7 ways to lower your risk for postpartum depression
Any new parent can develop postpartum depression. Here are some ways to lower your risk for postpartum depression and get the help you need.
Postpartum depression (PPD) is an equal opportunity condition. Anyone can develop symptoms after having a baby. That’s true whether they had several risk factors for PPD or none. And it includes people with testicles and parents who didn’t physically give birth.
“The transition to parenthood is a challenging time with immense demands on parents and dramatically altered lifestyles,” says Catherine Monk, Ph.D. Monk is a professor of medical psychology and director of Women’s Mental Health @Ob/Gyn at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.
There’s little time for mood-protective behaviors such as exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating, says Monk. “Also, the psychological meaning of becoming a parent can pose challenges relative to one’s own upbringing and how to parent better than what one might have experienced.”
Plus, the person giving birth goes through big hormonal changes after delivery. Those shifts can also affect mood.
To be clear, postpartum depression differs from the “baby blues.” Symptoms of the baby blues may come and go in the first few days after childbirth. They include:
- Feelings of sadness or anxiety.
- Crying for no clear reason.
- Having trouble sleeping.
- Having trouble making choices.
With postpartum depression, the symptoms are more intense. They may include:
- Crying spells.
- Feelings of isolation.
- Mood swings.
- Thoughts of hurting oneself and/or the baby.
- Significant changes in eating and sleeping habits.
PPD can affect any parent, even if it’s their second, third, or fourth child. It affects 17% of new birth parents worldwide. Not only does the parent suffer, but the baby is also “potentially affected by disengaged care,” Monk says. “There’s the possibility of a 2-generation impact.” That’s why it’s so important to take preventive steps and watch for symptoms.
While you can’t always prevent PPD, you can take steps to lower your risk. Or if you do develop PPD, there are ways to reduce your symptoms and have the right support at the ready. Here’s what you can do to lower your risk for postpartum depression while you wait for your baby’s arrival.
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Identify your risk factors.
People who’ve had depression or PPD or those with high levels of anxiety are at greater risk for PPD. So are “people without adequate social support or [who have] deep ambivalence about having a child,” Monk says. “Rates tend to be higher in people of color and in those facing poverty.” Knowing you might be more prone to PPD can help you keep a more watchful eye.
Shore up your social support.
Having plenty of social support can make a big difference, Monk says. You need people in your life who can help with errands. You also need people who will listen with compassion to all you’re going through. If you don’t have family members and friends who can help, think about hiring a night nurse or a doula. Or join a local support group for new parents.
Keep your expectations in check.
“Taking care of a newborn is really hard. It can be isolating. And it’s redundant,” Monk says. “It’s very different than the mutual engagement we can feel with adults and older children.” Also, know that in the early months of your baby’s life, you and your partner will be less focused on each other. It will alter your relationship. The more you acknowledge these coming changes ahead of time, the less blindsided you’ll be.
Tell your doctor about mood changes during pregnancy.
“This definitely is a time to pursue mental health care. Let your OB know how you’re feeling,” Monk says. Your doctor should be able to refer you to a mental health provider. Another useful resource: Postpartum Support International. It helps people find resources and support groups during pregnancy. Research has found that counseling interventions can help fend off postpartum depression.
Try to come up with a concrete plan for how you and any other helpers can juggle nighttime awakenings and feedings. The goal is to make sure parents can each get some uninterrupted sleep, Monk says. It’s also smart to plan to nap when the baby naps in the early months. It’s not always possible. But it’s a good goal.
Make time for exercise.
Exercise is a great way to ease stress and boost your mood. It can be on your own, with a friend, or in a group setting. The key is to do an activity that appeals to you. Research backs up its benefits.
For example, a study looked at pregnant people who regularly took part in a moderate-intensity aerobic water exercise program. They had significantly decreased anxiety and depressive symptoms 1 month after their baby’s birth compared with people not in the program. Other studies have found similar benefits with other forms of movement. On the list:
- Aerobic exercise.
Stay alert to symptoms.
It’s not always enough to lower your risk for postpartum depression. Learn the warning signs of PPD and watch for them, says Monk. Major red flags include:
- Ongoing down mood for more than 2 weeks.
- High levels of worry that can’t be quieted.
- Much worse mood.
- Thoughts of being better off dead.
- Deep distrust of those around you.
If you have any of these symptoms, call your doctor right away to stop them from getting worse. Or if you have a digital health management app like Wellframe, send a direct message to your care advocate. They can help connect you with an in-network mental health expert. “If down feelings are dominant or not going away, do seek out help,” Monk says. “Postpartum depression is common and treatable.”
Many health plans offer postpartum support and recovery programs for their members. To learn how to get the most out of your health benefits, ask your health plan if you’re eligible for Wellframe.
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