Becoming a parent is an incredibly meaningful and fulfilling experience. However, it is also a time filled with stress and challenges. It’s estimated that approximately 1 in 5 mothers will experience postpartum depression, a mental health condition that can involve low mood, apathy, sleep and eating difficulties, suicidal thoughts, and difficulties connecting with or enjoying spending time with your new child. While it is now common practice for medical providers to screen for symptoms of postpartum depression in new mothers, there remain many misconceptions about postpartum mental health. Here, we detail three common “myths” some people tend to believe about mental health and new parenthood.
Postpartum depression only happens right after giving birth:
While it is common for symptoms of postpartum depression to start within the first few months after giving birth, mental health concerns can occur anytime throughout what is known as the “perinatal” period, including pregnancy up through the first year after giving birth. For example, approximately 10-25% of pregnant people may experience a depressive episode. Others may experience mental health difficulties much later after giving birth. For example, some mothers may experience depression after the newborn phase is over when they typically receive less support from friends and family or when they experience an additional stressor, such as returning to work. While most medical providers only offer one postpartum check-up for new mothers, usually eight weeks after giving birth, it’s important for parents to be aware that symptoms of postpartum depression can occur at any time during the first postpartum year.
Depression is the only mental health condition you can experience after giving birth:
It’s true that depression is a very common postpartum mental health condition. However, parents may experience other mental health concerns during the perinatal period. For example, postpartum anxiety may be just as common (if not more so) than depression, or may co-occur with postpartum depression. Postpartum anxiety may include excessive worrying that can interfere with one’s ability to sleep or take care of themselves or their child. Intrusive thoughts, or thoughts that feel unwanted/uncontrollable, are also incredibly common in the postpartum period, including fears of harming yourself or your child. One study found that 100% of new mothers had experienced at least one type of intrusive thought after giving birth, including thoughts related to accidentally or intentionally harming their child. To bust another myth: Just because you have an intrusive thought related to harming your child does NOT mean that you are more at risk for harming them! These types of thoughts are incredibly common and by definition are unwanted thoughts, meaning that the people who have them do not want to act on them. Thoughts by themselves cannot hurt us or the ones we love.
Outside of depression and anxiety, some parents may experience post-traumatic stress disorder if they had a particularly traumatic experience giving birth, such as believing that their life or the life of their infant was in danger during labor/delivery, or if they witnessed a traumatic birth. Symptoms of birth trauma can involve avoiding things, people, or places that remind you of the traumatic birth experience; repetitive and intrusive thoughts or nightmares about the birthing experience; and feeling guilty or blaming oneself for one’s experience.
People may also experience what is known as postpartum psychosis, a very rare condition (occurring in approximately 1 in every 1000 live births) that often occurs immediately following labor/delivery where the birthing parent loses touch with reality and may experience hallucinations (such as hearing or seeing things that are not present) or delusions (false beliefs) that interfere with their ability to take care of themselves and their child. This is a very serious condition that often requires hospitalization.
Only birthing parents experience postpartum depression:
While birthing parents are the ones who receive the most medical attention during the perinatal period, it’s important to note that any parent, regardless of birthing status or gender, may be at risk for mental health difficulties. For example, it’s estimated that one in nine fathers experience postpartum depression. Though less well studied, adoptive parents and LGBTQIA+ parents may also experience a range of mental health difficulties during the transition to parenthood. Indeed, one study found that sexual minority women experienced higher rates of postpartum depression compared to heterosexual women, partially due to the discrimination they faced and the lack of social support they received from their families based on their sexual identity.
- Postpartum Support International offers many resources for new parents, including a 24/7 telephone helpline, free virtual support groups, and a mental health care provider directory filled with professionals trained to address perinatal mental health concerns
- Parenting Translator is an email newsletter written by clinical psychologist Cara Goodwin, Ph.D., that summarizes evidence-based research on all things related to parenting. Check out her writing on birth trauma, including symptoms one may experience as well as evidence-based coping strategies
- I write about mental health science related to pregnancy and parenting as part of the email newsletter Mental Healthy. I’ve written about the relationship between breastfeeding and maternal mental health, the mental health of trans men who give birth, and intrusive thoughts, to name a few topics.
- If you live in Massachusetts, our clinic has immediate openings for individual weekly therapy for postpartum mental health support. Contact us here.
Jasmine Mote, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist at Cambridge Psychology Group and Research Assistant Professor at Boston University. As part of the Approach Motivation and Participation Lab, she is interested in understanding the social and emotional difficulties of people living with serious mental illness. At CPG, Dr. Mote specializes in treating mood and anxiety disorders, psychosis-spectrum disorders, new parenthood, perinatal mental health, and racial/ethnic identity. If you like her writing, you can subscribe to her newsletter Mental Healthy, where she discusses mental health research related to pregnancy and parenting.