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How to deal with postpartum depression and flourish as a new parent

May 18, 2022 - 18 min read

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What is postpartum depression?

How to cope with postpartum depression

How to support a loved one dealing with postpartum depression

When you have a baby, a lot changes. The months leading up to giving birth can be full of excitement, worry, and a whole range of other emotions. Part of that is the hormonal and physiological changes happening during that time. And part of that is knowing that life is about to shift in an irreversible way.

Many parents-to-be don’t quite grasp how challenging new parenthood will be. They don’t realize that some of the most important parts of your new life — like bonding with your baby — don’t come as easily as you’ve been led to expect. 

Most people have heard of post-partum depression, but if you’ve never been through it, it can be hard to conjure up an image of what it looks and feels like. It’s possible to love your baby, love being a parent, and still be experiencing PPD. And if you already have anxiety or depression, you might not be prepared for how the hormonal shift (and lack of sleep) will exacerbate your underlying mood disorder. 

Here’s a look at what postpartum depression is, what signs to look out for, and how to know when it’s time to reach out for help.

What is postpartum depression?

It’s common to feel a little down after you first have a baby. Lack of sleep, intense physical activity, and a rapid increase in stress can leave you feeling a little drained, even under the best of circumstances.

Mild feelings of sadness and emotional volatility after childbirth are known as the “baby blues,” and usually pass on their own. But postpartum depression is a little more persistent.

It’s thought that — much like depression and other mental health conditions — there’s both a biological and environmental component in PPD. Typically, when depression runs in a family, people are more likely to develop postpartum depression. However, the condition can occur even without a family history. 

Biologically, childbirth is an intense experience (to put it mildly), and PPD can happen after even the most uncomplicated labor. My midwife told me that the hormone changes after giving birth were something like “quitting cold turkey after taking 100 birth control pills a day.” 

She was absolutely right. There’s a tremendous drop in hormone levels (particularly estrogen and progesterone) after birth. There’s also a marked increase in prolactin and oxytocin. Put simply, it might take a couple of days — or weeks, or months — to start feeling like yourself again.

That being said, if you feel like something is off, it probably is. Postpartum depression is treatable, and there aren’t any awards handed out to new moms for muscling through it. If you’re expecting or have recently given birth, you should reach out to your healthcare provider if you notice any of the following symptoms.

Symptoms of postpartum depression

  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering things
  • Easily frustrated, irritated, or overwhelmed
  • Dramatic changes in appetite
  • Trouble sleeping and insomnia
  • Mental exhaustion and brain fog
  • Crying all the time
  • Thoughts of self-harm, hurting the baby, or hurting other children
  • Ruminating (repetitive) thoughts, fear, or obsessions
  • Fear of being left alone with the children

Postpartum depression doesn’t go away on its own, and can worsen without treatment. If you have any of these symptoms it’s crucial to get in contact with your doctor right away. 

If you’re having thoughts of harming yourself or your child, call 800-273-8255. They answer every call and can provide immediate support.

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Postpartum depression or baby blues?

As mentioned earlier, some mood changes after pregnancy are to be expected. The mild feelings of irritability, sadness, and mood swings after childbirth is often called the “baby blues.”

The baby blues has some symptoms in common with PPD — namely changes in mood, appetite, or sleep habits. It’s even common for new parents to have difficulty bonding with their baby in the days, weeks, and even months following birth. 

However, the baby blues are neither as intense or long-lasting as postpartum depression. The symptoms of the baby blues should start to dissipate after about two weeks.

If your symptoms last longer than that, feel out of control, or scare you, you should reach out to a mental health professional for additional help.

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How to cope with postpartum depression

After delivery, most new mothers have a follow-up visit at about six weeks with their OB/GYN. At this visit, your provider will typically ask you about how things are going with the new baby, your healing process, and how you’re feeling. These visits also generally include a depression screening, which is a preliminary step to diagnosing PPD.

However, these postpartum check-ins typically aren’t lengthy. In my experience, the questions that doctors ask can actually put you on edge. It’s rare for a new parent to admit to a medical professional that they’re not happy, they hurt all over, and that they don’t like their newborn — let alone love them. Many people are afraid of the stigma of taking antidepressants or of having their child taken away from them.

When I had my second child, I remember tearfully telling my midwife that I was just frustrated and upset all the time. I remember feeling abandoned anytime my husband would leave the house. She looked at me and said, “You know, things don’t have to be hard all the time.” My midwife encouraged me to reach out for support, instead of trying to "muscle through" all the emotions I was experiencing.

While it’s important to be aware of the extremes that can accompany postpartum depression, not every red flag looks like a flashing neon light. What many people experience is something closer to languishing — you’re not okay, you’re not fine, you just kind of are.

The opposite of languishing is flourishing, a state where you feel empowered, capable, and connected. And while settling into your identity as a new parent takes some time, it’s possible to go into it feeling optimistic about the challenges ahead. 

Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the world’s foremost researchers on positive psychology, outlines the PERMA model as a way of moving from languish to flourishing. We could borrow his PERMA framework as a way of creating ways to deal with postpartum depression.

The five components of PERMA are positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments

Positive emotions

Part of flourishing is experiencing positive feelings. However, the lifestyle, biological, and hormonal changes that happen after birth can really tank your mood. Cultivating positive emotions is an important step in rebuilding mental fitness post-birth.

1. Mindfulness

Practicing meditation, breathwork, and other mindfulness practices can be instrumental in developing emotional regulation skills. New parenthood can be overwhelming. Whenever you feel stressed or overwhelmed, take a few deep, mindful breaths. I used to try to match my breathing to my baby’s when they would fall asleep on me.

2. Find joy

One of the best ways to diffuse tension is to learn to laugh. Having a baby is challenging, but also ridiculous at times. So tired that you fall asleep kneeling on the floor (happened to my husband)? Laugh. Diaper blowout? Laugh it off. Put your keys in the fridge? Just laugh. 

Finding the humor in your circumstances helps to keep your mood up, your stress down, and your perspective clear.

Engagement

Engagement has to do with how connected you feel to your work, relationships, and daily life. When people begin to feel depressed, they often begin to isolate themselves. Withdrawing from the people and relationships closest to you can exacerbate depressive symptoms. 

The ideal state of engagement is what we experience in the flow state — when we lose our self-consciousness and sense of time. Finding ways to get into flow can help alleviate postpartum depression symptoms. 

3. Find something to do

Having a newborn baby is busy… but also boring. Infants don’t make great conversationalists, and you spend a lot of time stuck on the couch (especially if you’re breastfeeding). The postpartum period might be a good time to do some self-exploration and find out what you love to do.

Get an e-reader, binge watch a new show, or make a baby blanket. It doesn’t really matter what your new hobby is, as long as it’s intrinsically rewarding. I bought children’s books in Mandarin and practiced my language skills as I read to my daughter. The resulting flow will give you a sense of peace and control.

4. Stay present

One of the most frustrating pieces of advice that new parents get is to “slow down, enjoy it, it goes so fast.” I remember wishing it would go even faster. 

Still, there are some pretty great moments with new babies. The first time they smile, coo, or grab your finger, time will feel like it’s standing still. When you have those flashbulb moments, try to take a mental picture. Bottle up the feelings of trust, amazement, and joy for when you need to remind yourself.

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Relationships 

After you have a baby, it can feel like the world around shrinks down to just you and your child. But even if you’re totally besotted, staying connected to your loved ones is a good idea. Your friends and family can become a kind of local support network to help you through that rocky first year and beyond.

5. Find your people

If you feel like your friends and family members don’t quite understand what you’re going through, try making some parent friends. There are often baby-friendly yoga classes, breastfeeding support groups, and family events happening locally. I even joined several groups for expectant parents online. It can be a great way to meet new people and vent about new parent life.

6. Reconnect with your friends

Our social connections are critical to our well-being. Even as you connect with new friends and embark on this new phase of your life, make time to connect with your friends. Take a break from the demands of parenthood — even if it’s only for a couple of hours. Do something fun, take a class, or get outside for a little bit.

Meaning

We all need to feel like what we do matters in the grand scheme of things. It’s an important part of spiritual wellness. But when your days become an endless cycle of dirty diapers, spit-up, and that one song from Cocomelon, it can be hard to see the bigger picture.

7. Establish your family values

Any experienced parent will tell you that everything you thought you’d do when you had kids is pretty much about to go out of the window. Instead of focusing on doing everything perfectly, think of a few key things that align with your family values. I focused on giving my kids great experiences, spending quality time with them, and modeling good emotional regulation skills (I decided to let the screen time slide).

8. Keep a journal

You probably have enough on your plate, but if you can make time for one thing, keep a journal. Even if you only write one line a day, it can help get you out of your head. Journaling, especially as a new parent, can give you a space to vent, and some insight into how things are changing as you step into your new identity. 

Accomplishments

If you’ve taken time off to have your child or you’re feeling disconnected from your pre-baby life, you might feel like you’re missing a sense of accomplishment. Redefining success for yourself can help you flourish as a parent.

9. Celebrate wins

Parenting is a series of learning experiences and sleepless nights. Every time you master one of your new skills, celebrate. That includes changing a diaper mid-flip, leaving the house on time, or even taking a shower. Navigating so many lifestyle changes all at once deserves the metaphorical bubbly.

10. Give yourself grace

On the other hand, we often don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we accomplish while having and raising kids. For example, I finished my degree and completed an undergraduate research project while nursing a newborn — but had trouble forgiving myself for the amount of laundry that piled up.

Be gentle with yourself. This may be especially difficult if you have a type-A personality or struggle with self-compassion. But learning to be gentle with yourself will make you a better — and happier — parent.

how-to-deal-with-postpartum-depression-family-adjusting-to-life-with-baby

How to support a loved one dealing with postpartum depression

It can be hard to know what to say — or do — when someone close to you is suffering. And in fact, some of the most well-intentioned things, like “I know how you feel,” can make matters worse. Here are some ways you can provide support to a friend, partner, or a loved one with PPD:

1. Listen

It can be tempting to want to swoop in and fix everything, but resist the urge. You might end up making the new parent feel resentful. Try to listen to them without judgement. Validate their feelings and ask them what would make a difference, instead of telling them what to do.

2. Pay attention

As Lisa Coxon says in her article for Today’s Parent, “Postpartum depression (PPD) is a stealthy condition.” Many well-meaning friends and family might be so caught up in their excitement about the baby that they miss the signs that not everything is all sunshine.

Be on the lookout for the symptoms of postpartum depression, and listen for anything you can do to help. 

3. Jump in and help

On that note, instead of offering the standard “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” just step in and do something. Offer to babysit, wash dishes when you come over, and play with the older kids.

One of my favorite things to do is to send gift cards for food delivery apps to new parents. When you’re dealing with depression, not having to cook can be an amazing gift.

4. Be their advocate

Coxon suggests attending your loved one’s doctor’s visits with them. But even if you can’t tag along to the office, you can show up for them in other ways. When you’re with them, try to keep the focus on how they’re feeling. Be firm about them taking care of their own needs, as well as the baby’s.

Final thoughts

Postpartum depression is a common but serious condition, and it doesn’t go away without treatment. Medication and psychotherapy can be very helpful in treating PPD.

If you or a loved one experiences overwhelming sadness, suicidal thoughts, or thoughts of harming another, reach out to a healthcare provider for immediate support. 

And if you’re not in immediate danger, but you’re not feeling like yourself, it’s okay to ask for help, too.

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Published May 18, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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