When you have a baby, the world expects you to be overjoyed.
But wait. What if you’re just not?
It’s tough to admit it, but it can make you feel better to realize you’re not the only one feeling this way. It’s estimated that up to 75 percent of women are sad, moody, overwhelmed and anxious soon after giving birth. And for some women, these “baby blues” continue as postpartum depression (PPD).
Around the world, about 10 to 11 percent of new moms will have PPD, although rates can be as high as 50 percent in some countries. It’s a combination of stress, anxiety, rapid change, hormones and more that can lead to PPD—and the feeling of shame for not being that glowing new mom only adds to it.
Do you feel like something’s wrong?
Postpartum depression can have a variety of symptoms, but a clear signal that you should reach out for help is if you feel like something’s off. You may be doing everything right: You have family support, you’re able to take some time for yourself to work out or relax, you’re eating well, you’re taking great care of your baby, but still, you just don’t feel like yourself. Or maybe you don’t have good support, or you have other stressors like financial issues, marital problems or others that are colliding with this huge change in your life.
You feel sad or anxious. You don’t feel that connection to your baby that you expected to feel—that you even felt while you were pregnant. You feel overwhelmed, like you’re a mouse on a wheel and can’t keep this up forever. You can’t sleep even though you’re exhausted—or you want to sleep all the time. You’re angry and have a short fuse, snapping at your husband, your mom, even your dog.
You may also feel like a failure, ashamed or afraid your baby will be taken away if you admit what you’re feeling. “That can keep people from seeking help or talking to their doctor,” said Dr. Amy House, a psychologist at Augusta University Health. “But it’s important for women to know they’re not alone if this is what they’re experiencing. Recovery is possible—and it’s really important for both mom and baby.”
And certainly if a new mom has thoughts of suicide or hurting themselves or others, it’s important to get help immediately.
Most moms have a checkup with their OB/GYN about six weeks after giving birth. But if you’re struggling, go ahead and move that appointment up. Your doctor can review the symptoms of PPD with you and provide a referral to a psychologist.
Even just admitting the problem and talking about it can lift a weight off a new mom’s shoulders. And during your time with a psychologist, you can expect to problem solve: Your psychologist will work with you to figure out what will be most helpful for you in resolving your main sources of stress and identify ways to increase pleasurable activities. “Sometimes therapy will also address thoughts and beliefs that are undermining how well you feel you can handle different situations,” said House. “Examples include if you tend to talk down to yourself or have pessimistic thinking.”
Therapy is always the first strategy to try—especially if you want to breastfeed. “Most women see improvement in the first few weeks,” said House. Otherwise, medications can also be prescribed, but this would involve a serious conversation since these drugs can pass through breastmilk.
Set yourself up for success
PPD is a condition most people think about happening after a woman has a baby. But, according to House, the signs can be there even in pregnancy. “About half of all PPD starts in pregnancy, typically in the second or third trimester,” she said.
So if you’re already feeling sad or anxious during your pregnancy, don’t be afraid to speak up, which can help reduce your risk of PPD after your baby is born.
Having lots of support can help reduce the risk. “In some cultures, moms are expected to rest for a month after giving birth, and other family members do everything,” said House. “In these cases where there’s a lot of social support that new moms experience as positive and helpful, the rates of PPD tend to be lower.”
So when friends or family offer to help, take them up on it and assign specific tasks like doing laundry or the dishes, vacuuming, even cleaning your bathroom. When friends visit, don’t hesitate to ask them for help. Yes, they’re there to visit with you and the baby, but they could certainly hold your baby for 15 minutes while you take a shower or you could socialize while they unloaded the dishwasher.
Websites like Mealtrain.com also make it easy for friends and families to make and bring meals to you on specific dates to take away the burden of cooking.
Dads should chip in too. While a new father might get panicky when a newborn begins to cry (moms can likely all attest to the stories of new dads pacing in front of a shower door with a crying baby, saying, “Hurry up, she/he’s crying!”), he really can handle it. And let him.
Also, don’t fall into the trap of allowing your partner to be the one who gets to leave the house to run the errands. Have him watch the baby while you do a grocery run, work out or take a walk around the block just for some “me time,” fresh air and sunshine. Or take the baby with you. It may seem challenging at first to navigate a baby carrier, giant diaper bag and a newborn, but you can do it.
Other resources that can offer a shoulder to lean on include local new mom groups, lactation groups and others. These offer a social outlet along with tips that help you navigate this strange new world of being a mom.
Out of the Dark
Still, all the help in the world doesn’t mean you’re immune from having PPD.
Celebrities like Brooke Shields and Chrissy Teigen have spoken publicly about their experiences with PPD—even with in-house help, family support and all the resources available to them. “I…just didn’t think it could happen to me. I have a great life. I have all the help I could need: John, my mother (who lives with us), a nanny. But postpartum does not discriminate. I couldn’t control it,” wrote Teigen in a 2017 essay for Glamour magazine.
“Having a new baby is hard,” said House, who is a mom to three herself. “It can be really isolating, and the biological changes that happen in pregnancy make women more vulnerable to things like obsessive thinking and anxiety. Plus, any change is stressful, even positive change. One of the great outcomes of high-profile women talking about PPD is that more women realize they’re not alone—and how important it is to seek treatment sooner rather than later.”