10 Actionable Ways to Boost Your Postpartum Mental Health
The first few months with baby can be completely magical, but it can also be one of the most challenging times of your life. Not only is your body repairing after giving birth, your hormones are in flux—it’s no wonder 70 to 80 percent of new moms experience the “baby blues” for at least a week or two (if not more).
Then comes the second wave. After the initial fanfare fades, many parents find themselves lacking support as they face sleepless nights and the daunting task of caring for a newborn. Kim Borchert, cofounder of Austin Doula Care, commonly refers to the fourth trimester as one of “the most isolating times of life.” And for 1 in 7 women, the “baby blues” can quickly transition into postpartum depression, a more serious and emotionally debilitating condition that can persevere for months, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).
While it’s reassuring to know you’re not alone in these postpartum struggles, it also helps to be proactive about your mental health and emotional well-being. Want to have a few tricks up your sleeve to lift your mood and prepare for this roller-coaster transition? Below, find some actionable steps you can take to boost your postpartum mental health, plus tips straight from OBs, clinical therapists, postpartum doulas and more.
Fresh air and a change of scenery can work wonders to elevate your mood and change your perspective. And a 10-minute sun-infused jaunt may just be the power recharge you need. Erica Montes, MD, an ob-gyn in the greater Phoenix area, points to research that shows that the brain makes more of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin on sunny days compared to cloudy days—and serotonin can be key in helping to combat depressive symptoms.
Combine time in the sun with exercise—which, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), boosts energy and relieves stress post-pregnancy—and you’ll feel more relaxed and recharged.
Balancing a million things at once can leave any new mom feeling a little frazzled. While there’s no simple solution, studies show that a little mindfulness can go a long way. “Take [time] throughout the day to be in the present moment, be aware of your body and focus on your breathing,” advises Cara Goodwin, PhD, a clinical psychologist and founder of The Parenting Translator. In fact, research from the American Psychological Association shows that a simple mindfulness or meditation practice is associated with fewer depressive symptoms during the postpartum period.
Can’t keep your mind calm while physically sitting still? Consider incorporating a short yoga session into your morning routine with baby. A recent review of studies focused on yoga and pregnant women shows the practice can help reduce postpartum depression and other mental health disorders. Check out YouTube, online workout sites and these pre and postnatal yoga poses to get flowing with movement that can help center your mind and body.
Caring for a newborn comes with a steep learning curve, and you may need a little help to get you off on the right foot. “Confidence is associated with ‘flourishing’ in the postpartum period,“ Goodwin says, and one way to build this self-assurance is by having a postpartum doula or lactation consultant show you the ropes. Knowing how to get a quicker latch, or having someone else to put baby down for their nap can make all the difference when it comes to getting a few more precious hours of mood-lifting sleep.
Postpartum doulas are professionally trained individuals who specialize in immediate postpartum support for families with recently birthed babies, explains Tracie Collins, CEO and founder of the National Black Doulas Association. While they provide varying levels of assistance, depending on the family’s need, postpartum doulas can “help identify and offer support around postpartum issues such as breastfeeding, sleep support, nutrition, mental and emotional wellness, physical healing and more,” Collins says.
A lactation consultant will offer you practical support and physical tips to help facilitate your breastfeeding journey. When it comes to lactation consultants, reach out to the hospital or check out your local La Leche League to find a trusted professional in your area.
Between preparing bottles for baby and finding a second to sleep, it can be difficult to make the time to prepare healthy, nutritious meals. Licensed dietitian and prenatal nutritionist Ryann Kipping, MPH, emphasizes that eating nutritious foods can do more than just nourish your body, but also foster your mental health. “Several nutrients contribute to our mental health before, during and after pregnancy. Some of these nutrients include vitamins B2, B6, selenium, DHA and zinc,” she says. “Evidence suggests that deficiencies in zinc and selenium can contribute to an increased likelihood of postpartum depression.”
So how can you incorporate these nutrient-rich superfoods into your diet? Kipping recommends shellfish, red meat, yogurt and pumpkin seeds to boost your zinc intake. Foods high in selenium include Brazil nuts, sardines, halibut and pork. Research also suggests that eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids—which are healthy fats found in oily fish—can lower the risk of postpartum depression. And while bananas aren’t an instant mood-lifter, studies also show that they contain high levels of vitamin B6, which can help regulate your body’s serotonin production.
While you may be tempted to restrict your diet to hone in on these nutrient-dense foods, it’s important to get in needed calories in a way that works for you—especially if you’re breastfeeding. According to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “nursing women need about 500 extra calories each day, as well as plenty of protein, calcium and fluids to stay healthy and produce nutritious breast milk.”
These days, you likely don’t have the time to whip up healthy dinners. Collins recommends prepping meals and popping them into the freezer as you near your due date. And don’t be shy about accepting help from loved ones. Ask friends and family members to create a meal train to help feed you for the first month or so post-delivery. “Be sure to express your dietary preferences or restrictions, and most importantly, ensure that it aids in healing a postpartum body and lactation production,” Collins says.
Research shows that strong social support is associated with a reduced risk for postpartum mood disorders. “Identify a community of people to support you in both practical and emotional ways during the postpartum period,” Goodwin suggests. “Reach out to a new parents group in your community, find virtual support groups and ask family members for help in advance.”
Moreover, don’t be timid about reaching out for real, tangible support, and be clear about what you need. Friends and family can pitch in by doing household chores, offering guidance and advice or simply by sitting and listening while you vent. Borchert says even a short phone call with a friend spent catching up and reminiscing can help boost your mood.
“Having someone hear you—like really hear you after you’ve just had a baby can help [you] feel validated, and can ease baby blues symptoms,” says Inna Kashani, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the founder of Motherhood Therapy. “Find a therapist you click with prior to the birth of baby. Then, when baby is born—just like you call your pediatrician—phone your therapist right from your birthing bed,” she says. Schedule your first call for no less than 10 days postpartum.”
If the baby blues progress beyond three weeks, and you find yourself unable to get out of bed or carry out normal daily tasks, seek professional help. Reach out to your ob-gyn, midwife or therapist for next steps. They can refer you to a therapist if you don’t yet have one or recommend a local group. “Postpartum support groups are led by professionals and can help you find support and community during the most isolating time of life,” Borchert says. Consider contacting Postpartum Support International to find a Postpartum Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMAD) support group or therapist near you. “Knowing you aren’t alone in all of the horrible and beautiful moments of this journey is priceless,” adds Borchert.
What is something you love doing that makes you feel like you? Borchert says it’s important to take time for yourself every day to reconnect with the “you” that isn’t a parent or partner. “Maybe watching the sunrise with a hot cup of tea, taking a walk around the block without baby, taking a shower (or, let’s be honest, going to the bathroom!) alone or getting coffee with a good friend. Making yourself a priority in this time is so important because, remember, we are mothers, not martyrs,” she adds.
Sleep can be hard to come by once baby’s on the scene, but Collins stresses that getting rest is one of the top three most important factors in your mental and physical recovery after birth. If you’re tired of the phrase “sleep when the baby sleeps” (spoiler alert—it’s not always realistic!), consider asking a loved one to babysit for an hour or two so you can catch up on some much-needed shut-eye. A recent study shows that friends and family members are more willing to help than you might think—and an extra block of sleep can make all the difference.
There’s no getting around it: Life as a new parent is hard. The good news? Studies show that simply acknowledging this truth and being gentle with yourself during the fourth trimester (and beyond) can help you foster more positive mental health overall.
To that end, Goodwin says that you should “remind yourself that the postpartum period is universally difficult and that nearly every parent struggles.” Show yourself grace, and acknowledge that there’s no such thing as the perfect parent, spouse, friend or employee. When you’re being self-critical, imagine how you’d treat a friend in the same position.”
Kashani encourages new moms to let go of their expectations in order to move forward with confidence. “I believe that somewhere in between the mom we aspire to be and the mom we think we are is the mom we actually are becoming… Remind yourself that when baby is born, so is a new mother. Adapting to your role will take time.”
All in all, it’s easy to see that the postpartum period of life isn’t easy. But with a couple tools, support from friends and family and professional help, you can feel empowered to take control of this stage and put one foot in front of the other toward a new day.
If you are struggling with a postpartum mental health issue and want to talk to someone, reach out to the Postpartum Support International helpline at 1-800-944-4773 or the US National Maternal Mental Health Hotline at 1-833-943-5746. If you are in suicidal crisis, dial 988 for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
About the experts:
Kim Borchert is a mom of six and a doula. In 2017, she co-founded Austin Doula Care, a resource center for pregnant and postpartum parents in Austin, Texas.
Tracie Collins is the CEO and founder of the National Black Doulas Association (NBDA). The NBDA is a Black and BIPOC doula-training company, with a focus on education and business development, doula certification and the growth of its international database of Black and BIPOC Doulas. NBDA believes that matching Black doulas with Black birthing families can help reduce the Black maternal and morbidity rate in the US.
Cara Goodwin, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in Charlottesville, Virginia, best-selling children’s book author and mom to three children. She translates recent scientific research into information that’s helpful, relevant and accurate for parents through her nonprofit organization, Parenting Translator.
Erica Montes, MD, FACOG, is a board-certified ob-gyn in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the creator of The Modern Mujer blog. Her vision to create this blog started soon after delivering her third son and realizing that there are not many places on the internet for people to find expert information about their health, particularly in English and Spanish. She earned her medical degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and currently practices at Deborah Wilson MD and Associates Gynecology.
Inna Kashani, LMFT, is a Los Angeles-based therapist with a focus on maternal mental health. She is passionate about helping moms rediscover the joy of motherhood and is the founder of the social page @motherhoodtherapy.
Ryann Kipping, MPH, RDN, LDN, is a pregnancy dietitian who focuses on helping people feel confident in providing nourishment for two. The owner of The Prenatal Nutritionist, she founded The Prenatal Nutrition Library, the first searchable app for food during pregnancy.
Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.
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