however, be a signal that it’s time to get help immediately. If you’re feeling at all disconnected from your child or loved ones, you’ve lost pleasure in activities you used to enjoy, or you’re having frightening thoughts and/or thoughts of hurting your baby or yourself, you may have a Postpartum Mood Disorder (PMD), like postpartum depression (PPD) or postpartum anxiety. These diagnoses are nothing to be ashamed of and they’re more common than you might think — in fact, up to 1 in 7 women go through it.
If any of these symptoms last more than two weeks, it’s time to get help:
- Anxiety or panic attacks
- Irritability or anger
- Trouble sleeping
- Reduced concentration
- Reduced interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Excessive crying
- Feeling worthlessness, shame, or guilt
These issues can all be treated with professional guidance. If you’re having intrusive thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby, more immediate help is critical. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional. To locate a mental health professional near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Understanding your risk factors
No one is ever prepared for the life-altering experience of postpartum depression, but understanding your risk factors can help you recognize any signs or symptoms early so you can get proper care quickly.
If you’ve experienced any of these life events, it’s important to have open, honest conversations with your medical team so they can help you create a plan of action if PMD occurs:
- Depression or anxiety during pregnancy (this may be the strongest predictor of PMD)
- A previous history of depression before conception
- Recent stressful life events
- Inadequate support from romantic partners and/or friends/family
- Low self-esteem
- Stress related to childcare and/or your new baby’s temperament
These issues can put you at a greater risk for PMD, but they’re not a guarantee. And if you don’t have any of these risk factors, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re immune to PMD, either. But being aware of these potential contributors can help you stay attuned to what you’re thinking and feeling.
Steps you can take while pregnant to minimize your risk of PMD
If you’re already experiencing PMD and you’re afraid it’s too late to get help, it’s absolutely not. PMD is entirely treatable. Group support and/or therapy can often play a critical role in weathering the storm of PMD, and while medication isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for everyone, in some cases, it can be an essential tool.
If you’re pregnant or planning to become pregnant, there are steps you can take to lower your risk of developing PMD. Self-care while you’re pregnant can play a big part in laying the groundwork for a more stable start to motherhood. This doesn’t have to mean taking a bubble bath every day through your third trimester, but it can mean being gentle with yourself and setting realistic expectations of what motherhood really means.
While there are no surefire guarantees against postpartum mood disorders, there are measures you can take to prepare and empower yourself no matter what happens after the baby arrives:
- Practice awareness. The reality is this: you are not your thoughts. The more you can remind yourself and be reminded that the thoughts you have do not define you and that you are not attached to them will help you stay grounded and feeling more secure. Finding ways to practice mindfulness and meditation can greatly increase your ability to let go of control and make peace with the here and now — learning awareness and acceptance can greatly improve your ability to cope with thoughts and feelings that arise after delivery.
- Sleep. It may sound simple, but proper rest is a critical component of self-care that often gets overlooked. Carve out time for as much sleep as you can get while pregnant. Everyone needs a different amount of Zs, so try skipping the alarm clock to see how many hours leave you feeling alert and refreshed in the morning.
- Find connection. Humans are social creatures, and forging connections with family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances is absolutely essential. One great way to foster community is to join a pregnancy or new moms group, either in person or online. Hearing other women’s personal experiences and journeys to motherhood can do wonders to normalize your own experience. Pregnancy isn’t always perfectly lit belly pics and tons of smiles. Some women feel miserable, some aren’t excited about becoming moms, and some are struggling just as much as you might be, and commiserating over your shared experiences can help alleviate isolation and keep you feeling supported.
Kristen Scarlett, LMHC, is Co-Clinic Director at Octave in New York City. She is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Nationally Certified Counselor, with over 20 years of experience working with patients on various issues, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, OCD, and relationship problems. At Octave, Kristen offers a Pregnancy Support Group that covers everything from maintaining healthy relationships to bonding with baby, coping with work issues, and overcoming body image challenges. Learn more at findoctave.com/classes.