When she is expecting, a new mother is filled with both hope and fear. She hopes that her new child will be healthy and happy, that she will do right by him or her, and that things will be as perfect as possible. But the flip side of those hopes is the fear and worry that things will go wrong and, even scarier, that she won’t be able to do anything about it.
Up until recently, the possibility of birthing a child into a world rocked by an international pandemic and at-home lockdown wasn’t even on the list of things an expecting mother might worry about it. Yet, in the past few months, it has become a reality many women have had to face. The natural vulnerability of this major life transition is exacerbated during the global anxiety, when things like going to the grocery store to pick up diapers suddenly become a much more anxiety-producing event than it ever was before.
Pregnancy and the postpartum period are already vulnerable times for women due in part to the hormonal fluctuations accompanying pregnancy and delivery, as well as the sleep deprivation of the early postpartum period. Now, fears about the health of an unborn child or an infant and the consequences of preventive measures, like social distancing, have added more stress.
The myriad challenges of having a newborn are only intensified in the face of the Coronavirus and forced isolation, adding fear and uncertainty to an experience that is already overwhelming for many. This, in addition to the lack of support and resources available to women who have babies during the pandemic, poses a serious mental health risk, especially being that issues like postpartum depression are already both common and under-resourced as it is.
That means that there is a very real risk of postpartum depression becoming more common in the face of quarantine. This article offers information and resources to help new mothers facing this unique and unexpected challenge.
What Is Postpartum Depression?
In non-pandemic times, as many as 14 percent of women will suffer from pregnancy-related anxiety, which refers to fears that women have about their own health and their baby’s over the course of pregnancy and delivery, and up to 20 percent of women will experience postpartum depression. As opposed to the baby blues, which are more common, less severe, and last for about two weeks, postpartum depression is a more serious condition. A mood disorder that typically begins within the month after delivery, postpartum depression involves physical, emotional, and behavioral changes.
There are many possible causes for postpartum depression stemming from the chemical, social, and psychological. Chemically, new mothers experience a sharp decrease in the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which drop by a factor of ten in the three days after childbirth. Beyond that, women also experience an overwhelming combination of social and psychological changes after giving birth that can have a significant impact, among them a change in identity, sleep deprivation and body image issues.
Additionally, women in certain categories have an increased risk of postpartum depression. This includes:
- - Women who have a history of depression themselves or within their family
- - Those who have recently undergone stressful life events such as illness, job loss, or death within the family
- - Women who have bipolar disorder
- - Mothers of babies with special needs or multiple babies (twins, triplets)
- - Mothers lacking a proper support system or those undergoing issues with their partner or family
- - Women who have trouble breast-feeding
- - Women struggling financially
The symptoms of postpartum depression can be easily mistaken for baby blues at first, but it will usually become clear that there is a more serious problem when they are more intense, last longer, or interfere with a mother’s ability to care for herself or her child. These include:
- - Mood swings and feelings of depression
- - Crying spells
- - Lack of energy
- - Loss of appetite or a significant increase in appetite
- - Sleeping too little or too much
- - Difficulty bonding with one’s baby or relating to one’s family and friends
- - Restlessness
- - Hopelessness
- - Feelings of guilt, shame, or inadequacy
- - Anxiety and panics
- - Suicidal thoughts
- - Thoughts of harming one’s baby
A mother experiencing these symptoms should speak to her doctor or healthcare professional if her symptoms persist or get worse, if she is finding it difficult to care for herself and/or her baby, or if she develops thoughts of self-harm or hurting her baby.
Postpartum depression may be treated with anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication, psychotherapy, education, and participation in social support groups - or some combination thereof. Most of the time, postpartum depression passes after some months, though it can last as long as a year or more.
The Coronavirus Pandemic’s Effects on New Mothers’ Mental Health
In Europe, levels of depression and anxiety have increased since the beginning of the Coronavirus lockdowns and, being that they already are at risk of postpartum depression, new mothers are now even more vulnerable than before.
Expecting mums have voiced their fears about a number of possible distressing scenarios: delivering without a support person; being an asymptomatic carrier of the virus and facing possible infant separation; and recovering during a postpartum period without the help of family or friends to provide support. There’s also grief about the loss of a hopeful time that was meant to be celebrated with loved ones.
Pregnant women and new mothers must also deal with the constant low-grade panic that comes with making decisions that have no specific medical guidelines, such as: What should I do if I have other kids at home and the only person who can help me is a grandparent who is at high risk? What kind of precautions should I take if my partner is a health care worker? Is it OK to send my kid back to day care? Without clear right answers, the mental load of these decisions defaults to mothers.
These concerns are more than just theoretical and anecdotal. Early research findings from the University of Calgary’s Pregnancy During the Pandemic research program suggest that pregnant women have been experiencing higher than normal levels of depression and anxiety. Only time will tell just how impactful the Coronavirus pandemic has been and will be on postpartum mothers, but the likelihood of a rise in postpartum depression seems high.
Women who lack social support after the birth of a baby are more likely to develop postpartum depression. Supportive relationships during pregnancy can protect against postpartum depression. While it’s still too early in the Covid era to point to conclusive data about which populations are most vulnerable, if we predict from what we know about risk factors for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders pre-Covid, it’s reasonable to believe women who have a lifetime history of anxiety or depression are going to be harder hit by the negative effects of social isolation.
How to Get Through It
The period after you have your baby can be filled with countless emotions: baby blues and new-mum stress are perfectly normal. You may feel anything from joy to fear to sadness. If, however your feelings of sadness become severe and start to interfere with your everyday life, you may be experiencing postpartum depression (PPD). If your mood swings, crying spells and feelings of self-doubt and alienation are so bad that you can barely take care of yourself and your baby, it is worth seeking help.
Around the world, people are struggling with their mental health as we adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people who are already at risk, such as those with a history of mental health struggles, are finding that they are being triggered into anxious and depressive states. Almost overnight, our routines have turned upside down. The uncertainties of the situation and stay-at-home mandates have presented unique challenges. Humans are social by nature, and when we do not get regular social contact, our mental health suffers.
Pregnant women and new mums may face even more difficulty. The transition into motherhood is a vulnerable one. Research has found that women are more at risk of experiencing anxiety or depression during pregnancy than at any other time in their lives due to new challenges. Coupled with a global pandemic, the risks posed to new mothers are clear.
Despite these challenges, there are several steps women with postpartum depression can take to optimize their mental health and thrive in the face of COVID-19.
The first and most important thing new mums can do is to reach out to a health professional. A great first step is calling your doctor’s office to see how they are providing services to postpartum women during this time. If you are unable to come into the office for a visit, you will most likely be able to have a virtual consultation. If you require medication, you can receive prescriptions via delivery, and talk and group therapy are still being conducted during Coronavirus, mostly online.
Beyond professional help, there are other steps new mums can take to help ease postpartum depression symptoms. If you are feeling lonely and unsupported, reach out to friends and family over the phone or on Zoom. They may not be able to come to babysit, but they can still help you out by dropping off groceries, making homemade meals, and lending a listening ear as you vent your feelings. Introducing your baby to your parents over Skype is not ideal, but it’s a definite option. Some people are even doing it through windows.
Though you may feel the need to stay up to date with all the news about the Coronavirus, it can be a good idea to limit your media intake to infrequent visits to only the most trustworthy sources. Spending too much time consuming sensationalized news can increase your stress levels, and it’s just not worth it.
Do your best to get fresh air and sunshine every day, even if you cannot go out the same way you used to. If you have a yard or a nearby trail that is not very populated, take advantage of it. Otherwise, just opening windows or stepping outside every once in a while can do wonders to your mood and keep you feeling connected to the earth.
Regular exercise can boost your self-esteem and can help you concentrate, sleep, and feel better. Exercise keeps the brain and your other vital organs healthy and is also a significant benefit towards improving your mental health. This is also a great time to try out meditation and at-home exercise programs, which are easily accessible on various apps and YouTube channels. You can even find workouts specifically tailored to new mothers, which will take into account your particular postpartum physical needs while helping you collect all of the endorphins that exercise can bring you.
Though it is always hard with a new baby, it is so important for new mums to try to get as much sleep as possible and taking naps during the day is perfectly acceptable. In general, keeping healthy by eating nutritious food and drinking water is critical for maintaining good mental health. And while it is easy to be so focused on the baby that you forget about yourself, don’t underestimate the power of a hot shower or bath or face mask to make you feel refreshed and like yourself again.
Ultimately, the most important thing to remember is that help is always near and available. The only thing you need do is ask for it.