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Sharp Health News

Managing postpartum stress in a pandemic

July 29, 2020

Mother with young baby
During the months of isolation required to slow the spread of COVID-19, many new mothers found that what was meant to be one of the happiest times of their lives turned out to be more challenging than expected.

While coping with lack of sleep, questions about breastfeeding and changes in everything from daily schedules to their bodies, women who gave birth just before or during the pandemic also face loneliness, lack of in-person support from loved ones and increased anxiety due to fears of catching or spreading the virus.

“Being a new mother can be extremely isolating,” says Donna Reyes, LCSW, a medical social worker with Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns. “Adding a pandemic to the mix exacerbates the isolation.”

According to Reyes, social support is an essential piece of physical and emotional postpartum recovery. A decrease in adult socialization and loss of one’s support system can contribute to postpartum anxiety and depression, known as perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMAD) — among the most common mental health conditions encountered by women of reproductive age, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“Although there is no current data, it would not be surprising that a mother’s anxiety is increased due to the circumstances of the pandemic,” Reyes says. “Adjusting to new motherhood is difficult, as is adjusting to the social isolation and uncertainties of a pandemic. Together, they can contribute to postpartum depression and anxiety.”

Importance of care
The NIH reports that if PMAD goes untreated, the results could be devastating to mothers and infants. From an increased risk of avoiding necessary medical care to substance use, suicide and infanticide, the risks associated with postpartum disorders make recognizing signs of a postpartum mental health condition and getting treatment imperative.

PMAD signs to watch for include:
  • Feelings of sadness
  • Mood swings
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Excessive crying
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty coping with daily tasks
  • Fear of leaving the house or being alone
  • Constant worrying or obsessive thinking
  • Unexplained irritability or anger
  • Not bonding or feeling attached to baby
  • Fear of harming self or baby
  • Lack of interest in things once enjoyed
Finding support
“Not being able to go to places like gyms, playgrounds and parenting classes where moms can get social support can be extremely depressing and stressful,” Reyes says. “Maintaining social ties is a great tool to cope. Video conference calling platforms and other chatting apps can help you stay in touch with family and friends.”

Reyes offers these additional ways new mothers can find support:

Connect with other new mothers. New moms can attend virtual support groups that provide safe spaces for nonjudgmental listening, support and encouragement from others experiencing similar issues. An important step is for new moms to share their struggle instead of suffering alone.

Practice self-care. Being a new mom, caring for a newborn and maintaining a home and family is challenging. Moms should focus on getting enough sleep, eating well, drinking plenty of fluids and exercising, even if it is a walk outside for a change of scenery.

Talk to your doctor about mental health care. Telehealth allows therapists and counselors to meet with moms virtually during the pandemic. It can help bridge the access to therapy, eliminate child care concerns and help reduce stigma for women concerned about going to mental health appointments, even after the pandemic is over.

“Loved ones can provide support by educating themselves about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, offering to help access mental health care, and providing breaks and a hand with household tasks,” Reyes says. “It’s so important to let a mom know that she is not alone, not to blame and that with help, she can be well.”

Learn more about Sharp’s virtual postpartum support groups for new mothers and for couples.

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