Maternal Mental Health Matters, and How to Help New Moms

Maternal Mental Health matters. (Paternal health matters, but I will get to that in a separate article because it deserves its own space) There, I said it. It’s not such a radical idea. I bet that most people will agree with that statement. But, who actually takes steps toward supporting mother’s mental health? Why don’t we reach out and support new mothers, offering to watch the baby for a couple hours while they sleep? Why do new moms still put off going to seek support from their doctor or a therapist when things don’t feel quite right? Why do so many new mothers report feeling isolated and alone?

There is still a lot of pressure from a societal level, as well as a familial level, for moms to do it all. It is almost assumed that once a woman becomes a mother that she will instantly have it all figured out, she will know how to respond to her baby’s cries, she will be in tune with her baby’s nonverbal communication, and she will know how to soothe her child or get it to fall asleep. These are all assumptions that are made and communicated directly or indirectly to some degree by outsiders who come in contact with the new mom. It is relatives, friends, coworkers, neighbors, even grocery store clerks. I have spoken to countless new mothers who feel that there are standards of perfection placed on them (knowingly and unknowingly!) and that they don’t feel capable of living up to these expectations. This gap between abilities and expectations hits new mothers at the most vulnerable place in their entire life and it often leads to self doubt, insecurity, and even depression or anxiety.  

The real truth is that many new mothers don’t know how to soothe their child at first, and that it is really hard to understand why a baby is crying (especially in the first few months of life!) It is also not developmentally appropriate for a newborn to sleep through the night on their own, or even to have anything resembling a coherent schedule. Learning to read your baby’s cues and developing a sleep pattern learned skills, developed at a pace that  depends on many factors including mother’s personality, baby’s temperament, family support, modeling from other family members, and… sleep deprivation!!!! A mother who is highly sleep deprived has a brain that is not functioning at its optimal level, so how is she supposed to learn a whole new set of skills effectively and efficiently? I say all of this to remind everyone to give new mothers a break, and a hefty dose of understanding and love. And can someone please offer to support a new mother in getting some rest!

Attachment: The Why

Attachment is a well known word in the mental health world. I will do my best to sum up what is important for this context, but I encourage anyone who wants to know more to find books (I love audio books!) and articles for more information because there is so much out there and it is relevant to literally everyone (Attached by Amir Levine, and Love Sense by Sue Johnson are two I’d recommend).

Attachment is a theory that has been backed by science and research for many years. It refers to the way each person bonds to the closest people in their life at a given time, and it is broken up into categories to describe what the attachment looks like (how baby and mom interact with each other and how they understand each other’s cues and emotions). Babies are naturally wired to attach to their primary caregiver (often their mother) and depending on their temperament, mom’s personality, and mom’s responsiveness, their attachment style develops in one of a few ways. They can develop a secure attachment which means that they are trusting that mother will be around to comfort them and will try to meet their needs most of the time. Babies can also develop two different types of insecure attachment styles. The first is insecure-anxious in which the child is easily distressed and isn’t soothed easily by their mother, and that they may not trust that mother will always be willing or able to meet their needs. The second is insecure-avoidant. These babies appear to be uninterested in their mother’s attempts to sooth and connect, almost appearing detached, but internally they are experiencing stress. There is a fourth attachment style called disorganized which is essentially a combination of the two insecure types, but it is less common.

It is theorized that at least some of a baby’s attachment style is determined by the mother’s ability to respond emotionally to her infant, and the rest may be inborn personality characteristics. Secure attachment develops when the caregiver is emotionally available, able to respond to baby’s cues, able to read baby’s emotions and understand and empathise with those feelings in a consistent way. It is impossible to respond accurately or attune to baby every single time they reach out, but it is theorized that as long as it is consistent, it doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s good news!

So now what?

So what do we do with this information? How do we support healthy attachment in mothers and babies? The way our society has developed has decreased family support. We don’t have our “village” anymore. New parents are home in isolation caring for a new baby. One partner often has to go back to work right away, leaving the other partner home to care for baby all day, and often much of the night. How does this relate to maternal mental health, and baby’s development? If mom is overtired, consistently sleep deprived, experiencing a hormonal rollercoaster, trying to prepare meals for herself all day, keeping up on maintaining the house while adjusting to the mass amounts of laundry and garbage created with a new baby home, trying to squeeze in time to rest, attempting to “sleep when baby sleeps”, and still existing as a human being, she is not in the mental space to be able to attune properly to her baby. It is impossible to attune and empathize effectively with a baby when you are stressed, sleep deprived, and unsupported. We have created a society and an environment where we are pushing mothers to do too much, and guilting them when they don’t reach an impossible standard, and it is impacting mothers’ ability to connect with their baby. We want to foster healthy attachment!

If you are a mother then I suggest you build a village. Learn to ask for support. There are usually supportive others who are happy to help but they don’t always know what is needed. There is no shame in asking for help! You are not designed physiologically, psychologically, biologically to do it all yourself. In your attempts to do it all yourself you may actually cause more harm than good. The biggest thing you can do for your child and their future development is to attune to their needs and emotions a majority of the time. You need to be rested, cared for, and most importantly you need to feel whole in order to do this. If you are overwhelmed, tired, and frustrated 100% of the time you will not be able to provide you  baby with this building block in a consistent way. So ask for help. If you can’t find the motivation to do it for yourself, do it for your baby. You deserve support and so does baby.

If you are a partner to a mother then my suggestion is to jump in there at every chance you get. Take the baby, tell mom to go nap, and bring baby to the other room for some awesome 1 on 1 time. Build your relationship with baby. Don’t expect a lot from an infant. They aren’t able to interact much the first few months of life, but it you watch closely you will find that they do interact in very subtle ways. It is amazing when you find a 5 week old baby mimicking your facial movements, and these moments will provide your heart with enough love to power you for days! Baby’s communication is so subtle at times, you will miss it if you aren’t watching very closely. Think of this time as your special time with baby, not just as a break for your partner.

If you are the friend or family member of a new mother then reach out. Call her and offer very specific days and times, or very specific tasks. If you say “Call me if you ever need help” then she will probably never call. She is overwhelmed and may not be good at asking for help. Instead, try one of these: “I want to come by on Thursday at 10 am to give you a break to rest” or “I am going to run by the grocery store to bring some things to drop off at your front door, what do you need?” or “I want to come by this week to cook/clean for you, what day is best?” You have to be direct and you have to be specific. Speak directly to the new mother and offer a specific task you will do for her. That allows her to understand what you mean by offering support and it will help her feel that you really do want to help. Offer help often. Check in with her as often as it feels is appropriate based on your relationship with her.

The first year of life is a special time, but it is also a very challenging time for new parents. We don’t have the same social structure that we once had, there is less support for new parents and less modeling by older people on how to care for babies. New parents are often on a deserted island alone, left to figure out how to find food and water. The more support we can offer, the better the outcome for everyone involved. Couples with more support can be happier and more resilient as a couple, and they can provide a better environment for their baby. Its a win-win!

What other ways can we support new parents?