Don’t Wait for Postpartum Anxiety to Get Better

A physician’s advice, connections with family and friends and stepping away can help

Most every parent has felt, when bringing home a newborn, like they weren’t prepared for this monumental role. Thoughts of potential failure at every step leading to their child bearing the results of their mistakes are real and serious concerns.

Childbirth and parenting are tough jobs, absolutely,  and with changing hormone levels and fatigue, the role of parent to a newborn can lead to postpartum anxiety and depression.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in eight new moms suffer from postpartum anxiety or depression. However, too often, new mothers wait to address their personal issues, allowing them to become more serious.

“New mothers are waiting till things are out of control,” explains Sydney Seeley, CNM, WHNP with local healthcare provider, ProMedica. “At that point, it’s harder to treat.” While new mothers struggle with anxiety and worry, they are being told this is the best time of their lives and they are expected to be so happy.  Having not experienced them before, they’re uncertain that their symptoms can be really serious. There’s a real stigma associated with postpartum anxiety and depression, so new mothers are reluctant to seek out help,” she explains.

Seeley is a board-certified nurse midwife and women’s health nurse practitioner who has seen an increase in women reaching out for help since the end of the pandemic. “During the isolation of Covid, women were reluctant to seek help,” she said. Since the pandemic ended, she has worked to see new mothers more quickly, allowing her to assess their anxiety levels earlier.

Identifying the issues

With postpartum anxiety, mothers tend to feel that they or their baby is in constant danger. Beyond worry, mothers may stay awake all night to be sure their baby is still breathing. They may be terrified to leave the baby alone for a few minutes, even with an adult they trust (even a spouse). 

Signs of postpartum anxiety can also include physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms including disrupted sleep, increased heart rate or heart palpitations, nausea or stomach aches, feeling short of breath, loss of appetite, trouble sitting still or muscle tension, inability to relax or keep calm, obsessing over irrational fears or having racing thoughts about worst-case scenarios, forgetfulness, irritability, feeling fearful, avoiding activities, people and places and being overly cautious.

Seeley explains that the mother’s schedule has a lot to do with symptoms becoming aggravated. At the 4–6-week (post-delivery) point, most mothers tend to be okay and still have a good support system around them. But by 10-12 weeks, her support system may be gone, and she (the new mom) may be planning to go back to work herself.

“Don’t be afraid to talk to your provider,” Seeley said. “It’s normal. Ask for help as soon as you feel any symptoms. You don’t want it to get out of control.” Treatment can take a wide range of approaches, from cognitive behavioral therapy to medications.

Getting away

Another resource Seeley really advocates is for mothers to seek out support groups, as well as making time to be away from the baby. “Get out of the house as much as possible” after the first 6 weeks, she explains. “Mothers have to make time for themselves. Try to arrange to get out for 30 minutes and do something for themselves.” Take a walk, eat a healthy diet, do some yoga, ask family for help.

Support groups are also an important resource for mothers to get information and to connect with people in similar situations. The Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance is a national online organization that provides support to women during pregnancy and the year following. It offers a range of resources for screening and support for new mothers. Organizations that identify and assist with postpartum anxiety and depression offer nationwide support networks and individualized counseling and local online resources, such as ‘Mom on the go in Holy Toledo’, give a personalized view of life as a mom.

But on a daily level, a great first step is, literally, taking a step. “We can’t control the worry we have about our babies,” she said, but, she adds, walking away, even for a moment, is a very strong and effective therapy. If your baby is crying, “Just go in to comfort them 4 times the first time, then 3 times, then 2 times. Baby steps.”