New mothers need a strong and proactive support system to help prevent or recover from a pregnancy-related mood disorder. Though a close relative or friend may be the star captain of a new mom’s support team, this role is often played by her partner. But the spotlight can be challenging for someone who might also feel overwhelmed by having a newborn, and, as studies are beginning to reveal, is probably also going through biological changes related to parenthood.
Here are some things effective partners can do to help a loved one prevent or recover from depression or anxiety during or after pregnancy. If you’re able to do even one of these things, which together spell out PARTNERS, you’ll be a tremendous help.
P Is for Present
As a caring partner, you should be present in the new mom’s life and a part of any treatment she may undergo for a mood disorder. Perhaps you can cut down on business trips, shorten your workday or after-work commitments or even work from home. If possible, you can attend appointments or engage in other therapeutic activities with your partner. At the very least, be psychologically present and engaged. That means put away your phone, and make eye contact with your partner when she’s talking to you.
A Is for Aware
Try to be aware of how your partner feels, including what her triggers are and what might be helpful to her. Remember that being aware of and sympathetic to a problem is often more helpful than solving the problem.
R Is for Responsive
When you are aware, you respond to your partner’s needs, maybe even without being asked (wink wink). For example, be willing to change diapers, take care of necessary but tiring chores and orchestrate visits from helpful relatives (and delay visits from unhelpful ones). Help with older children, and find babysitters or household help if possible.
T Is for Thankful
Try to be grateful to your partner for the little and big things she does. Express that thanks verbally and help her celebrate small victories. For example, “Thank you! Changing that stinkiest-ever diaper was really taking one for the team!” is something no one minds hearing, as long as you’re also helping to change the stinky diapers.
N Is for Nice
Be kind. When all else fails, a supportive partner is simply nice. Smile at her, send nice messages, say nice things, make occasional jokes, offer a soothing touch, send her for a massage, use a tender voice or bring home dinner.
E Is for Encouraging
Most parents wonder if they’re doing a good enough job. With postpartum depression, that uncertainty often becomes guilt, doubt or obsessive worry. Be a mom’s cheerleader, especially when the baby is upset or in other situations when mom might feel like she’s losing the game. Something like, “Wow, this is tough, and you’re doing an awesome job,” is a good phrase to have ready.
R Is for Resourceful
S Is for Sleep-Enabling
Research increasingly demonstrates that getting inadequate sleep contributes to perinatal depression, and that getting enough sleep helps with recovery and mood.
Help your partner get more sleep. Ideally, she will sleep at least when the baby sleeps during the day, as well as during the night. Take one for the team and let this happen by waking with the baby a few times. If your partner can’t sleep, she might need professional help.
If you’re a single parent, or you’re reading this trying to help one, remember that anyone who cares can be the support team captain for a mom struggling with depression. Postpartum depression is treatable and preventable, and you’re an important player in the health of your family.
Contact the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders to get more help.