We've come a long way in understanding the mental health impact of welcoming a new baby into the world. But until very recently, most of our attention has tilted toward the parent giving birth, possibly overlooking the one providing love and essential support.
While hormonal and physical changes can set pregnant parents up for mood shifts that can lead to depression, supporting parents are at risk, too. In fact, new research shows that supporting parents face nearly the same risks for
perinatal depression or
postpartum depression as their pregnant partners. Parents of surrogate-born children can also experience perinatal depression, as can adoptive parents.
Here's what all parents need to know about depression risks during pregnancy and after becoming a parent, as well as how to nurture each other along the way.
The marathon of new parenthood
If you're expecting right now, you may find yourselves grappling with new levels of physical, social and mental stress. Healthy sleep, regular meals and exercise all become top priorities as you gear up for childbirth and the challenges of caring for a newborn.
Schedules may feel stretched to the max as both of you balance work and household demands with medical appointments, birthing classes and more. On top of these demands, you may feel extraordinary pressure to feel happy all the time. This is not only unfair and unrealistic, but it may make you feel even worse if your mood is sinking lower each day.
New perspectives on postpartum depression
This happy time can be a watershed moment for you and your partner. Maybe you've never been happier together – but you've also never faced a transition quite like this one. Perhaps this is why new research studies are revealing that spouses and partners can develop depression just as easily as their pregnant counterparts.
For example, a broad look across research studies shows that between 7% and 9% of new fathers develop postpartum depression. Researchers say that depressed dads are often hard on themselves, suffering deep doubts about their parenting abilities. Symptoms such as irritability, anger and aggression are common. Depressed fathers may fail to offer adequate support for birth partners and even discourage them from breastfeeding.
Though many research studies focus on fathers, partners of all genders can develop depression during the pre-natal or post-natal period. No parent is immune to the extreme pressures and heightened expectations that swirl around couples as they welcome a new child. This is why all partners need to be aware of the warning signs that point to depression.
Signs that your partner may be depressed
Whether it begins during pregnancy or after your child arrives, depression is different from "the baby blues," which can bring fatigue and sadness after a child's birth but generally fades within a few days.
Perinatal or post-natal depression is a more serious condition that lasts 2 weeks or more. Symptoms of depression in new parents might include:
Deep feelings of sadness, worry or anxiety
Persistent fears for the baby's health and safety
Low energy levels
Rapid mood swings, with or without crying jags
Anger and irritability
Brain fog that makes decision-making especially difficult
Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Major changes in eating habits
Guilt, shame and doubt about your parenting abilities
Difficulty bonding with your newborn
If you or your partner are struggling with one or more of these symptoms, it's time to talk with your doctor.
Why some parents shy away from getting help
As painful as these symptoms can be, many new parents don't seek out the care and treatment they need. Many feel they're just too busy to prioritize their own health. Sleep deprivation and the pressures of caring for a helpless infant can make it difficult to think clearly about their own needs and reach for sources of relief.
Spouses and partners may feel especially reluctant to seek help. Many believe that the parent who gave birth is the ONLY one who needs tender loving care. As "master caregivers" to both baby and birth parent, they might feel they have no choice but to power through. Ignoring their own needs may make matters even worse, since depression is a real health issue that won't go away on its own.
How a parent's depression can affect a newborn child
When parents live with untreated depression, children are more likely to face their own struggles later on. Infants need snuggles, smiles and healthy routines to grow and thrive. Their brains are developing at an amazing pace, laying the groundwork for learning and the secure family attachments that will influence their health and happiness throughout life.
Knowing that your baby relies on you can serve as a powerful motivator to seek help for depression. Whether you're worried about yourself or your partner, now is the time to reach out to your doctor if depression symptoms are making life hard for you.
Teamwork for family-based healing
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all birth parents get screened for depression during pregnancy and at regular intervals after their child's birth. Most doctors now screen both partners using the same tools and evaluation scales, knowing that early diagnosis and treatment will benefit the whole family.
Depression is a brain-based condition that can be treated with tools such as:
Social supportBuilding a network of people who can help you work through stress can improve well-being. Organizations such as
Postpartum Support International offers online support groups and specific information for resources by state.
TherapyCaregivers can talk with a therapist, psychologist, or social worker to learn strategies to change how depression makes you think, feel and act. Examples of evidence-based therapies for caregivers include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT). There are also types of therapy that treat parents or caregivers and the infant or child at the same time.
MedicationMedication can also be used, although most people However, most people with post-partum depression do not need medication.
In most cases, a blended approach works best.
Good food and moderate exercise also help the body reset itself. And sleep plays an essential role in recovering from depression, so parents are encouraged to work together to ensure they both get enough rest. Saying "yes" to friends and family who offer to care for your child while you catch up on sleep is a healthy first step. Also keep in mind that breastfeeding is a protective factor from depression.
Points to remember
- Any parent may become depressed when expecting or caring for a new baby. Birth parents and their partners should have equal access to the care and support they need to recover.
- If you are thinking about harming yourself or your baby, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 9-1-1. Don't wait, because these thoughts are a sign that you need specialized help right now.
- The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline is available 24/7 by calling 1-833-943-5746. And for non-emergency resources and support, you can contact Postpartum Support International. Call or text "Help" to 1-800-944-4773.