Pregnancy, early parenthood, and mental health
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 09/19/2023
Pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting a newborn can be exhausting as well as rewarding. The nine months of pregnancy and the first year of your child’s life can feel like a whirlwind. Change affects nearly every aspect of your life, including your identity, body, relationships, finances, and expectations at work and at home. It’s no wonder pregnancy, childbirth, and parenthood can affect your mental health.
Like any major life transition, parenthood can involve common mental health struggles that are usually temporary and resolve on their own. However, some mental health conditions associated with pregnancy and parenthood may require professional help.
Do only biological mothers struggle with pregnancy and parenthood?
Parenthood can cause or intensify mental health concerns for all parents, not just people who give birth.
Mental health is important for mothers, fathers, biological parents, stepparents, adoptive parents, foster parents, surrogate parents, and other types of guardians. It’s important for all types of families and households: those with single parents, heterosexual parents, same-sex parents, gender-nonconforming parents, and more.
In this article, we sometimes use “mother” and “maternal” to refer to the parent who gives birth to a child. However, we recognize and affirm that not all people who give birth identify as mothers or women, and not all mothers give birth to their children.
Whether you consider yourself a mother, father, parent, or guardian, what’s most important is that you prioritize your mental health so you, your child, and your family can flourish.
Prenatal mental health challenges
Pregnancy can be a joy and a wonder, as well as a source of stress and anxiety. It may bring a range of emotions. You may face prenatal mental health challenges, which can be complicated by your health, your pregnancy’s circumstances, your family history, and other societal factors.
Concerns during pregnancy
Your health can affect your pregnancy—and vice versa—in a number of ways:
- History of mental illness: If you have mental health challenges before pregnancy, you may be likelier to struggle with them during pregnancy and after birth. Your risk may also be greater if any of the birthing parents in your family had mental health concerns during their pregnancies.
- Disability: If you have a disability, discrimination and lack of accessible care may make it difficult to get the physical and mental health care you need.
- Nutrition: If you’re unable to access proper nutrition, it may impact your physical and mental health during pregnancy. Your child’s health may be affected also.
- Difficult pregnancy: Some pregnancies are more difficult than others. Morning sickness, chronic pain, long-term bed rest, and other challenges can affect your physical and mental health.
Unwanted or unexpected pregnancy
Your stress can increase dramatically if your pregnancy is unwanted or unexpected. Deciding whether to see the pregnancy to term, deciding whether to raise a child if your pregnancy is brought to term, and dealing with outside pressure to decide one way or another brings stress that can be harmful and traumatizing, especially if you’re a minor.
Having negative, complicated, or conflicting feelings about your pregnancy can contribute to or cause:
If you’re pregnant and in crisis or thinking about ending your life, help is available now. Call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for free, confidential help 24/7. You can also chat online or text HOME to 741741 to speak with a crisis counselor.
High-risk or “miracle” pregnancy
On the other end of the spectrum, you may feel added stress or anxiety because you desperately want to carry a high-risk pregnancy to term. Pressure can intensify further if you’ve experienced the trauma of infertility, pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or the loss of an infant or child.
Societal injustices and inequalities that can affect your pregnancy include:
- Socioeconomic class: If you’re working-class or poor, it may be hard to access the health care you need.
- Gender norms: Cultural expectations around gender may pressure you to conceive, carry a pregnancy to term, or be a “perfect” parent.
- Lack of family support: If you feel alone in your pregnancy due to a lack of support from your family or partner, you may struggle more with your mental health.
- Work stress: The United States is the only developed nation to not guarantee paid maternity leave for birthing parents.1 While some people may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, they may not be able to afford it, or they may face retaliation or discrimination upon returning to work. If you’re already unemployed or underemployed, pregnancy may increase your stress.
Childbirth and perinatal mental health challenges
“Perinatal” refers to the time period shortly before and after childbirth. It covers both prenatal and postpartum mental health challenges. Common sources of concern during this period include:
- Childbirth: The process of giving birth may be intimidating or frightening if this is your first delivery or if you had a negative childbirth experience in the past. Anxiety around labor and delivery may worsen as your due date draws closer.
- Maternal mortality: The US has the worst maternal mortality rate of any developed nation.2 Black mothers in particular face an elevated risk due to systemic racism in the US healthcare system.
- Traumatic birth: Giving birth can be physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatic for you, your partner, and loved ones witnessing the birth. It can also be traumatic if your child has health complications or concerns.
- Grief: You may experience heightened anxiety if you’re at increased risk for the loss of your child or the loss of your own health, including your reproductive capabilities. If any of these potential losses occur, grief is likely to follow.
- Feeding difficulties: It’s common for babies to experience feeding problems, whether by breast or by bottle. This can cause anxiety or shame, particularly if your baby has reflux, has trouble gaining weight, or has trouble breastfeeding.
- Babies with additional considerations: Taking care of a newborn is exhausting in its own right. This can be further complicated if your baby shows signs of colic or is born prematurely, or if you’re caring for multiples.
- The fourth trimester: The 12 weeks following childbirth are often referred to as “the fourth trimester.” Your body goes through almost as many changes as it did during pregnancy. Parents have to adjust to a new routine of feeding and caring for their baby 24/7 as they battle sleep loss, hormonal changes, and other physical and mental health challenges.
- Baby blues, postpartum depression, and more: It’s estimated that up to 80% of birthing parents experience baby blues, which often resolve on their own. If your baby blues last longer than two weeks, you may have postpartum depression (PPD), which can occur at any time within the first year after birth and last far beyond that. Learn how to recognize and seek treatment for PPD.
How to support and strengthen parental mental health
No parent should have to go through pregnancy, childbirth, or the experience of caring for a newborn completely alone. If you’re having a hard time with your mental health, reach out to loved ones such as your partner, family members, friends, or colleagues.
Many friends and family members are happy to come over, make a meal, and do some chores while you take a nap or practice self-care. Be honest with your partner about how you’re handling childcare responsibilities as a couple, especially if there’s a lack of equity due to unshared duties like breastfeeding. Ask your employer if you can take more time off with your newborn if necessary.
More often than not, people in your community will be willing to help. You’re not alone.
Not all parenthood struggles can be solved through support from loved ones. Many mental health conditions require professional treatment. If you’re pregnant or a new parent and are having symptoms of any of the mental health disorders discussed here, help is available now:
- Find a therapist: Browse our directory to find a licensed mental health professional near you.
- Medication: Your doctor may decide that therapy and medication together are your best treatment option. You may be prescribed medication even while you’re pregnant. It’s important to follow your doctor’s treatment plan as prescribed.
- Support groups: Pregnancy and parenthood can be isolating experiences. Joining a support group is often helpful, especially for new parents. Parents with baby blues who join a support group can often resolve their symptoms without progressing to postpartum depression.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
Self-regulation is the ability to observe, manage, and adapt our emotions and...
Many school districts offer resources for K-12 kids with disabilities. Learn...
We tend to connect PPD with the person who gives birth, but it can happen to...
Join host Amye Archer and parenting experts Janine Halloran and Kate Sample for...