Ppregnancy is a time of change and uncertainty. We plan the birth and we plan the baby, but we don’t have full control over either outcome. What we know for sure is that one in five women will experience perinatal anxiety and depression.
That’s not to say birth and baby planning isn’t important – it is.
Even a plan that can change helps women feel less anxious and more in control of their birth experience. In fact, it’s imperative when you consider the appalling statistic that one in three mothers experiences a birth as traumatic.
So when the odds are stacked against us, both in terms of mental health and the birthing experience, postpartum mental health should be an integral part of every woman’s birth plan.
Imagine this: you’re about to have a baby and all you have to do is tick off the to-do list.
Hospital bag? Check.
Approval of maternity leave. Check.
Home-cooked meals in the freezer. Check.
Mental health support plan. Wait what?
Yes. Why not plan ahead? Postnatal mental health is a topic I discuss with all pregnant women in my clinical practice. However, there are many more women with perinatal mental health risk factors who do not have access to psychological support during pregnancy.
And what are these risk factors?
Well, there are a lot of them, I’m afraid. Being a pregnant woman is one of them. Women are more vulnerable to mental illness during the perinatal period (from conception to 12 months after childbirth) than at any other time in their lives. Hormones are thought to play a role, but perinatal mental illness is much more than just “hormone imbalance.”
Those at particular risk are women with symptoms of anxiety or depression during pregnancy, a history of anxiety or depression, a family history of mental health issues, a history of trauma, grief and loss (including pregnancy loss) and a lack of life skills, social and emotional support.
So if one in five pregnant women will meet the criteria for perinatal mental illness at some point in their early motherhood journey, why isn’t mental health planning an integral part of preparing for parenthood? Especially when you know a “wait and see”” approach can be detrimental to both mother and baby.
Why is early intervention so important?
In addition to affecting women, prenatal anxiety and depression can affect the developing fetus, while postnatal anxiety or depression can affect the mother-child relationship. Babies are very sensitive and in tune with their primary caregivers. Early support for mom can mean better outcomes for babies.
So if you are expecting a baby, how can you prepare for the postpartum period?
Well, you know yourself best. What happens when you are tired or stressed? Do you feel anxious or irritable? Do you sleep a lot or not enough? Do you worry about certain things or are your emotions all over the place? Do you tend to withdraw from others or seek companionship? When we are overwhelmed, we tend to follow similar patterns of behavior. So these are your first warning signs.
Consider your practical support. Who will be there to clean the house, do the laundry and cook the meals? Surround yourself with people who will take care of “household” matters so that you can recover from the birth and bond with your baby. And if you don’t have practical support but are able to afford it, a postpartum doula can be hired to accompany you after your baby is born.
Identify your emotional supports (these may be different from the people you turn to for practical help). Are you likely to contact them if you feel overwhelmed? If not, arrange for them to check in with you.
If a friend says, “contact me if you need anything,” tell them, “I probably won’t do that. It would be best if you check in with me. Let your partner or other emotional supports know what you will need from them when you feel overwhelmed.
If you don’t have someone you trust to confide in, know that you are not alone.
There are perinatal support services available in person and via telehealth across Australia. Talking to a professional can help you prepare emotionally for birth and parenthood, work through grief and loss, prepare for maternity leave, or think about relationship or communication patterns you may want. change when you become a parent.
Parenting poses many challenges, but if we plan for what can be planned and access support early, we can minimize stress on families. Let’s make mental health a normal part of the conversation when planning a baby.
Lauren Keegan is a licensed psychologist with extensive perinatal experience, a mother and a writer
In Australia you can reach the PANDA National Helpline on 1300 726 306 Monday to Saturday
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