Maternal mental health is important for moms and their children
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is also the month, since 1908, we have honored mothers with their own day. President Woodrow Wilson went so far as to designate Mother’s Day a national holiday in 1914. As a women’s health-care provider and mom of two myself, May offers the perfect opportunity to spread the word that achieving and maintaining good health includes focusing on the mind and body together — and that maternal mental health is particularly important for both mom and child.
Let’s face it: motherhood isn’t always easy. Filled with endearing moments of joy and purpose, motherhood also has real and difficult moments and struggles, often making those “perfect mom and baby” photos we see on social media and in magazines seem magical. It’s important for us to acknowledge maternal stress factors and challenges, and — without judgment — encourage moms-to-be and mothers to talk through these realities with others for support and confidence-building. Studies show when personal feelings of maternal overwhelm, depression, fatigue and anxiety are openly expressed, the result positively influences the outcomes of maternal mental health.
Depression, the most common mental health problem for all women, is an illness that can be treated and managed. I can’t emphasize enough to moms-to-be and moms who feel they may be struggling with depression to seek help and assistance. I also can’t emphasize enough, if a woman is pregnant with depression, getting the right help is important for both mom and baby. Prenatal depression is often the result of hormonal, genetic and environmental factors. If left untreated, it can lead to poor nutrition, smoking, drinking and other unhealthy behaviors, which can result in low birth weight, premature birth and developmental problems. Treatment options include support groups, private psychotherapy, medication and light therapy. If a pregnant woman is dealing with severe depression, often a combination of psychotherapy and medication (with smallest risk to baby) is recommended.
While it’s natural to be concerned about taking medication when pregnant, the risks of taking an antidepressant during pregnancy are usually small and depend on the medication, the dose and how long it is taken. Prenatal care providers and mental health specialists are trained to collaboratively weigh a medication’s short- and long-term benefits and risks for mom and baby. If for example, a woman was taking medication for depression before becoming pregnant, most medical experts agree she should not stop taking it without talking first to her health-care provider for guidance. Suddenly stopping could be risky for her and her baby. Experts agree, too, if a woman takes antidepressants in her third trimester, her baby may experience withdrawal at birth — but that withdrawal will likely be mild and short-lived.
If you know someone experiencing prenatal or maternal depression, it is important to provide support. Spouses, family, friends and neighbors can give support by doing little things like helping with everyday tasks, bringing meals and offering to watch the baby so the mother can sleep.
Overall, a woman’s best maternal mental health approach is to put self-care and self-awareness at the top of her to-do list.
Many women ask me if there are “natural” ways or alternative approaches to managing their mental health during pregnancy and beyond. Here are some suggestions with proven results, with the caveat that all women with symptoms of depression consult their health-care provider for individualized optimum care, as well as proven treatment guidance and management.
- Get adequate sleep — Lack of rest affects your body’s ability to handle stress and day-to-day challenges. Establish a routine sleep schedule when possible.
- Exercise regularly — Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators
- Focus on eating right — Remember, diets high in sugar, caffeine, artificial additives and processed carbohydrates, and low in protein lead to mental and physical health issues.
- Try acupuncture for relief — Studies suggest acupuncture helps relieve symptoms of moderate depression in women.
- Take an omega-3 supplement — New reports show taking a daily supplement of omega-3 fish oils can decrease symptoms of depression. (Pregnant women should take a mercury-free version and check for recommended amount.)
- Consider herbal and vitamin supplements — Data shows some herbal and vitamin supplements affect moods and the hormone serotonin. Some can’t be used in conjunction with antidepressants, so be sure to check label. Pregnant women should always check for the dosage that is safe for moms-to-be.
The physical, hormonal and emotional changes attributed to pregnancy, childbirth and beyond, as well as the overall stresses and struggles of raising children — can be daunting. While we honor mental health awareness worldwide this month, and celebrate motherhood on Mother’s Day this upcoming weekend — let’s not forget to continue to honor throughout the year ways to encourage and embrace maternal mental well-being and its positive outcomes for mother and child.REQUEST APPOINTMENT