You know the saying, “You can never have too much of a good thing?” Yeah, I’m not a fan of that one, because too much of pretty much anything isn’t good. And as a new or expectant mom, this is particularly true when it comes to information.
It’s so easy to get so much info about everything. A quick Google search or a post in one of your online moms’ groups will yield a seemingly endless number of answers about anything you could possibly wonder about. And while that’s great for many things—heartburn remedies during your third trimester, the best stroller to buy, what malls have family restrooms— it can also make it very difficult to separate the good information from the bad. And when bad information circulates without correction, some potentially harmful myths can seem to turn into facts. Here are some of the most damaging myths about mental health and new motherhood, and the actual facts behind them: 1. “It’s just the baby blues.” The baby blues are a real thing. It is estimated that around 70-80% of new moms experience some feelings of sadness in the days immediately following birth. While no one is sure of exactly what causes this, it is likely a combination of hormones —you’ve got a LOT of them swimming around in your body as you recover from pregnancy and delivery—and situational factors like poor sleep, uncertainty about caring for a newborn, and adjusting to life with a tiny boss who doesn’t care what time of day or night it is. If this is so common, how do you know if it’s actually a problem? The key is timing. The baby blues are very time limited. This means the feelings of sadness, or crying out of seemingly nowhere, come and go throughout the day and do not last for more than a few hours total per day. Additionally, the baby blues do not last beyond 10 to 14 days postpartum. So, if you’re still in a funk and baby is more than 2 weeks old, or you’re spending most of your day feeling depressed, it’s not just the baby blues and you should call your OB/midwife or therapist to discuss the possibility of a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder. And don’t worry, I know that sounds scary but it’s very treatable once you reach out for help. 2. “I can’t take any medication until I’m no longer pregnant/nursing.” Before I jump in on this one, let me just cut straight to the point: false. There are medications out there that are safe for your baby, and a medical provider who is experienced in this area can help you find the right one. Being pregnant or nursing does not mean you need to suffer unnecessarily with anxiety or depression, if medication can help. Now, this does not mean that you’ll always want to jump straight to meds, as there are other things to try such as talk therapy, lifestyle changes and exercise. But in cases where medication is needed, there are options. And let’s be honest here, 30 minutes of exercise and eight hours of sleep per night are pretty tough to come by as a new mom. So if you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to ask about medication.
3. “I don’t need sleep; I’ll just drink more coffee.” Sleep tends to go out the window once baby arrives, and you do need to adjust your expectations around how much uninterrupted nighttime sleep you will be getting for a while. However, the solution is not just to muscle through with the help of undereye concealer and caffeine. Sleep deprivation can make postpartum mood and anxiety disorders much worse, so you need to find a strategy to log a few more hours per night. The solution will depend largely on how baby is being fed. For babies that are formula fed, many new moms find that having their partner take over one or two nights a week while they sleep somewhere where they will not be disturbed can go a long way toward improving their mental health. If baby is breastfed, this isn’t as feasible, even with pumped bottles, because you need to nurse overnight to prevent engorgement and protect your supply. However, you can split the nighttime duties with your partner so that you are only responsible for the nursing part. Your partner can handle changing baby’s diaper, bringing baby to you, then burping and resettling baby. This will minimize how long, and how fully, you’re awake. Whatever arrangement you need to work out, the underlying message is that your sleep is vitally important to your mental health. Napping when baby naps during the day is great, but our bodies need restorative nighttime sleep to function. Keep the concealer and coffee handy, because you’re not going to be feeling too perky for a while, but make nighttime sleep a priority too. 4. “I’m just angry.” There are a lot of annoying things that happen in the life of a new mom—the baby’s diaper explodes right before you need to leave for an appointment, sleep was particularly awful the night before you’re finally going out to breakfast with the friend you haven’t seen in months, or your partner sneezes just as you’ve finally gotten baby to fall back to sleep. While these things seem minor in isolation, combine them with some hormones, lack of sleep and general overwhelm, and you’re primed for a frustrated outburst. However, if you’re finding yourself getting annoyed at every minor thing, or what would normally just annoy you leads you to lash out or fills you with rage, something more could be going on. Anger is a common symptom of postpartum anxiety (PPA). I know it seems odd because when you think about anxiety, you don’t typically think of anger, but they actually go hand in hand quite commonly. For some new moms, anger is their only symptom of PPA. If your anger is feeling disproportionate, or unsettling, reach out to your provider for an assessment. 5. “Only moms get postpartum depression.” New research is shedding light on something many of us have experienced: our partners can struggle emotionally after birth. Anxiety, irritability, withdrawal from relationships—these are all common signs of postpartum mood disturbances in our partners. While they do not have the same hormonal influences as a newly postpartum birth mother, they are experiencing some degree of sleep deprivation, tension in your romantic relationship, and grappling with what it means to be a parent. Your partner may be confronting the reality of having a baby for the first time. Remember, you had 40 weeks to bond with your baby before they were born. Your partner simply did not have that prep time, so this can be quite a shock to them. Just like you, your partner will benefit from professional help if they are struggling beyond those first few weeks. 6. “I had postpartum depression once, so I’m definitely going to get it again.” Not necessarily. Yes, previous postpartum mood and anxiety disorders put you at higher risk of experiencing them again. However, now that you know ahead of time that you’re at risk, you can begin to plan and put support in place. There may be medication you can start towards the end of your pregnancy, or you may choose to begin right after delivery if it was helpful to you previously. You’ll also want to make sure your village is alerted and prepared—meals are lined up, visitors are scheduled to keep you company, and overnight help is arranged so you can get some much-needed rest. All of these things will be huge in helping set you up for a better experience the next time around. 7. “There’s no way to predict who will struggle postpartum.” I so wish there was a Magic 8 Ball that could tell us who would and would not suffer from a postpartum mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD). However, we do have a great deal of research that points us toward some risk factors:
  • A traumatic birth or pregnancy
  • Depression during pregnancy
  • Strained marriage/partnership
  • History of abuse or trauma
  • Lack of social support
  • History of prior depression or anxiety
  • Recent stressful or traumatic events, unrelated to pregnancy/childbirth
  • A history of postpartum anxiety or depression
Now, this is not to say that if you’re nodding along to all of these you are guaranteed a PMAD, nor is it to say that if you have none of the risk factors, you have nothing to worry about. But knowing how many of these things apply to you can be super helpful in giving you a heads up about things to keep an eye on. I always encourage women who have any of these risk factors to really take postpartum planning seriously and make sure that they line up as much help and support as possible. This can be a tremendous asset in preventing the occurrence of a PMAD as well as limiting its severity should it occur. 8. “If my doctor says I’m fine, I must just be overreacting.” If you feel something is off, never ignore that instinct. If you feel you are suffering more than you should, ask for help. If you think your doctor isn’t taking you seriously, go to a different doctor or therapist. If you’re having trouble speaking up for yourself, ask a friend or family member to come with to help advocate for you. No one knows your inner experience better than you do, and there is no reason for you to muscle through postpartum struggles. So yes, your doctor knows best about what medications are safe, and what physical symptoms are concerning. But you know your inner self better than anyone else. So do not take a doctor’s dismissal as the definitive answer if something feels off to you. 9. “They’ll take my baby away if I ask for help.” Every now and then a story goes viral about a mom having her baby taken away due to reaching out for help with postpartum depression. This generally leads to panic among other moms who had been contemplating asking for help. While I wish I could guarantee that this won’t happen, what I can tell you is that it is very rare and is generally the result of a miscommunication or a poorly trained medical provider. If you’re worried about being judged or the consequences of reaching out for help, I recommend two things: choose the provider you are most comfortable with and bring support. First, choosing a provider you feel comfortable with is essential. Your midwife/OB, primary care physician or therapist are all great people to reach out to and any one of them can help you take the first steps in getting help. I also recommend bringing someone along with you, particularly if you fear you may have a hard time talking about what’s been going on. You don’t have to do this alone! 10. “If I wait, it will just go away on its own.” For so many things new moms worry about with their babies, my response is usually, “Give it time.” Baby won’t sleep anywhere but in your arms? Give it time. Baby can’t occupy herself for 30 seconds while you pee? Give it time. Baby seems totally uninterested in solids? Give it time. But when it comes to your mental health, the wait and see approach is definitely NOT recommended. Yes, the baby blues will resolve on its own in 10-14 days, but anything beyond that is unlikely to just go away quickly enough to not cause you significant distress in the meantime. The stressors associated with a newborn (sleep deprivation, social isolation, physical pain, etc.) will lessen over time which can be helpful, but true postpartum mood and anxiety disorders will not just disappear overnight. Waiting it out can cause things to worsen and can have a negative impact on your relationship with your baby. So, if baby is older than two weeks, and you’re struggling, it’s time to reach out for help. It’s okay to ask for help. I promise. These are just a small handful of the rumors and myths out there about mental health, particularly as it relates to mothers. But there are plenty more out there! If you hear something that doesn’t sound right, or have questions about whether or not what you’re experiencing is typical or a sign of something more, reach out to whatever healthcare provider you feel most comfortable with. You’re never bothering them—that’s what they’re there for!