Covid has been more than a worldwide pandemic. It also sparked a maternal mental health crisis. In addition to cranking up anxiety, Covid stripped away the in-person connections and practical support that new parents desperately need. Covid, essentially, leveled what was left of parents’ so-called village.

While any new mom can suffer from maternal mental health issues, there are certain factors that increase risk… and a big one is limited social support. 

And as all the moms who, in the past two years, have taken work calls with toddlers on their laps or welcomed babies at hospitals with no-visitor policies could tell you, the pandemic has gravely cut into that precious support. 

Yet in many other cultures for countless centuries, new moms have been surrounded by a circle of caring family and friends who baby them as much as they baby the baby.

Rates of PPD increased dramatically during the pandemic 

Sure, Zooms with grandparents and FaceTimes with friends have helped. But a text isn’t a hug and an emoji can’t hold your crying baby while you nap.

Not surprisingly, a 2020 study reported that “social support is imperative for postpartum well-being.” And research shows that sleep deprivation and persistent infant crying increase a new mom’s chances of postpartum depression (PPD).

So it’s no surprise that rates of PPD shot up nearly three-fold during the pandemic. A recent report in the journal BMC Research Notes found that one-third of new mothers screened positive for postpartum depression during the pandemic—and 20% had symptoms of major depression.

Related: At my 6-week postpartum checkup, I lied to my doctor about my postpartum depression 

Even scarier: Roughly 1 in 5 of those with major depression had thoughts of harming themselves. And it’s not just PPD rates that are rising: Postpartum anxiety and posttraumatic stress are up, too.

This is very concerning for everyone who cares about the strength of our families. New parents and new babies deserve better. They deserve support: from loved ones, employers, mental health specialists, our communities...and from our society at large.

We need to dispel mental health stigmas

In most cases, PPD is left untreated. Research shows that new moms feel ashamed about admitting to depression. They’re worried about being labeled a “bad mother” and they even fall into the trap of putting that label on themselves. 

I hope the more we talk about PPD, the more education and help we offer, the sooner the stigma and resistance fade away. 

Remember, PPD can be treated—therapy and medication are available—but only if moms share their feelings with their family and caregivers.

We need everyone paying attention to a mother’s mental health

The signs of PPD are not always obvious. For example, PPD may not be teary sadness. More commonly there is nagging guilt, a mind that won’t stop running, exhaustion, high levels of anxiety, and deep self-doubt—like feeling as though you’re the worst mama in the world and your little one might be better off without you. 

Some new moms are plagued by intrusive thoughts of worthlessness and even impulses toward self-harm. 

Related: To the mama who feels like she’s failing at everything, you are enough

In fact, a 2021 report in JAMA Psychiatry found that suicidal ideation and intentional self-harm with the first postpartum year has substantially increased over a 12-year period.

We need OB/GYNs, midwives, pediatricians, partners, to protect moms’ mental health. Doctors should screen for PPD during mom’s six-week checkup and baby’s well-visits. Right now, only four states require providers to screen all pregnant and new moms for prenatal and postpartum depression.

We need paid family leave

Just 23% to 26% of workers have access to paid parental leave. Worse, about 44% of workers don’t even qualify for unpaid leave. 

Yet, very hopeful research has shown that longer maternity leave is associated with a significant reduction in PPD. Paid leave gives moms time to heal, reduces work stress, and lessens the financial pressures that go hand-in-hand with having a new baby. 

Plus, it is truly heartening to know that you and your family’s well-being matter to those beyond your inner circle. After all, your “village” should include a workplace and a society that values families and children and offers support. 

I’m hopeful that our continued pressure will nudge lawmakers over to the right side of history, and that soon, we may see a domino effect of family-friendly policies.

We need to prioritize rest

People joke about the exhaustion of parenthood… but it’s no laughing matter. Sleep deprivation chips away at your health, it shortens your fuse, slows your thinking, creates distance between you and your partner… and increases your chance of postpartum depression. We need to do whatever it takes to help new parents sleep.

While some sleep loss is inevitable—newborns need to feed during the night—in centuries past, extended families stepped in to soothe babies, which allowed weary parents to rest. In the absence of the village, today’s parents need to find new solutions to help them get the sleep they need to stay healthy and to spend hour after hour caring for their growing family.

Now that Covid restrictions have lifted and vaccines are available, for some families that might be a night nurse or postpartum doula, for others, maybe it is a mother-in-law who can come stay. And for others, technology might be part of the answer.

Related: Dear exhausted mama, you deserve to rest

During my work as a pediatrician, I discovered that swaddling, white noise, and rocking activate a baby’s innate calming reflex, which is nature’s “off switch” for crying and “on switch” for sleep. With these findings in mind, I created SNOO, a responsive bassinet that uses those age-old comforting cues to be a stand-in for parents’ disappearing village. SNOO automatically provides a gentle hug, soft shhhhhing, and hour after hour of gentle swaying that someone in your village would’ve offered while you rested up.

A 2019 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that swaddling, sound, and movement worked equally well for soothing babies, whether it came from SNOO or a loving adult. Moreover, SNOO’s soothing can add 1 to 2 hours of infant sleep each night, and according to a new University of Colorado - Colorado Springs study, can help moms feel more rested.

The best part: The same study found that SNOO users were less likely to feel mentally stressed.

Maternal mental health issues are nothing to feel ashamed about, and they’re not something you need to suffer through alone. Our society was built around the village. As we wait for meaningful policy change to provide broader support to parents, don’t be afraid to speak up to get the help you need.