How to Help New Moms with Maternal Depression

Maternal depression is depression related to the birth of a child, but oftentimes symptoms occur during pregnancy as well. If you’re concerned about a mother who might be depressed and worried about how her depression might affect her baby or toddler, there is good reason for concern. But there is also hope. The following insights from CEED (Center for Early Education and Development) at UMN CEHD will help you understand the signs of maternal depression and how to help both mom and child.

When a mom is depressed, she may doubt her ability to care for her baby, feel hopeless in trying to calm her baby when it cries, or be more impatient or angry than she wants to be. If a baby sees the down-turned mouth of a sad or angry mother, he or she may respond by looking away and continuing to fuss. If a mom’s severe depression continues, her baby may have difficulty eating or sleeping and can even have delays in development. Toddlers of severely depressed moms may look angry, may be anxious, aggressive, clingy or have difficulty concentrating.

How Friends and Family can Help

There are several ways to support a mother who is experiencing depression:

  • Encourage and help her to explore treatment options and take the time to care for herself
  • Suggest getting regular exercise, improving diet and nutrition, spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation, and regular breaks from childcare or other responsibilities.
  • Give the mother a break by offering to watch the children, cook or do other household chores.
  • When possible, reduce the frequency and intensity of situations known to be difficult.
  • Support interactions that are enjoyable for both mother and child. For example, if mom and child enjoy bedtime stories, make sure it happens regularly and that other family members support it.

In addition, here are four ways to support the child’s healthy development:

  • Try to understand what the baby or child is trying to tell you.
  • Respond sensitively when the child needs attention.
  • Name the child’s feelings as they come up. For example, “You are crying so hard, you must be so sad.”
  • Provide a safe place for the child to explore and a variety of sensory and social experiences.

Professional Support

The first place to look for help is the mother’s medical doctor. Doctors often ask about depression at the baby’s six-week checkup. A doctor can help sort out whether symptoms need treatment and, if necessary, provide a referral to a mental health professional. Common treatments for depression include medication, therapy and support groups.

Please visit the CEED website to learn more about the three types of maternal depression: baby blues, postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. We also share four local and national resources recommended by our experts.

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Reprinted with permission of the Center for Early Education and Development (CEED) at CEHD UMN.

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