When I tell people I’m a birth and postpartum doula, I’m generally met with “oh awesome, doulas are great!” And they mean it. But when we go further and talk more about being a birth doula vs. a postpartum doula, people get confused. “Postpartum? Oh, I didn’t have that with my first baby. I’ll probably be fine this time.” Well actually… Everyone who has a baby has “postpartum”, because that word simply refers to the period after a baby is born. Over time, it has become shorthand for postpartum depression, and now many people don’t know the difference.
Postpartum Mental Illness
Now that we’ve cleared that up, I’d like to talk a little about postpartum mental illness. There are several known types of postpartum mental illness. Baby blues (yes, that’s the technical term, so silly!) affects 75-80% of new mothers. It’s characterized by swings in emotional state from mild depression to happier feelings, and can show up 2-3 days postpartum. It usually peaks at 7-10 days postpartum and resolves itself without formal treatment. Postpartum depression is a more severe mental illness that can affect 10-15 percent of new mothers and up to 10 percent of their partners. Symptoms include sadness, crying spells, sleep problems, low appetite, lack of interest in the newborn, thoughts of suicide, and others. Postpartum depression requires treatment, otherwise symptoms will last for months longer than they should. Postpartum psychosis is yet another form of postpartum mental illness. It affects about 1 in 1,000 mothers and is a very serious health issue. Characterized by violent thoughts, delusions, and auditory hallucinations (hearing voices), sufferers of postpartum psychosis usually require hospitalization. Anyone who believes s/he is suffering from any of these conditions should speak with their care provider as soon as possible to get monitoring and support.
Tips for a Better Postpartum
That was a lot of doom and gloom, but I’m happy to tell you that there are some things you can do to help yourself avoid postpartum mental illness and/or mitigate its effects. Here are my top 10 tips for postpartum mental health. Bonus: these are generally good for physical wellbeing too, and will help strengthen bonds with your family!
- Get outside. Studies show that physical activity strengthens the neurological pathways we need for mental health. Not only that, but vitamin D also has been linked with improved mental health. Make one of your non-negotiables a walk with your baby every morning. You’ll be glad you did!
- Socialize. Isolation exacerbates the symptoms of postpartum mental illness. Finding groups that force you to get out with other new parents facing the same issues that you are will help you build community.
- Breastfeed. Evidence shows that breastfeeding mothers experience lower rates of postpartum mental illness. The hormones released by mothers’ bodies when they breastfeed their babies certainly contribute to that. Not to mention the bonding that occurs. It’s certainly an art, and it’s not something we all pick up right away. But there are so many reasons why breastfeeding is the normal way for humans to feed their babies; mental health is just one piece of that puzzle!
- Sleep. Haha. But really, sleep is so huge. If you can get a friend, doula, family member, or partner to take the baby while you nap, do it. Use all the resources you can, and look into co-sleeping to see if it’s right for you. It can greatly increase your quality of sleep.
- Leverage your support network. All those people who tell you “if you need anything”…? USE THEM. Milk that gravy train!! People like feeling wanted. Give them specific duties and make sure they’re things you actually want to have done. Don’t want to visit for hours? That’s fine. Give an end time. Need help with cleaning? Ask your neighbour to vacuum! People want to help, so use that to your advantage.
- Hire a postpartum doula. Quite simply, postpartum doulas make new parents feel awesome. We provide the same kind of support for new parents and their babies as we do throughout pregnancy and birth: non-judgemental, unbiased support. Emotional check-ins, light housekeeping, help with breastfeeding, baby care, information, guidance, resource referrals… We do all of that!
- Nutrition is your friend. The vagus nerve connects the brain directly to the gut. Recently, scientists have found gut bacteria feeding on GABA, a well-known brain chemical. The link between our nutrition and our brain chemistry is strong, so choose nourishing, whole foods. Your doula (me, maybe?) has some great suggestions.
- Educate yourself – know your resources. Knowledge is power! If you have a list of resources handy before you give birth (perhaps you can ask your awesome doula for one), you and/or your partner will have an immediate go-to if you feel like something might not be right. If not, oh well! Just recycle it when you’re out of the fourth trimester. No harm no foul!
- Consider placentophagy. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying encapsulating your placenta will prevent postpartum mental illness. But I am saying that there have been links with iron deficiency and postpartum mental illness. The iron found in the placenta is human-made, so it stands to reason that it would be the most bio-available iron supplement available.
- Wear your baby. Baby-wearing has similar mental health benefits to breastfeeding, especially skin-to-skin, in terms of hormone production. It also provides the added benefit of freeing up the wearer’s hands to do other things, and that can be a huge factor in reducing stress.