Many of us may experience an off-day or the baby blues, but what if you are feeling downright depressed or anxious during pregnancy or after birth? First, you are definitely not alone! Some twenty percent of young families suffer from mental health problems during or beyond pregnancy. For sure, this is nothing to be ashamed of, however something to tackle!
By Dr. An-Sofie Van Parys
Parenthood turns your life upside down. Therefore it is perfectly normal that, in this particular time in your life, your feelings and emotions go haywire. Besides, we all have the occasional off-day, and this is certainly true for any new parent. Who wouldn’t feel worn out when they have been up with the baby half the night?
Concentration problems, sleep deprivation and not eating well are very common among new parents, and not always cause for concern. First and foremost these symptoms derive from taking care of a newborn 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
However in some cases there is more to it than just that. One in five women has a hard time emotionally during pregnancy and/or in the first year after birth – the so-called perinatal period. These women often feel tense, anxious or depressed and continue to worry while no longer enjoying the things they used to like. Are you having a difficult time with this or even struggling? Are you in doubt whether what you feel is normal or not? Or have you had to deal with mental issues before? You are not alone in this. Have a look at the website wolkinmijnhoofd.be. We try to help you find the right care provider.
In my work as a broedvrouw I accompany couples who face difficulties and questions before and during pregnancy, but also after birth. These women or couples and I work together to find solutions, as I am a psychotherapist with a practical mindset. My goal is for them to find the coping mechanisms they already own and evaluate them together. I am merely the co-pilot in this, meaning I will look at the road map, tell them what’s going on left and right. The woman or couple is the actual one to decide on what lane they pick and whether or not to take a turn or go straight ahead.
‘I often notice that people lack the overview when in doubt or overwhelmed. However, they themselves have the greatest ideas on a solution that may work best for them.’
In our society different options exist for everything, and at the same time everyone – whether close or not – has their opinion, too. Someone may easily feel confused because of that, especially when feeling insecure in the first place.
And what about the baby? Not all is ruined!
Truth: parents’ stress levels affect the baby to some extent, and this happens both during pregnancy and after birth. Research has shown us that stress hormones pass through the placenta and can be found in breastmilk, too. Psychological problems during and beyond pregnancy therefore not only affect the (expectant) parents, but can also affect their baby.
You may feel scared or guilty because of this statement, but try not to worry about it too much. There is good news, too: baby’s brain is incredibly flexible and amendable. So your child won’t be “broken” forever if you have been dealing with a lot of stress. Many people think babies don’t communicate, but they actually do. Not with words, of course, but they do send out signals and understand messages instinctively.
A baby requires and adult’s presence to calm down. Connection and communication are the main pillars on how to reach this. Think rocking, chatting, making eye contact. This alone lowers a baby’s stress levels swiftly. If more extensive care is required, infant mental health therapy for newborns may prove useful for babies to learn how to regulate themselves with their parents’ help.
Some stress is OK
Keep this in mind : in order for a baby to develop in a healthy way, he also needs a certain dose of cortisol. Our body is able to both accelerate and to push the brakes. When a threat occurs, we need to be able to flex our muscles and run, but it is also necessary to slow down regularly, in order to relax. When the accelerator and brake ‘pedals’ are not well adjusted, meaning your stress levels remain high consistently, things may go wrong. In short: having stress is not a big deal. You really don’t always have to be fully zen, as long as stress can also subsides regularly.
Below you will find one breathing exercise and one exercise to calm your thoughts…
‘More new parents seem to be at risk for mental health problems because of the COVID pandemic. Research (Ceulemans et al., 2020) showed that during the first wave, 40 to 50 percent of pregnant women and new parents experienced anxiety or feelings of depression.‘
Dr. An-Sofie Van Parys studied midwifery, social educational sciences, sexology and psychotherapy. She worked in youth care for several years and wrote a PhD on the topic of domestic (partner) violence. She now works as a sexologist and psychotherapist in midwives’ practice Zwanger in Brussel and in the OLV hospital in Asse. She accompanies women and couples with psychological, relationship or sexual problems related to pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, she coordinates the Perinatal Mental Health project in Ghent and does postdoc research on mental health in the period from pregnancy to the first year after birth. Prior to that, among other topics, she researched caesarean sections and fear of childbirth.
Ceulemans M., Hompes T/ & Foulon V. (2020). Mental health status of pregnant and breastfeeding women during the COVID‐19 pandemic: A call for action. International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics151(1):146-147. doi: 10.1002/ijgo.13295