Parenthood and mental health, part 2: Postpartum challenges and parental support

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

Read Part 1 of this article to learn about mental health challenges during pregnancy and childbirth. 

Like all major life transitions, the first year of parenting your child can bring mental health struggles. Frequently these resolve on their own, but some mental health conditions associated with the postpartum period may require professional treatment.

This article will sometimes use the terms “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’re a mother, father, parent, or guardian, what’s most important is that you prioritize your mental health so you and your family can flourish.

Postpartum mental health challenges

Baby blues

The term “baby blues” refers to the exhaustion, sadness, and mood swings you may experience shortly after birth. It’s estimated that up to 80% of mothers experience baby blues. Symptoms of baby blues usually occur up to three days after birth and can last up to two weeks. Common symptoms include:

  • Crying for seemingly no reason
  • Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
  • Difficulty eating or overeating
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability

Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs)

It’s estimated that as many as one in five new mothers experiences some sort of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder (PMAD).1 You may develop PMADs immediately after your baby is born or months later, even a full year after birth. Some later-onset PMADs may persist past your child’s first birthday.

It’s important to note that PMADs are markedly different from baby blues. PMAD symptoms are more intense in both severity and duration. Types of PMADS include postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and postpartum psychosis.

Postpartum depression (PPD)

Postpartum depression can occur at any time within the first year after birth, and some cases last beyond then. If your baby blues last longer than two weeks, you may have PPD. Symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness, loneliness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Difficulty bonding with your child, including feelings of indifference or resentment
  • Severe fatigue
  • Insomnia or oversleeping
  • Sudden change in appetite or weight
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Anger and irritability, especially toward your partner or child
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or others, including your child
  • Suicidal ideation

Keep in mind that parents of all genders can experience postpartum depression, and parents who experience miscarriage or choose to have an abortion may also experience PPD. Adoptive parents may experience post-adoption depression, which is similar to postpartum depression.

There’s no shame in not immediately feeling connected to your child. If you’re in crisis and struggling with depression, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free, confidential help 24/7. You can also chat online or text HOME to 741741 to speak with a crisis counselor.

Postpartum anxiety (PPA)

Postpartum anxiety is similar to PPD in that it can occur anytime within the first year after your child’s birth. However, instead of experiencing symptoms of depression, you experience symptoms of anxiety, such as:

  • Panic attacks
  • Uncontrollable worry about yourself or your baby
  • Overwhelming sense of dread
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Severe fatigue

Other PMADs

Less common PMADs include:

  • Postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): You can develop postpartum OCD without ever having been diagnosed with OCD before. Your obsessions and compulsions typically focus on protecting your baby from perceived threats.
  • Postpartum psychosis: This mental health disorder causes serious symptoms of psychosis following childbirth, such as paranoia, thoughts of harming the baby in some way, hallucinations, and delusions. These symptoms typically appear within a few days after giving birth, though they can develop several weeks afterward as well. While postpartum psychosis is rare (occurring in only 1 to 2% of births), it represents a medical emergency. If you or anyone you know show signs, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room right away.
  • Postpartum bipolar disorder: This disorder involves intense mood swings from high (mania) to low (depression). Depressive symptoms of postpartum bipolar disorder may resemble postpartum depression symptoms, but they appear earlier than PPD (typically up to two months after the baby is born).
  • Postpartum posttraumatic stress disorder (P-PTSD): P-PTSD is more likely to occur if you’ve experienced a traumatic birth. Traumatic births typically involve long, painful labor and unexpected complications, such as an emergency C-section.

How to support and strengthen parental mental health

Community support

No parent should ever have to go through pregnancy, childbirth, or the experience of parenting a newborn completely alone. If you’re a parent struggling with your mental health, reach out to loved ones in your community, 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 your childcare responsibilities, 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 are more than willing to help. You are not alone.

Professional support

Not all parenthood struggles can be solved through love and support. 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 provider directory to find a specialist nearby.
  • Medication: Your doctor may decide 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. Often, parents with baby blues who join a support group can resolve their symptoms without progressing to postpartum depression.