What expectant moms should know about perinatal mental health

Published: Friday, April 19, 2024
Gentry Hunt, MSN, RNC-MNN
Nursing Director - Inpatient Mother Baby, Pediatric/Women’s Health, Inpatient/Outpatient Lactation Services

You’ve probably heard of “postpartum depression,” but did you know it’s part of a category of medical conditions known as perinatal mental health issues?

When you’re expecting a new addition to the family, you have many items on your to-do list—and on your mind. Be sure you’re devoting time to yourself during pregnancy, too. Your baby’s health and development is important, but it’s also essential to keep yourself in good health, physically and mentally. Keep reading to learn more about perinatal mental health.

Defining perinatal mental health

If you’re familiar with postpartum depression, you probably know that it’s a type of depression that occurs after childbirth. The same goes for postpartum anxiety and postpartum psychosis; each occurs after childbirth.

“Perinatal mental health” encompasses mental health issues that develop both during pregnancy—prenatal mental health issues—and after pregnancy—postpartum mental health issues. This term is a relatively new one, designed to draw attention to the fact that many mental health issues for new moms begin during pregnancy, even if symptoms aren’t noticeable until after delivery.

There are multiple types of perinatal mental health issues, with perinatal depression (including postpartum depression) the most common. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, one in seven pregnant women will develop perinatal depression.

Interestingly enough, perinatal mental health issues can also affect fathers. While mothers experience hormonal changes during and after pregnancy that may contribute to mental health issues, fathers do not.

Researchers believe that fathers’ mental health is more impacted by the intense emotional, financial, and social changes experienced when a baby is brought home, such as sleep deprivation.

Perinatal depression vs. the baby blues

How can you tell if what you’re experiencing is a perinatal mental health issue or a simple case of the baby blues? You’ll want to pay attention to how long your symptoms last and whether they disrupt daily life.

Up to 85 percent of women experience the baby blues after childbirth. The blues can cause bouts of crying, irritability, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, and anxiety. If you experience the baby blues, they’ll typically develop after delivery and disappear within a week or two.

Having the baby blues can be a risk factor for developing perinatal depression, though, so keep an eye on any symptoms that linger or come back.

What you can do to protect your mental health

Need a reason to pay close attention to your mental health during pregnancy? Mothers with untreated perinatal mental health issues such as depression are more likely to experience physical health issues, including high blood pressure, exhaustion, and migraines.

They’re also more likely to experience problems that can affect their babies, such as premature labor, breastfeeding difficulties, and problems bonding. Babies born to moms with untreated mental health conditions may be at a lower birth weight, cry more, have a small head, or be more likely to develop health issues.

That means it’s incredibly important for you, your partner, and others around you to pay close attention to how you’re feeling and acting during and after pregnancy. Each perinatal mental health condition has different symptoms, but there are some common signs that something isn’t quite right:

  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Crying for no discernible reason
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating
  • Lack of energy or increased fatigue
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyable activities
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms or others, talk with your OB/GYN or another medical provider. Your provider can use screening tools for perinatal mental health issues to help determine whether you’re experiencing one or at risk.

It is important to realize that help is available! If you aren’t feeling like yourself, it’s worth checking in with your provider. A diagnosis and treatment can help protect you and your baby in the days and weeks ahead.

Even if you are feeling healthy and well, there are steps you can take to boost your perinatal mental health and maintain your well-being:

Prioritize getting enough sleep. Sleep does the body good! Getting enough quality sleep at night is one of the best things you can do to maintain good physical and mental health. Aim to get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night and listen to your body when it tells you it needs rest.

Talk nicely to yourself. It’s quite normal to experience moments of insecurity during pregnancy about many things, from your ability to parent to the changes in your body. Treat yourself like you would your best friend—if you wouldn’t say it to her, don’t say it (or think it) about yourself.

Spend time with others. Stay connected with your friends and family throughout your pregnancy. Maintaining those bonds can help you cope with the ups and downs of pregnancy and the postpartum period. Strong social support has even been shown as protective against postpartum depression.

Move your body. Being physically active is good for your mental health at any time, but it’s especially beneficial during pregnancy. Exercise can boost your mood and help lower your stress level. Try an activity like prenatal yoga for extra calming benefits.

One other thing you should do to protect your perinatal mental health is take your prenatal vitamin! The nutrients in these vitamins, like folic acid, vitamin D, iron, and omega-3 fatty acids, can help protect your mental health.

Learn more

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