Motherhood — it’s a word that refers to ‘the state of being a mother’. A fairly simple definition most would say. But put the semantics aside, and the term is loaded with complex connotations. Motherhood is supposed to be the happiest time in a woman’s life. It’s supposed to transform women into selfless caregivers. The moment a woman holds her newborn child, she is supposed to be overcome with love and maternal instincts.
However, not all mothers feel this way right after they give birth. Some may feel listless, sad, and find it difficult to connect with their newborns. In a lot of cases, this is not a cause for alarm. These ‘baby blues’ are normal, and almost expected.
However, when these symptoms aggravate over time or last longer than a few weeks, it may be a sign of Postpartum Depression (PD) — a form of clinical depression. This is characterized by symptoms such as crying for no reason, a loss of interest in things one used to enjoy, and bouts of intense anxiety. These are compounded by feelings of utter hopelessness, severe insomnia, and overwhelming fatigue.
PD affects an estimated 1 in ten new mothers. Those affected may also experience alternating periods of ‘highs’ and ‘lows’, compounded by feelings of anxiety, guilt, fatigue, and the inability to care for oneself or one’s baby. These symptoms can last anywhere between several weeks to a year and may need to be treated with psychotherapy or antidepressants.
This could also, in rare cases, intensify into postpartum psychosis, a serious mental health concern that calls for immediate medical attention. It occurs within the first three months of childbirth, and symptoms include auditory hallucinations, delusions, insomnia, and restlessness. Often, patients have fearful and obsessive thoughts about their baby and are deeply suspicious of the people around them. Thoughts of harming oneself or one’s baby are also common.
There is a silver lining in this dark cloud though — PD is very much treatable, and there is a lot that can be done at home too to alleviate its symptoms. Let’s take a look at a few ways in which you can deal with PD effectively:
Practising mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) has been effective in preventing and treating PD. However, a specific MBCT program isn’t always necessary. Start with simple meditation with the help of a guided meditation app or video. Taking time out of your schedule to meditate every day helps you centre yourself and let go of the negative thoughts associated with PD. That being said, meditation, in general, is a great way to ease other anxieties as well. Especially with the current COVID-19 situation, new mothers have an additional stressor to deal with along with everything else they are going through. A few minutes of silence, mindfulness, and focus can do wonders to calm the mind and improve one’s mood.
Maintaining a healthy diet
Don’t underestimate the power of fruits and veggies! While a nutritious diet cannot ‘cure’ the problem, research has identified links between micronutrient deficiencies and PD. These nutrients include de omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, folate and trace minerals such as iron, zinc, selenium, and potassium. New mothers then should consciously incorporate foods such as flaxseed oil, yogurt, eggs, lentils, and whole grains in their diets.
Letting go of ‘mom guilt’
Guilt is a major side effect of PD. This may be a result of not feeling as happy as they expected to feel, or believing that the baby can sense the mother’s indifference towards it. Research has also shown that women who wanted to breastfeed, but for some reason could not do so after childbirth, were at higher risk of PD, and this inability to breastfeed leads to intense feelings of guilt. In such a situation, it becomes important to surround oneself with supportive friends and family, recognize irrational thought patterns, and if needed, seek therapy.
Feelings of loneliness are common in those suffering from PD. So it becomes increasingly important to reach out to friends and family when needed. In the current COVID situation where a physical meeting isn’t possible, use online tools to video chat with loved ones from the safety of your home. Of course, this also helps with the general feeling of isolation we are all going through thanks to social distancing and lockdown restrictions. Joining online support groups with mothers going through the same experience will also go a long way in easing your worries.
Research has shown that even low-intensity exercises such as a short walk with a stroller could bring down the symptoms of PD. Consult with a doctor, and if you get the go-ahead, try some gentle yoga, a barre class or a quick swim in the pool. Of course, it’s hard to find time to hit a fitness class in the middle of caring for a newborn, but make the effort and it will be worth it!
Getting enough sleep
According to a report, women who get the least amount of sleep post-birth experience the most depressive symptoms. It can be hard to find time to snooze when your baby doesn’t sleep through the night — in this case, follow what the doctors have always said — sleep when your baby sleeps! You could even consider pumping a bottle or two so that your partner can take care of the overnight feeding while you get your rest.
Seeking professional help
If your symptoms do not cease after a few weeks, or get worse with time, seeking professional help is essential. Psychotherapy — a common treatment for PD — involves speaking with a qualified mental health professional about your feelings and collaboratively working on ways to cope. In more severe cases, antidepressants may be prescribed. These are generally considered safe for women who are breastfeeding, but if any concerns arise, speak with your doctor about the pros and cons of medication.
Spending time with your partner
Yes, PD takes a major toll on the woman, but it also has an effect on the couple as a whole. It becomes important than to spend quality with your partner. This doesn’t have to mean a fancy date — it could be as simple as a fifteen-minute conversation over dinner. What’s important is keeping the lines of communication open, being honest, and knowing that you’re in this together.
At the end of the day, know this — PD is not anyone’s fault. It is a complication of childbirth that can be managed with the right intervention and medication. Mental health as a whole is a topic associated with secrecy and stigma, and the first step to getting better is acknowledging the true nature of the problem before seeking help!