The postpartum period is a critical time for new parents as their baby is introduced to the world—and they are introduced to a world with a baby. These early days, full of feelings, firsts, and failures, play a pivotal role in the health of both parents and baby, influencing the likelihood of positive outcomes like continued breastfeeding and returning to work. Although most employees don’t share their struggles with their employer, comprehensive family-friendly benefits offering continuous care in this significant time can make a huge difference.
There’s a lot to know about supporting your employees through the postpartum period. Here’s what you’ll learn:
- The health effects of birthing and healing during the postpartum period
- The challenges people face during postpartum
- How employers can fill in gaps in the traditional healthcare system
How postpartum impacts health
After pregnancy, the body is adjusting to many changes. A birthing personʼs body is often not fully restored to pre-pregnant physiology until about 6 months post-delivery. However, every person is different—many people continue to experience the physical effects of childbirth throughout the first year.
After giving birth, hormonal changes are expected and normal. In the first one to three weeks after childbirth, hormonal mood swings from highs to lows are common, along with bouts of anxiety and depression. Between three to six weeks postpartum, these hormones will slowly start to stabilize as the body heals. Symptoms of postpartum depression may arise during this time and new parents should be vigilant for common signs like not focusing on hygiene, lack of sleep, and lack of socializing, eating, and drinking. Around two to three months postpartum, a birthing parent’s hormones begin to return to pre-pregnancy levels.
Many medical experts, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of life. Breast milk provides nutrition that is easier for babies to digest and contains antibodies important for the baby’s growing immune system. But breastfeeding can be difficult—a majority of people report breast or nipple pain at some point while breastfeeding.
Health equity, race, and access to healthcare information all play a role in breastfeeding outcomes. For example, Black birthing parents are less likely to breastfeed their children due to a lack of support by hospital maternity wards and the encouragement of formula directed towards Black families. And low-income birthing parents have lower rates of breastfeeding because they are more likely to return to work sooner after giving birth—and are more likely to be employed in roles that make breastfeeding at work difficult than people with higher incomes.
Whether a new parent is breastfeeding, pumping milk, or formula feeding, a new baby will want to eat eight to 12 times per day or every two to three hours. This rigorous feeding schedule can take a toll on new parents, as one of the leading causes of sleep deprivation in new parents is waking in the night for feedings.
The importance of addressing postpartum mental health
Research shows that challenges with mental health are one of the most common complications of pregnancy and childbirth—approximately one in five birthing people are affected by mental health issues either during pregnancy or within the first year post-pregnancy. 10 to 20% of new parents will experience postpartum depression, which is more severe and can interfere with daily life.
It’s important to address the difference between “baby blues” and postpartum depression. “Baby blues” are feelings of sadness or moodiness in the first few days after having a baby. This is normal—approximately 70 to 80% of new parents experience negative emotions of mood swings. These feelings will typically go away on their own without medication within two weeks. In contrast, postpartum depression occurs within four to six weeks after childbirth.
Postpartum symptoms can include:
- Depressed mood
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
- Trouble sleeping
- Appetite disturbance
- Loss of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Diminished ability to concentrate
- Thoughts of suicide
Risk factors for postpartum depression include a change in hormone levels after childbirth, a history of depression or anxiety, and isolation or lack of social support. However, postpartum depression can affect anyone, regardless of income, age, education, race, or other factors.
Non-birthing parents may also exhibit symptoms indicative of postpartum depression and anxiety. Approximately eight to ten percent of non-birthing parents experience postpartum depression, with risk factors including a history of depression, poverty, and hormonal changes. While postpartum depression can have long-term effects on parents and children, one in five women does not seek help, enduring this difficult period alone and untreated.
Challenges in postpartum
The postpartum period is full of challenges to navigate, like adjusting to new feeding and sleep schedules, pain and discomfort after delivery, or the inevitable lack of sleep. A study by Matern Child Health identified the most common challenges in postpartum reported by birthing parents:
- Need for social support
- Breastfeeding issues
- Lack of education about newborn care after discharge
- Need for help with postpartum depression
- Perceived need for an extended postpartum hospital stay
- Need for maternal insurance coverage beyond delivery
Above all else, new parents urgently need support navigating physical, emotional, and social changes. Many birthing parents dealing with uncomfortable side effects of pregnancy are either unprepared for these side effects or have unrealistic expectations about managing them. Health problems that may be diagnosed during pregnancy such as diabetes or high blood pressure can last after delivery. Any ongoing health issues can be augmented by the stress and sleep that can accompany a new baby.
In the postpartum period, it’s especially important for parents to notice any emotional and physical signs that could indicate conditions that require immediate attention. During this time, when the body is healing from childbirth and returning to its pre-pregnancy state, a lack of continuous physical and mental health care can have serious consequences. That’s why postpartum care is essential—though it is often neglected.
Gaps in maternal and newborn postpartum health
The postpartum period is a very vulnerable time for new parents. However, a shocking amount of people don’t receive the physical and emotional care they need after giving birth. According to the ACOG, most birthing parents never attend a postpartum visit.
ACOG now recommends immediate whole-person postpartum care to meet the emotional and physical needs of every birthing person. Postpartum care is a necessity—the high maternal mortality rate is driven, in part, by an increasing number of maternal deaths in the late postpartum period. More than half of pregnancy-related deaths occur after delivery: 40% occur 1 to 42 days postpartum and 11.7% from 43 days to one year postpartum nationally, with even higher rates in some states like Louisiana, Georgia, and Indiana. High-quality care is associated with a decrease in maternal and neonatal complications, stillbirth, and neonatal mortality.
It’s clear that improvements to gaps in care that address physical, mental, and emotional needs can help reduce mortality rates. Birthing people and newborns may have complications in the postpartum period—and need considerably more resources than a single follow-up appointment after delivery.
How employers can fill in care gaps
In order to provide comprehensive support to new parents, it’s crucial for employers to fill the gaps in postpartum care left by the traditional healthcare system. There is a lack of consistent, high-quality care and adequately paid leave—which is what often prevents new parents from returning to work. Over half of American women return to work during their child's infancy, with a majority returning in the first 3 months after childbirth. It’s essential for employers to offer support during this critical period, as 23% of employees have considered quitting a job due to child care issues, with women three times more likely than men to consider doing so. New parents need access to the resources they need to thrive in the postpartum period and beyond.
Mental health support
Providing employees with mental health support is always crucial—but even more so in the postpartum months. Returning to work may trigger symptoms of postpartum depression, as it means parents need to separate from their newborn, juggle additional responsibilities and build a new routine. To help someone going through postpartum depression or anxiety, advocate for self-care, help them build a support network, and encourage them to seek professional help from a mental health provider. Mental health support that is easy to access and specialized for the family-building journey can provide stability during this time of transition.
Virtual care has the potential to not only expand the quantity and quality of postpartum visits a new parent receives, but can also make their life easier during this important time. Offering virtual care can complement in-person care with 24/7 access to a range of specialty providers that can answer urgent questions, empower families, and improve outcomes.
By providing employees with care advocates who can help connect them to the resources and consults they need for support, they will be able to make sure that they are getting as much care as they need postpartum—not just one appointment.
Lactation consultants play an important role in driving positive outcomes and supporting families who choose to breastfeed. International board-certified lactation consultants go through rigorous training and clinical experience to be accredited. They can educate, provide information, and support new parents on their breastfeeding goals. Half of breastfeeding parents report feeding problems, with 44% saying that pain is a problem. Lactation consultations improve breastfeeding outcomes, helping to increase the number of women initiating breastfeeding and the number of women breastfeeding exclusively.
Breast Milk Shipping
When transitioning back to work, making sure a new baby has enough breast milk can be difficult. Stress about pumping at work is one of the reasons some people don’t return from parental leave, as breastfeeding continues while many birthing parents return to work and they may struggle to find time or feel comfortable pumping when working or traveling. However, breast milk shipping services like Maven Milk can get breast milk back home easily, reliably, and safely.
Many new parents don’t know what resources are available to them in the postpartum period as paid parental leave benefits are not mandated in the U.S. and benefits vary drastically from employer to employer. Setting up transparent benefits with a whole-person approach to the physical and emotional changes employees are experiencing can make returning to work easier and more accessible. Openly discuss and share flexibility in work schedules to prioritize and accommodate employees’ parenting needs. Discuss options like flex time, telecommuting, gradual return, and other support offerings.
Maven’s approach to postpartum health
Providing comprehensive family benefits to support parents and families through the postpartum journey can make employees feel valued during a life-changing time. Prioritizing solutions like Maven, which offers virtual whole-person care throughout every step of the family-building and parenthood journey, can result in higher productivity when returning to work, lower turnover, and increased employee satisfaction. Maven is the only global family benefit that provides access to virtual specialty care like parenting coaches and mental health specialists, as well as clinically-vetted content, breast milk shipping, and more.
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