For many, the birth of a baby is a joyous occasion. It is a time to celebrate life and new beginnings. But it is also a time of change. The new mother and family must adjust to having a demanding, though cute, addition. For some women, the process of birth can be traumatic, which requires time to process mentally. Birth is also something that the mother needs to physically recover from.
In western society a woman is sent home from the hospital with her baby two days after the birth. For many that is the end of the external support. There is an unexpressed, but certainly felt, sentiment that a new mother should be able to jump right back into life and have everything under control from the minute she leaves the hospital. It’s rarely that easy.
As a pregnancy progresses, hormones such as progesterone, estrogen and oxytocin increase to above pre-pregnancy levels. After birth, these hormones quickly drop back down. Though this is a normal process, it can leave one in nine new mothers feeling the extreme sadness, anxiety and exhaustion of postpartum depression (Nelson et al., 2018; Postpartum). Some women experience postpartum depression as moodiness; others have trouble with sleep despite not getting enough each night. It can be expressed by feelings of anger or digestive problems. In severe cases, the mother might have thoughts of harming herself or the baby (Postpartum).
There are also environmental factors that may influence postpartum depression. Dr. Kathryn Hollins is a psychiatrist and expert in parent and child mental health. She reports that breastfeeding struggles may be a factor that influences postpartum depression (Hollins, 2018). When a new mother is faced with a screaming, hungry baby who hasn’t quite figured out how to latch on, it is very distressing for both parties involved, and the mother doesn’t usually have the support readily available to help her through it. This isn’t to say that breastfeeding causes postpartum depression. But wanting to breastfeed and not feeling able or not receiving enough support can influence postpartum depression. Hollins also reports that mothers who intended to breastfeed but did not manage to do it were two and a half times more likely to develop postpartum depression compared with those who never planned to breastfeed (2018).
Depression after having a baby doesn’t just affect the mom. It affects the baby as well by interfering with how well a mother and baby can bond (Nelson et al., 2018). The bond between mom and baby is vital and influences the baby’s health in the long-run. Babies who are exposed to maternal depression are less likely to engage socially and they experience more negative emotions (Nelson et al., 2018).
A recent study followed moms and their 12-week-old infants until the child was 18 months, looking for how maternal depression affected cellular health of the infant. The study explained that telomeres are end caps on DNA; they help to keep the DNA intact (Nelson et al., 2018). Telomeres are important for long-term health. When telomeres are shortened, people are at a higher risk for diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity and others (Nelson, et at 2018). The authors of the study explain the effect of cortisol, the stress hormone, on telomeres: “cells that are exposed to cortisol have shorter telomeres and less telomerase, which is the enzyme responsible for maintaining the ends of telomeres” (Nelson et al., 2018).
The study reports that infants whose mothers had worsening symptoms of depression had higher levels of cortisol. At 18 months, these infants had shorter telomeres than their counterparts who were not exposed to maternal depression (Nelson et al., 2018). This relates to more wear and tear on the telomeres and increases the risk for negative health outcomes for the baby.
Mothers need effective and affordable support that will not only improve her quality of life, but also that of her baby.
A pediatrician is in a prime spot to help a mother. After the six-week postpartum visit with an obstetrician, the mother generally only sees the child’s pediatrician consistently, at least eight times in two years (Manzella et al., 2018). Researchers in the Netherlands studied 3,000 postpartum women, dividing them into two groups (Manzella et al., 2018). One group had regular baby check ups, while in the second group the mothers were screened for postpartum depression by the pediatrician at the baby’s one month, three month, and six month check up. Those in the screened group were 60% less likely to develop depression compared with the control group who was not screened until nine months (Manzella et al., 2018). The mothers who were screened showed improvement in anxiety levels, more confidence and better mental health (Manzella et al., 2018). The authors suggest that pediatricians screen mothers for postpartum depression or other related mental health issues so the mothers can be referred to someone who can help them if needed (Manzella et al., 2018).
One very easy way to help with postpartum depression is singing. Researchers in the U.K. found that mothers who sang to their babies had fewer symptoms of postpartum depression as well as higher levels of well-being, self-esteem and mother-infant bonding (Fancourt et al., 2017). Other studies have found that a mother and baby singing program for five weeks improved maternal self-efficacy, or the belief that she has what it takes to be successful as well as the mother-infant bond (Fancourt et al., 2017).
As more support for new mothers becomes available and more moms are aware of the support, their lives and the lives of their babies will improve. More of the next generation will start off on the right foot.
Fancourt, D., & Perkins, R. (2017). Associations between singing to babies and symptoms of postnatal depression, wellbeing, self-esteem and mother-infant bond.
Hollins, K. (2018). Breastfeeding ‘failure’ fuels depression. Retrieved from https://www.hippocraticpost.com/fertility/breastfeeding-failure-fuels-depression/
Manzella, C., & Blanchard, D. (2018). Pediatricians have the power to improve moms’ mental health. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/women-s-mental-health-matters/201801/pediatricians-have-the-power-improve-moms-mental-health
Nelson, B. W., Laurent, H. & Allen, N. (2018). When a mom feels depressed, her baby’s cells might feel it too. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/when-a-mom-feels-depressed-her-babys-cells-might-feel-it-too-89357
Postpartum depression facts. Retrieved from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/postpartum-depression-facts/index.shtml