8 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health in Your Postpartum Time
In the postpartum world, there are two main categories of mental health that professionals like postpartum doulas are trained to recognize and discuss with clients. The first category is called the "Baby Blues" and 4 out of 5 new moms, or 80%, experience this stage. The Baby Blues usually go away on their own, and most parents don't need any formal treatment. Parents with the Baby Blues may feel sad and cry a lot, feel moody or cranky, have trouble sleeping, eating or making decisions, feel overwhelmed, or feel that they can’t do a good job of taking care of their baby. The Baby Blues can start 2 to 3 days after you have your baby and can last up to 2 weeks. If these sorts of symptoms persist beyond 2 weeks, or start after the initial couple of weeks, then it may be the second category: a different postpartum mental health concern, such as postpartum anxiety or postpartum depression. 1 in 7 women has postpartum depression after giving birth, and it's the most common complication for women who have just had a baby. It's important to know that "1 in 7" is not counting the women who experience postpartum anxiety, another complication after birth that is as common as depression, and some women can experience both simultaneously. Postpartum depression and/or anxiety will often require more treatment, such as counseling with a therapist and/or medication. Perinatal mood disorders are an important consideration during the third trimester of pregnancy and beyond, and if you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, there is hope in remembering that A) you are not alone, and B) there are many ways to combat these illnesses.
Since postpartum doulas are not medical professionals, our focus here will be on some ways you can protect your mental health in your postpartum time in non-medical ways. Read on for a variety of strategies you can use to build a game plan for defending against the Baby Blues and further complications for your mood and mental wellbeing.*
Sleep. This can sometimes sound like a cruel joke when talking about newborns and the #postpartumlife, because everyone knows sleep is not easy to come by during this time. However, this is where it helps to develop strategies for getting as much sleep as you can, despite the nature of the newborn night. Mental health professionals will be the first to say that getting more sleep at night is hands-down the first intervention to ease sadness or anxiety. We recommend new moms go to bed early (even 6:30 or 7:00 PM!) after a feeding to try to get a chunk of sleep while her partner cares for baby until the next feeding. Then, after each feeding, go right back to bed again and keep going back to bed until you've gotten at least 8 hours of sleep. It may take you until mid-morning or even lunch time to get this 8 hours, and while this is not 8 hours in a row, at least you will have gotten enough rest to function relatively well. Once you've gotten those 8 hours, then you can "start your day". As often as you have the opportunity throughout the day, nap, nap, and nap some more. Sleep begets sleep for baby AND mom, so the more you're able to sleep, the better rest you'll get. It's recommended to continue this protection of your sleep needs for at least the first 4 weeks following childbirth. If you don't have a partner or family or friends who can help you get the sleep you need, then consider hiring a postpartum doula to visit a few times a week so you can catch up on your naps. (She can also help with many other things while you sleep, such as laundry and meal prepping and tidying, which in turn makes it easier for you to rest throughout the 24-hour cycle.)
Lower your expectations. This can sound odd to some, but we see it time and time again: parents with high expectations of themselves—a spotless home, a perfect routine, a packed schedule, and doing everything themselves without allowing or asking others to help—are often the parents who suffer postpartum anxiety or depression. Newborns have a way of throwing all routine and predictability out the window. They are all the curve balls all at once, and once you think you've figured them out, they change the game on you. When you have a newborn, letting go of high expectations is truly a survival skill. It's a smart move for even the most Type-A parents to try to become more go-with-the-flow for this time period.
Eat well. Focus on quick, nutritious snacks and meals that deliver a protein punch with iron and fiber in mind. Vitamin D, E, and the B-vitamins are also crucial to mental wellbeing and energy. When you have a new baby, most of your nutrition will need to be one-handed and fast. Some snack ideas are hard-boiled eggs that are pre-cooked and peeled, veggie sticks, greek yogurt, trail mix, cheese sticks, guacamole, hummus, fruit and cheese, smoked fish, or apples and peanut butter. Also, while hot liquids are believed to be beneficial for postpartum recovery, it's rare that a new parent gets to eat or drink something while it's still hot, so if your food and drink can be quickly re-heated, that's going to help a lot. Some ideas to help this are to prepare meals and snacks ahead of time (even during pregnancy!) that can be frozen and used later, such as smoothies with proteins and dark, leafy greens, muffin-tin egg bites, healthy breakfast muffins, breakfast burrito filling, pre-portioned soups, stews, or burrito/rice bowls that you can pop in the microwave for lunch, lasagnas and casseroles, and dinner entrees that can be thawed and thrown in the slow cooker or instant pot (think sauces, soups, stews, spaghetti/taco/fajita meat, etc.). Finally, allow others to bring you meals or have them delivered. As postpartum doulas, we love setting up online meal schedules like www.foodtidings.com for our clients, so that their friends, co-workers, and family members can bring food. It's a tangible and easy way for people to help.
Exercise gently. Get creative with this one! Exercise doesn't have to be going to the gym for a solid hour-long workout. And it probably won't be that for a while. That's okay. You can still help your body stay strong and feel good with gentle, intentional movement each day. After the initial two weeks following childbirth and with the go-ahead from your medical provider, head outside for some gentle walks. If you live in a place like Minnesota and it's winter (where today it is about 3 below zero), think about walking indoors somewhere, like a shopping mall, a gym, or even a zoo, skyways downtown, or a conservatory/greenhouse. Besides walking, you can do postnatal yoga or barre, with or without your baby, at Blooma (in Minneapolis, St. Paul, or Plymouth!), you can dance to some fun music with your baby, or you can try one of the many wonderful workout programs specifically designed for gentle fitness and strength recovery after having a baby, such as at Elevate Pilates.
Get some fresh air. Even in the early days, as long as it's not freezing outside, go ahead and open up a window or rest out on the patio, porch, or lawn. Sunshine and fresh air are hugely beneficial for everyone, but especially for postpartum parents who might otherwise be feeling a little isolated or cooped up. After the first few weeks of physical recovery, tuck baby into a wrap, carrier, or stroller, and head out for that walk. It might seem like a lot of work to prepare for getting outside, but in the end it will feel so worth it. Fresh air and a change of scenery, sounds, and smells can do wonders for baby, too!
Talk to your friends. In this age of social media and text messaging, a FaceTime session or even a good old-fashioned phone call can really feel amazing when it's hard to leave home. If a friend offers to come over and visit, take them up on it! If they offer to have you over, take them up on it! Especially if they have children themselves, they are offering you a safe space to be with your baby that is not your own home: they probably have a changing table and baby toys, and don't mind you whipping out your breasts and Boppy or whatever else you might need to feed your baby. Your friends and perhaps your own mom or sister or aunt (or dad/brother/uncle!) can truly be lifelines of support to help you remember that you're not alone and that there are so many people who love you and care about how you're doing. Social connection is important, especially in the postpartum time.
Listen to music. We often forget how much music gives us. It makes us feel, it brings us memories, and it can remind us of who we are. There is ample evidence for music's positive affects on brain activity. By whatever means necessary, find music that brings you joy and allows you to feel what you need to feel today, to get through the day. It can be another connection to the outside world for those who are home with a tiny one.
Try to remember the big picture. This may seem so cliché, but it's true: the days are long but the years are short. A day with a newborn can feel like an eternity, and simultaneously make you wonder, "It's already 6:00 PM? What did we even do all day?" And here's another cliché: sometimes we struggle to see the forest for the trees. When those days (or nights) are long and hard, as they almost certainly will be, try to remind yourself that this is a season. Only a season. It will not always be like this, and it will not always be so hard. The thing with babies is as soon as you think you've got them figured out, they change. What your life looks like right now may very well look quite different in two weeks' time.
As a mother of four children, this I can promise you: you will make it, things get easier, and every season has its own beauty. Some day you will look back on this time and treasure it, even with its tears and challenges. Hang in there, new mom. Hang in there, new dad. You are not alone, and you are embarking on the most incredible journey of your life. You've got this.
— Hallie Rogers, Better Beginnings founder + CEO
*Please remember that while these suggestions can be helpful to many parents, sometimes brain chemistry is just brain chemistry, and that you can do all the "right things" and still suffer from postpartum depression and anxiety. Mental illness is an illness like any other illness, so do not hesitate to seek treatment so you can feel better. You deserve to be healthy and happy, and for some, the best route IS a medical approach. The bravest and strongest parents are those who do whatever it takes to be happy and healthy. For themselves, and for their families. <3