When you think about building a family, you may think pregnancy is the “hard part,” not realizing that the postpartum period can have its own unique joys and hurdles. Adjusting to life after pregnancy can be challenging and can hugely impact the mental health of the birthing parent.
As a partner, it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms of common postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (PMAD) like postpartum depression and anxiety. It is often difficult for people suffering from PMADs to communicate because of the nature of the disorders and how stigmatized and isolated they can feel. But the truth is, postpartum depression and anxiety are common, with 14% of new parents experiencing postpartum depression and 10% of new parents experiencing postpartum anxiety. This can sound frightening, but these disorders are very treatable when diagnosed early—which is why you can play a crucial role in helping your loved one get through this. We talked to Maven Mental Health Specialist Tamar Stern for tips and strategies to support partners as they navigate postpartum depression and anxiety.
How can a partner distinguish between postpartum anxiety, postpartum depression, and “baby blues?”
During the postpartum period, 85% of women experience some variation of a mood disorder. With the jarring change in routine, lack of sleep, and new identity, it’s hard to feel like yourself during the start of the postpartum period. Four in five new parents experience “baby blues” in the first two weeks after giving birth, which includes feelings of sadness, anxiety, or impatience. “It’s normal to cry a lot or experience mood swings in the first two weeks,” Stern explains. But if baby blues continues past the first two weeks, it may mean that your partner is suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety.
There are subtle but important differences between postpartum depression and anxiety. Postpartum depression is characterized by feelings of sadness and hopelessness, while postpartum anxiety can be diagnosed by excessive worry and fear about the health and well-being of the baby and oneself. It’s important to consult a healthcare professional to get a proper diagnosis.
Symptoms of postpartum depression can include:
- Excessive sadness that lasts more than 2 weeks
- Feelings of worthlessness, shame, guilt or inadequacy
- Disrupted eating or sleep
- Loss of interest in enjoyable activities
- Difficulty bonding with baby
- Thoughts of self-harm or harming the baby
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms of postpartum anxiety can include:
- Inability to relax
- Racing thoughts about worst-case scenarios
- Obsessing over irrational fears or unlikely scenarios
- Difficulty focusing
- Disrupted sleep
- Increased heart rate or palpitations
- Nausea, loss of appetite, or stomach aches
- Feeling unable to breathe
- Muscle tension
- Feeling overly cautious or controlling
How can a partner be supportive during postpartum depression or anxiety?
If your partner is dealing with postpartum anxiety or depression, it’s important to be as supportive as possible and help them get treatment. This may involve physically taking your partner to the doctor and discussing their symptoms in a non-judgmental way. “You can start by going to the OB-GYN if they’re comfortable with them, or they can go to a therapist,” Stern says. “They may also need a psychiatric consult. A lot of times, people don’t want to take medication, but there are safe medications for people who are breastfeeding. They should also look into psychotherapy and medication.”
Try to listen actively to your partner’s needs as you seek treatment for them, and be patient. Recovery takes time, but your open-minded support can be an essential part of their healing.
Here are a few other ways you can provide support:
- Help them prioritize sleep: Sleep is incredibly important for new parents—and can be easily disrupted when taking care of a newborn. “Many people feel like they can’t ask for help if they’re breastfeeding, because they’re on call every few hours,” explains Stern. Any way that you can help your partner sleep, especially in the first month, is very important. One way to do this is for your partner to pump milk so you can feed the baby and share nighttime baby duties to make sure your partner sleeps enough.
- Explain their condition to family and friends in an appropriate way: Talk to your partner about how they want you to describe what they’re going through and what they would prefer to keep private. Talking about what is going on at home can help you process during a hard time, but make sure to respect your partner's wishes and privacy.
- Take responsibility for tasks: Offer practical help with household chores like cleaning, cooking, and childcare. “Especially if someone is depressed, it can be very hard to be the one in charge,” Stern says. Taking the lead on coordinating things can communicate that you are a team and that your partner isn’t managing the newborn alone.
- Encourage self-care: Encourage activities that make your partner feel happy and rejuvenated, whether it’s exercise, hobbies, or socializing. At the very least, making sure they have time to shower and do a few things for themselves every day can make a big difference.
What should you say (or not say) to someone suffering from postpartum anxiety or depression?
It can be hard to know exactly what to say when your partner has postpartum anxiety and depression. Here are some do’s and don’ts for how to speak with them about their condition:
- Be clear that you have hope. Treatment for these conditions is incredibly effective and with your support, your partner will get better.
- Validate their feelings. Let them know you understand this is hard.
- Take it seriously. Listen actively, reflect back their concerns, and ask questions.
- Get them help when they need it or ask for it. It’s always better to get checked out than not, and earlier treatment for postpartum anxiety and depression is often more effective.
- Blame them. “A partner should never be blaming the birthing parent,” said Stern. “You should really be helping them understand that this is a hormonal, neurological experience that isn’t their fault.”
- Minimize their concerns. Don’t tell them they’ll “get over it,” “get used to it,” or that “this is how it is.”
- Diminish their experience. Don’t say things like, “You’re just anxious” or “You’re just depressed.” These types of statements can feel invalidating in an already confusing time.
How can someone take care of themselves while also caring for their partner and new baby?
Remember, caring for your partner can be emotionally and physically taxing, so be sure to take care of yourself as well. “It’s hard for everybody in the newborn period,” says Stern. “And it’s really hard to know that somebody you care about is having a mental health challenge.” Make an effort to get support from family, friends, and your providers. Don’t hesitate to ask providers—from your OB-GYN to a pediatrician to Maven Mental Health specialists—any questions you have. “You have no idea what normal is as a new parent,” Stern explains. “Ask the professionals, don’t Google. Because you can really scare yourself by Googling. It’s not a way to diagnose anything, especially mental health.” If you’re lucky enough to have in-person physical support, don’t be afraid to be direct and ask for the specific things you need, from cooking and cleaning to childcare.
What does treatment for postpartum depression look like? What does treatment for postpartum anxiety look like?
Treatment for postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety is extremely effective and often involves psychotherapy, antidepressants, and social support like online or local groups. No SSRIs have been specifically FDA-approved for postpartum depression, but paroxetine (Paxil), fluoxetine (Prozac), and sertraline (Zoloft) have been studied for postpartum treatment and are often prescribed to new parents. For postpartum anxiety, commonly prescribed medications include SSRIs like sertraline (Zoloft) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Even if you’re nursing, the benefits of SSRIs for postpartum depression and anxiety outweigh the risks overall. Sertraline is commonly prescribed as less of it passes into the milk but make sure to talk to your provider about nursing on medication. “People should always consider medication as a tool and talk to their doctors about safety, so they make educated and safe decisions,” explains Stern. “A partner can really be involved in researching to make sure that they both feel comfortable.”
How Maven supports families dealing with postpartum depression and anxiety
Communication and understanding between partners are essential to overcome postpartum depression and anxiety. Encourage your partner to continue to seek help for as long as they have symptoms. If your partner is struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety, speak with your doctor or sign up for Maven to get access to Mental Health Providers and other on-demand postpartum care.
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