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Why Maternal Mental Health Matters

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

What was one of the first things you did when you became pregnant (after telling your family, of course)?


Did you download an app that compared the size of your child to a piece of fruit?


Or maybe you immediately started shopping for maternity clothes.


Or, better yet, did you hit up your local bookstore to grab all the latest and greatest books on pregnancy?


You know something you probably didn’t do?


Google, “What will my mental health be like during and after pregnancy?”


It’s something not many moms-to-be consider, yet according to the World Health Organization, roughly 10 percent of pregnant women and 13 percent of new mothers will experience a mental disorder, the main one being depression.


The thing is, many new moms don’t realize they have a mental disorder in the early postpartum days, because they aren’t able to recognize the signs and symptoms of one. Instead, they feel as though they’re failing as a mother, or attribute their anxiety or mania to “normal baby blues.”


And as you can imagine, the impact of not knowing you need help can be extremely challenging and have further repercussions, not only as a new mom, but for family and children as well.


We believe that equipping you with knowledge about maternal mental health can drastically change how you, or someone you love, works through those challenges.


Before we go on, we want to acknowledge that, although we’re discussing maternal mental health, both mothers and fathers can experience Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders, as well as adoptive parents, grandparents, or any primary caregiver. If you or someone you know may be struggling with any aspect of mental health, it’s important to seek professional guidance.


Maternal Mental Health and PMADs


You’ve likely heard of postpartum depression, but depression isn’t the only mental health disorder that a woman may experience on her perinatal journey. Additionally, depression and other mood disorders can show up differently, and women may not even be aware that they are experiencing PMADs because it’s not manifesting in a “typical” way.


When we talk about the large spectrum of mental health concerns from pregnancy through the first year postpartum, they are referred to as Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders, or PMADs for short.


PMADs aren’t a one-size-fits-all – they can show up differently from woman to woman and pregnancy to pregnancy, so knowing what signs and symptoms to look for is an important step to making sure you feel supported and receiving help if you need it.

Here are common signs of PMADs, but remember, this isn’t a comprehensive list.

  • Depression: feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, hopelessness; a lack of interest in the baby; thoughts of injuring self or baby

  • Anxiety: extreme worries and fears, often over the health or safety of the baby

  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD): having repetitive, unwanted (often upsetting) thoughts or repetitive actions to reduce the anxiety around those thoughts

  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): could be from having a traumatic birth experience or past trauma, sometimes with flashback of that trauma

  • Bipolar Mood Disorder: can appear as a severe depression, alternating with manic episodes

  • Psychosis: hallucinations, belief in things that aren’t true, or periods of memory loss and confusion

While PMADs don’t discriminate and anyone can experience one, Melinda Thiam, a board certified psychiatrist, explains that some of the risk factors can exacerbate PMADs. These include a genetic history of mental health disorders, past trauma (including birth trauma), sleep deprivation, and underlying medical conditions.


For a full description of PMADs, or to get help if you or someone you know is suffering from one, visit Postpartum Support International.


Maternal Mental Health and Sleep


Along with the other adjustments being made in the household when your baby arrives, it’s likely you’ll deal with fragmented sleep simply due to the role of being a mom: feeding your baby on demand, tending to a child who wakes overnight, being unable to sleep when your baby sleeps.


This lack of sleep has been shown to increase depression and anxiety in new mothers, and it can affect cognitive functioning. If you’re already experiencing symptoms of PMADs, the poor quality of your sleep can worsen those symptoms.


Since sleep so greatly impacts maternal mental health, supporting new mothers in fostering better sleep habits for their children is one way to mitigate PMADs. If you’re a new mom struggling with your child’s sleep, be sure to check out our other blogs, as we cover common sleep concerns like short naps, sleep training techniques, and early morning wake ups.


Maternal Mental Health and Children


Not only does a mother’s mental health impact her, but it can influence her child as well.

Research has found a strong correlation to a mother’s mental health and the attachment she has with her child, especially if PMAD symptoms are left untreated. Additionally, PMADs affect early developmental milestones in infants.


And as a child ages, the impact of PMADs can still be traced.


In a meta-analysis of nine different studies, it was found that PMADs can have a small, yet significant, impact on children’s cognitive and emotional development well after the first year.

So what’s a mother to do?


While there’s no way to prevent PMADs, identifying that you’re experiencing symptoms of PMADs and seeking out help is the first step, although it can be extremely hard. This is why educating all members of your support team on PMADs is crucial, as it may be easier for someone else to identify the signs of PMADs.


Managing Maternal Mental Health During and After Pregnancy


There are many ways to manage your mental health during and after pregnancy, and the first step is identifying that there is a problem to begin with. The next step, of course, is to take action.


Even before you notice signs of PMADs, you can take preventative action. Meeting with a mental health professional to discuss any concerns you have and to make a plan is a great step to receive early intervention.


Another way to get the support you need is to ask for and accept help from those who love you. If you need help in the early days of motherhood, there’s no shame in reaching out for support. Many moms groups exist for this reason – to provide community and support. We know this isn’t the easiest thing to do, because as moms, we feel as though we need to do it all.


Although many mothers naturally fall into the primary caregiver role when they’re breastfeeding, it’s still possible for the non-breastfeeding parent to get involved and help out. Advocating for yourself and your needs should be a priority, just as you take care of your child’s needs.


We don’t need to do motherhood alone. And often, finding that help can be a game changer, not only for you as a mom, but for your entire family.


If you’re passionate about helping moms navigate the early days of motherhood – maybe you experienced PMADs or want to help other moms who are navigating them – we have an entire section in our sleep consultant course covering this topic. Not only will we ensure you have a solid understanding of baby sleep science, but you’ll be equipped to support all families.


Sleep can change an entire family’s dynamic, and if you’re interested in learning more about our course and how you can impact the lives of other families, you can find all of the information here.


Resources


Beck C. T. (1998). The effects of postpartum depression on child development: a meta-analysis. Archives of psychiatric nursing, 12(1), 12–20. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0883-9417(98)80004-6

Fisher, J., Cabral de Mello, M., Patel, V., Rahman, A., Tran, T., Holton, S., & Holmes, W. (2012). Prevalence and determinants of common perinatal mental disorders in women in low- and lower-middle-income countries: a systematic review. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 90(2), 139G–149G. https://doi.org/10.2471/BLT.11.091850

Goyal, D., Gay, C. & Lee, K. Fragmented maternal sleep is more strongly correlated with depressive symptoms than infant temperament at three months postpartum. Arch Womens Ment Health 12, 229 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-009-0070-9h

Hoffman, C., Dunn, D.M. & Njoroge, W.F.M. Impact of Postpartum Mental Illness Upon Infant Development. Curr Psychiatry Rep 19, 100 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-017-0857-8

Lawson, A., Murphy, K. E., Sloan, E., Uleryk, E., & Dalfen, A. (2015). The relationship between sleep and postpartum mental disorders: A systematic review. Journal of affective disorders, 176, 65–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2015.01.017

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