Being a mother can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience, but it can also come with mental health challenges.
Whether you’re a new mum, or dealing with toddler tantrums, managing fast growing teens or preparing to farewell adult children, each stage of motherhood is a joy and blessing, but can also impact your mental health.
As we celebrate Mother’s Day this May, it’s also World Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month, with a campaign day providing an opportunity to highlight the mental health needs of new mothers and beyond.
Read on to find out more about maternal mental health and ways to manage the mental health challenges of being a mum.
What Is Maternal Mental Health
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines maternal mental health as a state of well-being in which a mother realises her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her community.
In more formal terms, maternal mental health refers to the emotional and psychological well-being of mothers during the prenatal, postpartum, and beyond stages of motherhood.
It encompasses a range of mental health issues that can affect women during and after pregnancy, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and others.
Maternal mental health is important not only for the well-being of mothers but also for the well-being of children and the entire family.
Research has shown that when a mother experiences mental health problems during pregnancy and after childbirth, it can have negative impacts on a child’s development, behaviour, and long-term health outcomes.
Mental Health Challenges of Being a Mum
While the perinatal period, encompassing both the antenatal (from conception to birth) and postnatal (12 months from birth) periods, is recognised as a time of great change for mothers (and fathers), each stage of motherhood can present mental health challenges.
- Pregnancy – Pregnancy can be an exciting but challenging time for mothers. Hormonal changes, physical discomfort and anticipation of the upcoming birth can cause stress and anxiety. Some mothers may experience depression during pregnancy, which can increase the risk of postpartum depression.
- Postpartum – The postpartum period refers to the first few months after giving birth. During this time, mothers may experience postpartum depression, anxiety, or mood disorders. Sleep deprivation and the demands of caring for a newborn can worsen these mental health conditions.
- Toddlerhood – Toddlerhood is a stage when children become more independent and curious about the world. However, this stage can be challenging for mothers as they balance their child’s needs with other responsibilities. Mothers may experience stress, anxiety, and fatigue during this stage.
- School-age children – As children start school, mothers may experience new stressors related to their child’s education, social life, and extracurricular activities. Mothers may also experience guilt and anxiety related to balancing work and family life.
- Adolescence – Adolescence can be a difficult stage for both children and mothers. Mothers may experience stress and worry related to their child’s emotional and physical changes, peer pressure and academic performance.
- Adulthood – As children become adults, mothers may experience a range of emotions, including pride, relief and grief. Mothers may also experience a sense of loss as their role in their child’s life changes.
While you may manage these stages of motherhood well, research has found the overall psychological wellbeing of mothers can decline over time.
Common Mental Health Disorders Mothers May Experience
There’s a range of mental health disorders and associated health challenges that mothers may experience during the prenatal, postpartum and beyond stages of motherhood.
For example, perinatal depression and anxiety (PNDA) is considered a common condition that many parents experience, affecting 1 in 5 mothers in Australia.
Some of the most common conditions include:
- Postpartum Depression – This is a type of depression that affects new mothers after giving birth. Symptoms can include sadness, lack of energy, feelings of hopelessness and difficulty bonding with their baby.
- Anxiety – Mothers can experience a range of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Symptoms can include excessive worry, irritability, racing thoughts and physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and shortness of breath.
- Insomnia – It’s common for mothers to have difficulty sleeping due to the demands of caring for a new baby, but chronic insomnia can be a sign of a larger issue. Lack of sleep can worsen mental health issues and make it difficult to function during the day.
- Adjustment Disorder – This is a condition that can occur when a mother has difficulty adjusting to the changes that come with motherhood. Symptoms can include sadness, anxiety and difficulty concentrating. This condition can occur within three months of a significant life change.
- Perinatal Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder – This is a type of OCD that occurs during pregnancy or the postpartum period. Symptoms can include intrusive, unwanted thoughts related to your baby’s safety, excessive hand washing or cleaning among other sympstoms.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Mothers who have experienced a traumatic event, such as a difficult childbirth or the loss of a child, may develop PTSD. Symptoms can include intrusive thoughts, nightmares and avoidance behaviours. PTSD can make it difficult for mothers to bond with their child and may impact their ability to function in daily life.
Mums may experience temporary symptoms as they adjust to life with a new baby – It’s normal to feel emotional, frustrated and stressed at times. However, if your symptoms are ongoing and impact your ability to carry out everyday activities, it could be a sign that something is not right.
It’s important for mothers to be aware of maternal mental health conditions and seek help if they are experiencing ongoing symptoms. Treatment options include therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes such as exercise and stress management techniques.
How to Manage for Better Maternal Mental Health
Many mothers may be balancing a hectic schedule between home and work. Add family dynamics, cultural expectations and any number of individual circumstances and maternal self-care can quickly become a low priority.
It’s important to realise that you can’t care well for others if you don’t also give love and care to yourself. While each person’s mental health journey is unique, mothers can benefit from prioritising their own mental health and seeking support when needed.
Here’s seven tips to better support your mental health as a mother:
- Forget Perfection – Don’t be caught up in false expectations of motherhood as often portrayed on television or in social media. You don’t need to be the best at everything. Set your own standard and work towards that.
- Practice self-care – Make time for yourself and enjoy self-care activities that promote relaxation and stress relief, such as taking a warm bath, practicing yoga, going for a walk, reading a book or rediscovering a favourite hobby.
- Exercise regularly – Exercise is a natural mood booster and stress reliever. Any level of exercise that gets you moving can be beneficial and you’ll start to feel the benefits straight away. Studies have shown that as little as one hour of exercise per week, regardless of intensity, can help prevent depression and boost mood.
- Eat a healthy diet – What you eat can have a significant impact on your mental health. A healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can help improve mood and reduce the risk of mental health issues.
- Get enough sleep – Lack of sleep can negatively affect mental health. When you don’t get enough sleep, your brain doesn’t have the chance to rest and recover. Aiming to get enough quality sleep time is a simple way to value your mental health.
- Connect with others – Networking with other mothers can provide emotional support and help you realise that you’re not alone. Sharing experiences and maintaining social connections with family and friends is important to your overall mental health.
- Get help when you need it – If you’re struggling with mental health challenges, need support to manage day-to-day or want help coping with the mental challenges of motherhood, reach out to a qualified professional.
Seeing a Psychologist Can Help
If you feel overwhelmed and self-help strategies are not enough, support from a psychologist can be beneficial.
We can help mothers develop coping strategies, improve family communication and address any underlying mental health concerns.
Therapy and the right support can help you better manage maternal mental health challenges and enjoy motherhood.