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5 Simple Ways to Help Prevent Postpartum Depression

Dr. Christine Sterling

No one wants to enter the deep fog of postpartum depression, or the constant edge of postpartum anxiety, and yet, we know that 1 in 7 women will experience a Perinatal Mood Disorder (PMADs). Thus far, the push for awareness has mostly focused on recognizing the symptoms, and getting women the help they need once the diagnosis is made. While this is wonderful, important work, it isn’t enough. We need to begin the work to prevent postpartum depression. Prevention will require some big changes to our current maternal and mental health care system.

However, there are also small changes, things that you can do yourself, to reduce your own chances of postpartum depression. 

Here are 5 simple ways you can reduce your chances of experiencing postpartum depression:

1. Pay attention to your mood at the end of pregnancy.

In 30-40% of cases, postpartum depression actually starts in the final months of pregnancy. Check in with yourself throughout your pregnancy, and make it part of your routine to ask: “How am I feeling?” 

Yes, pregnancy hormones can be crazy, but you should still be able to look forward to things and feel joy. If you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed, it’s time to talk to your provider. There are steps that can be taken to address your symptoms and prevent them from getting worse postpartum.

2. Foster a robust support network.

Over and over again, the research shows us that having a strong support network is protective against postpartum depression. 

The first step to ensuring your support network is ready to help you postpartum is to actually figure out who is part of your support network. Once you’ve identified the “who,” you can define roles for the people in your life AND, just as importantly, set boundaries with people who aren’t supportive. 

I recommend actually sitting down with a piece of paper and mapping out the different levels of your support network. If you aren’t sure how to do this, I’ve made a workbook that shows you how. Once you have mapped out your support, and defined roles/boundaries, then you can start activating your support. Your people want to help you, and giving everyone a specific role ahead of time means they know exactly how you want to be helped. With a properly defined and activated support network, you don’t need a million friends and family nearby, you can have a small but mighty team who is ready to help. 

If the idea of telling people how you need them to help, or even worse, setting boundaries with the people you don’t want all over you postpartum makes you uncomfortable-  Don’t stress! I’ve outlined those steps for you, including some text templates that help you communicate your needs and set boundaries, in my Preventing Postpartum Depression Workbook.

3. Set realistic expectations for postpartum.

If you haven’t experienced the postpartum period before, it’s incredibly important that you have a real-life idea of what it’s like to have a newborn and recover from birth. Be forewarned, it’s not all snuggles and love. There is so much change in a very short period of time, and navigating this immense change while sleep deprived can be overwhelming. I advise all first-timers (both moms and dads) to reach out to their friends who have had children in the last few years, and ask them open-ended questions. For example: “What was it like for you to become a mom/dad?” 

When I talk to expecting parents, I like to review what I call The 5 Factors of Overwhelm in the 4th Trimester: Breastfeeding, Identity, Relationship changes, Physical recovery, and Sleep deprivation (which has the handy acronym BIRPS). Make sure when you talk to your friends and your OB provider you hit all of these topics. All parents should have a rough idea how these 5 factors can play into the postpartum experience. 

4. Prioritize sleep.

This is vital both at the end of pregnancy and postpartum. Research shows that women who are getting enough sleep at the end of pregnancy have lower rates of postpartum depression (Bonus: well-rested mamas have shorter labors and increased chances of a vaginal delivery too!). The 3 easiest ways to improve your sleep: #1 Go to bed at the same time every night (this trains your brain to produce melatonin and get sleepy at the right time) #2 Stay away from devices for the hour before bedtime. #3 Have a regular bedtime routine. In pregnancy, I liked to combine my bedtime routine with kick counts and bonding. If you need more help improving your own sleep, check out these 8 Steps to Help YOU Get Restful Sleep.

Prioritizing sleep postpartum does not mean “sleep when the baby sleeps,” (that’s actually really hard to do!), but it does mean learning about newborn sleep patterns and how to set healthy sleep habits from day one. The good news is that you’re in the right place. I cannot recommend the Taking Cara Babies Will I Ever Sleep Again? Newborn class enough, because with the right knowledge and tools you can, and will, sleep again!

5. Prepare for the possibility of PMADs.

Even with perfectly implemented prevention, you could still experience a postpartum mood/anxiety disorder. There are two things I want you to do to prepare for this possibility. 

First, ask yourself, “If I knew in advance that I was going to experience a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder, what would I want to have prepared?” Write it down, and then get some or all of those things ready. For example: “I would want to have a great therapist.” Perfect, do a little research right now, ask around, and have contact information for a therapist at the ready. 

The second thing I want you to do is remember this: if you are struggling postpartum, find a way to get 4-5 (or more) hours of uninterrupted sleep for YOU. I don’t care if you have to supplement, or someone has to drive your baby to the other side of town. Your mental health matters, and the symptoms of sleep deprivation and postpartum depression mirror each other. If you wake up still in a fog, still feeling hopeless: call your provider or Postpartum Support International (1-800-944-4773).

If at any point you are considering hurting yourself or others, please contact the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255).

Long story short…

There are things you can do to decrease your risk of postpartum depression, but that does not mean it is your fault. From brain chemistry to the role of the placenta, the development of postpartum depression is far from simple. Many of the risk factors for PMADs are out of your control. 

If you’re interested in implementing the prevention strategies discussed in this article, you can get a free copy of my Preventing Postpartum Depression Workbook from my website.

Best Wishes for a Happy and Healthy 4th Trimester!

Dr. Christine Sterling

is a board-certified ObGyn, who after her own challenging postpartum experience, committed to transforming the way we support and prepare women for the 4th trimester. For more guidance and information about pregnancy and postpartum, follow her on Instagram (and make sure to say Hi if you do!)

Dr. Christine Sterling

is a board-certified ObGyn, who after her own challenging postpartum experience, committed to transforming the way we support and prepare women for the 4th trimester. For more guidance and information about pregnancy and postpartum, follow her on Instagram (and make sure to say Hi if you do!)