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Take Charge of Your Daily Routine to Fight Postpartum Depression

A specialist in fetal-maternal medicine shares advice for bouncing back after giving birth.

Becoming a new mother can be one of the most dramatic, thrilling, excruciating, and awe-inspiring experiences a woman can have. But along with a tiny bundle to learn to care for and a host of brand-new responsibilities added to daily life, many women will feel the greatest change in their mind and emotions—and it can hit like a ton of bricks.

Many women experience mood changes and feelings of worry, unhappiness, and exhaustion in the first two weeks after giving birth. These short-lived feelings are called “baby blues” and occur to so many women after having a baby that it’s simply considered normal. The problem is when these feelings don’t go away after two weeks. Instead, they can last up to a year or more, or become even stronger, making this new stage of life difficult, or sometimes unbearable. These are symptoms of postpartum depression.

Women with postpartum depression may have constant anxiety about their baby or lose interest altogether. They may feel hopeless, not want to take care of themselves, cry frequently, lose the ability to enjoy old interests, and have problems with memory and concentration. As if that weren’t enough, they may also suffer from panic attacks and anxiety, experience sleeping problems, be extremely tired or generally unwell, feel physical pain, or lose their appetite. 

Even though postpartum depression affects a massive number of women around the globe (nearly 20 percent of all new mothers), the symptoms can sometimes be subtle and hard to recognize. And mom may not be the only one affected. This new emotional, mental, and physical toll on the matriarch of the family can have a detrimental effect on the social and cognitive health of spouses, infants, and other children. As women are often required to continue shouldering intense family, social, and work demands while caring for their newborn child, the mental health of postpartum women deserves particular attention. However, hope and help are within reach. Here are some specific things any new mom can put into daily practice to see her life improve dramatically.

A Balanced Diet Can Help Balance Your Moods

Eating well is one of the best things women can do to boost both their health and mood. Specific nutritional requirements need to be met for a woman’s changing body during and after pregnancy to maintain health and a healthy weight. Poor diet, macro- and micro-nutrient insufficiency, unhealthy eating habits, excessive weight gain during pregnancy, and retained weight after birth are all associated with postpartum depression.

Eating things like whole-grain cereals, lean red meat, poultry, dairy products, fish, legumes, nuts, green vegetables, fruits, and olive or canola oil will protect against depression symptoms during pregnancy and postpartum. There is also evidence of protective effects from multivitamin supplements, fish, omega acid (3, 6, and 9) intake, vitamin D, calcium, zinc, and possibly selenium. This is a good time for women to really think about what they’re putting in their bodies.

Find Peace through Meditation and Mindfulness

Becoming a mother is often a stressful transition that involves mentally reorganizing inner thoughts and behaviors. Health difficulties and additional stress can intensify this transition, making new mothers more vulnerable to postpartum depression. As 37 percent of postpartum women report moderate to severe stress levels, reducing psychological distress during pregnancy and the first year postpartum is crucial. Studies in Europe and North America show that practicing mindfulness reduces stress and can effectively enhance the psychological wellbeing of pregnant women.

Meditation is a sort of mental training that helps to improve core psychological capacities, such as attentional and emotional self-regulation. When it comes to meditative practices, there are a lot to choose from: mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, yoga, tai chi, and chi gong. There is emerging evidence that mindfulness meditation might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulating attention, emotion, and self-awareness. 

These practices take time and consistency to be fully effective. Women should work meditation into their usual schedule before and after giving birth to promote wellbeing and reduce stress and postpartum depression. While there is no universal recommendation for how long and often women should meditate, 10 to 20 minutes a day most days a week, or 40 minutes two to three times a week is a good place to start. The most important thing is that it becomes a routine.

Get Up, Get Out, and Get Moving

Physical exercise during and after pregnancy is a great way to achieve better psychological wellbeing and reduce postpartum depression symptoms. Exercise may help lower perceived stress levels and improve sleep quality. Exercise also improves overall fitness and helps control pregnancy weight gain. Getting out of the house to get fit is also an excellent opportunity to make new friends.

The benefits of exercise on depression are enormous, boosting biochemical and physiological mechanisms to improve sleep quality. It also increases endorphins, norepinephrine, and serotonin, along with causing a rise in core temperature and cerebral blood flow, reducing muscle tension, and improving memory. Ideally, new moms should go for moderate intensity exercise for at least 20 to 30 minutes per day on most or all days of the week, unless medical issues prevent it.

Never Underestimate The Value of A Nap

Circadian rhythms (the natural cycle of sleep and wakefulness) change during pregnancy and up to 12 weeks postpartum, contributing to poor sleep and mood disorders in the first year. A pregnant woman’s sleep quality worsens in the last trimester, and newborns can wreak havoc on anyone’s sleep schedule during the first few months. Circadian rhythm and sleep disturbances are strongly correlated with mood disorders in postpartum women, particularly depressive symptoms. As odd as it may sound, the time it takes to go from being fully awake to sleeping 20 minutes or more, and insufficient sleep during late pregnancy may both lead to the development of depressive symptoms after the baby is born.

However, there is some evidence that wearing blue-light blocking glasses can help people fall asleep faster and induce dim-light melatonin onset in patients with sleep disorders. Getting out into the sun every day for some natural light exposure will help as well, as it triggers more of the “wakefulness” portion of a circadian rhythm. Studies also show that lavender and orange peel aromatherapies improved women’s sleep quality at eight weeks postpartum. Listening to music during pregnancy and the postpartum period may also improve sleep quality.

Find Your Tribe

Quality relationships with a partner, family, friends, and co-workers boost the mental health of pregnant women and new mothers (while social isolation and lack of a good support system increase the risk of postpartum depression and anxiety). It’s important that women develop strong emotional support networks as soon as possible during pregnancy. Sharing thoughts with a partner, engaging him or her in prenatal care and activities, relishing the company of a friend or coworker for at least one meal per day, and hanging out with beloved family members are all invaluable. It can also be good to join new groups like prenatal classes or special pregnancy exercise groups to make new friends and open up new avenues of support.

It can be hard for new mothers who struggle with depression, or even just parenting issues, to discuss these struggles openly with their partner, family, friends, or even a doctor. Web-based parenting discussion groups, chat rooms, and online communities may provide a welcoming, anonymous environment for virtual support.

Put it All Together

Making healthy choices is a step in the right direction, but if a woman tracks her progress, she’ll be much more likely to stick to these new commitments and turn them into a lifestyle. Apps and products promoting health and wellness abound. One leading the charge and catering specifically to women is the Bellabeat Ivy tracker bracelet. It allows a woman to track workouts, steps, daily meditation, and even her monthly cycle, putting all aspects of a healthy life in one beautiful place—on her wrist.

Taking control of the symptoms of postpartum depression requires a bit of work and a lot of consistency, but the benefits are life changing. Adopting a healthy lifestyle with a good diet, regular exercise, peaceful meditation, sound sleep habits, strong relationships, enjoyable social activities, steady self-care, and quality professional help when needed will not only help fight postpartum depression but also provide the best life possible for any new mom.

About The Author
Tanja Premru-Sršen, M.D., Ph.D.

Assistant professor Tanja Premru-Sršen, M.D., Ph.D., is a specialist in fetal-maternal medicine and ultrasound diagnostic in pregnancy and a chief medical advisor at Bellabeat. She received her Ph.D. degree for the thesis entitled “Fetal Hypoxia and Breech Delivery” in 1998 and has since spent more than 35 years working in her field at the Department of Perinatology, Division of Ob/Gyn, University Medical Center Ljubljana.