My first child’s birth was a high-stress event. Not because anything went particularly wrong, but because birth is a extremely hard work. You arrive at the end of your labor with a new baby, a tiny, mewling, completely dependent, snarveling, constantly hungry baby.
Before I arrived at those first moments of parenthood, I was under a lot of stress. My husband and I moved onto our relatively undeveloped 50 acres, into a 400 square-foot yurt two weeks before our daughter was born.
Though we had a basic solar power setup, and cold, running water, we didn’t have a bathing facility, a washing machine, hot water, or an indoor toilet. And we live in a small village, one and a half hours from the nearest laundromat, grocery store, or hardware store.
We had hoped to have our newborn homestead more finished before we moved in, but winter storms had closed the road to our former home for six months, and we couldn’t move until two weeks before our baby was due. So much for being prepared.
And the other piece I can’t avoid sharing, though I didn’t realize it was important at the time, is that I am a survivor of trauma. My own parents died in a small plane accident when I was nine.
When my baby was born, I didn’t yet know that my own stress response system was not functioning properly. I didn’t realize that my needs for self-care are greater than the average person. And I dove into attachment mothering with my whole being, to provide my new daughter with the “perfect,” evolutionarily appropriate childhood.
My body was more exhausted than usual after the birth. I could barely walk for days. I felt highly overwhelmed with my baby’s needs, and had no clue how to meet her needs AND my own at the same time. My husband went to work a few weeks after she was born, and all the family went home. I was at home in our little yurt, with winter approaching, not clear on how I could feed myself when my baby would fuss every time I set her down.
The reason I share all this context is because certain circumstances make us far more likely to experience postpartum depression and anxiety. Even just the normal lack of self-care opportunity that new mothers experience can affect how they feel.
Meanwhile, current, ongoing stress, a history of trauma, having a partner who can’t take time off to help, not having community or family support, and financial stress can set the stage for a rocky postpartum period.
So the first way to prevent postpartum depression is to become aware of your situation. What are the obvious stresses in your life? How can you prepare to have the help you will need postpartum? Can you save a little extra money? Arrange to have people stay to help beyond the first two weeks? Can your community organize a MealTrain?
Proactive management of the things you DO have control over can greatly reduce your stress, and decrease your likelihood of experiencing postpartum depression.
It is certainly hard to prioritize your own self care when you have a brand new baby. But no matter how you slice it, taking care of your own self allows you to be a good and loving parent. As they say on the airplane, “Put on your own oxygen mask first, then assist your neighbor.”
So many women are compelled to take care of everyone else first. And certainly, we are wired to care for our babies reflexively. Yet, we can’t provide good care if we are exhausted, overwhelmed, hungry, or angry.
First things first, we MUST prioritize sleep. Sleep repairs countless body functions. But new babies don’t sleep well. Just visit parenting forums to see the desperate conversations trying to find out how to fix this.
The truth is, new babies aren’t designed to sleep for long periods (count yourself lucky if your baby does this!). The workaround to help yourself get the sleep you need is to sleep when your baby sleeps. Nap when they nap. Go to bed when they go to bed. At least for the first little while.
It’s so tempting to use the time they’re asleep to catch up on things, but sleep has such a huge impact on your mood, your immune function, and your ability to function at all!
Next, we need to move our bodies. In the early days, this may be a gentle walk, with your baby in a stroller or in a carrier on your body. Getting outside is a bonus here. Daylight on your eyes helps regulate your and your baby’s sleep cycle, and the exercise helps enhance your mood, improve your immune function, and circulation.
An even better strategy is to meet with another mom or two and her babies or kids, to get the social boost that connection creates.
Don’t forget about eating. It’s all too easy to forget to eat, or be confronted with crisis after crisis that gets in the way. But when we forego the food, our energy, mood, and ability to cope with the stress around us declines precipitously. Blood sugar swings can mimic depression and anxiety.
For best results, make sure you start your day with some protein, and include protein, fat, and fiber in each meal or snack. You may need your partner’s support in the beginning to create easily accessible or re-heatable meals or snacks that you can prepare one handed!
Hydration. Drinking adequate water is important for everyone, postpartum or not. But it’s especially important for breastfeeding mothers. Drinking enough water helps digestion, clear thinking, and energy levels. A helpful strategy is to keep a filled water bottle in your nursing/bottle feeding location. Have your partner help by filling them for you before they leave for the day.
Certain supplements can be useful for managing moods as a support as well. Magnesium, B vitamin complex, and fish oil are particularly supportive for helping maintain brain and mood health after birth. Continuing on your pre-natal vitamins can be a good strategy to make sure you are getting all your important nutrients.
Certain amino acids can also be helpful for managing moods. Check out Julia Ross’s The Mood Cure to take her quizzes and see which aminos may be helpful for your particular mood issues.
An herb that I found particularly useful for postpartum moments when I felt utterly overwhelmed and teary-eyed is Motherwort (Leonuris cardiaca). A dropperful in water would really take the edge off of that feeling. I always include a bottle as a gift for my friends who are having babies.
Finally, carve out time for yourself, no matter what. We can become so attached and wedded to our kids that we have a hard time imagining that they will be ok if we leave them with anyone. But they will be just fine with dad for a hour.
Go to a class. Take a walk without another human stuck to you like an octopus. Breathe deeply. Remember what it feels like to walk in your own skin. Make this a regular practice. It’s completely necessary.
If your partner isn’t available, find a family member, neighbor, local teen, or someone who can tag team you for a brief while. Even a solo trip to the grocery store can feel like a luxury, and be a profound healing experience.
One last take away for you is that postpartum depression isn’t necessarily a textbook experience. It can look a lot of different ways, and may not occur only in the first six months.
Though I was quite overwhelmed in the beginning of our daughter’s life, my adrenal system was compensating and helping me keep afloat.
The real problems occurred for me around the time she turned two. Because I wasn’t attending to the postpartum self-care program I’ve described here (because I didn’t know I needed to), I was reaching critical burn out.
My daughter was still night nursing. I hadn’t slept through the night in two years. I was the primary care giver, and the difficulty of daily living in our humble, off-grid circumstances were catching up with me. I wasn’t eating enough, and wasn’t exercising regularly, and felt isolated and alone. Even worse, it seemed that there was no end in sight to the marathon of toddler care. I was flagging.
I began to have extreme phobias, and to be scared to leave the house, for fear my daughter would get sick, which I knew would destabilize our whole family unit for several weeks. I had terrible anxiety.
What turned things around for me was night weaning and reprioritizing my sleep, and focusing in on my nutrition, and negotiating with my husband to create even short me-time respites. I went to get massages occasionally (even though I felt like a bad mom leaving my daughter for an hour!). I started going to a weekly yoga class. It was good for me, and it was also good for my husband to take a turn connecting with my daughter.
With some proactive action, postpartum depression doesn’t need to overwhelm us or wreck our new life with our darling baby. Arrange your life, take action, no matter how small, to care for your precious self, and get back to enjoying life.