How New Parents Can Reduce their Risk of Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders


A Bringing Baby Home Educator shares mood enhancing strategies that parents learn in The Gottman Institute’s Bringing Baby Home Workshop.

Embracing Change

The Bringing Baby Home Workshop prepares expectant and new parents for the excitements and challenges they’ll likely face.

When you become a parent, you want to feel calm and confident, but that’s often harder than you expect. Obstacles can get in the way, and unprepared parents may feel overwhelmed. 

Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) are mental health illnesses that can occur during pregnancy, birth, or postpartum. These illnesses include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), and postpartum psychosis. PMADs can affect pregnant and birthing people, their partners, and people of all genders. 

There are a number of risk factors for PMADs (you can learn about risk factors and other frequently asked questions here). Some risk factors are based on things you can’t control — like family and personal history — but others you can influence.

There are many strategies to build your resilience in the Bringing Baby Home Workshop! Let’s look at a few.

Small Things Often

While your moods may fluctuate, your overall happiness level is like a muscle: it doesn’t get weaker or stronger instantly. If you ignore symptoms of depression or anxiety and hope that the problem will go away, you are likely to find yourself feeling more depressed and anxious.

If you get the support you need, while building habits that feel good and are not too easy and not too hard, you are likely to get happier over time. And, when you do things that you enjoy, the pleasure pathways in your brain grow stronger!

Bringing Baby Home offers creative ideas for “small things often” that build and maintain a couple’s friendship, keep them happier, and help them manage conflict. The workshop has also been shown to reduce perinatal mood and anxiety disorders in both mothers and fathers. Here are 3 specific examples of Bringing Baby Home strategies that can decrease your risk of a mood or anxiety disorder:

Touch Rituals

Listen to your body and see what works best for you. Here are some ideas to experiment with:

  • Give your partner a Six-Second Kiss or hug.
  • Dance together. This can be fancy, simple, or anything in between! You can have a dance party with your kids, or you can slow dance with your partner when your kids are occupied.
  • Trade massages.
  • Massage your baby. Research shows that massaging your baby can have positive effects on your mood as well as your baby’s mood!  
  • Snuggle time. Snuggle with your partner. Snuggle with your kids.  
  • Take a bath with your baby (see here or here for details on benefits, overcoming fears, and safety considerations).
  • Plan for physical intimacy with your partner. Often, if you don’t plan it, it becomes the “last chore of the day.” Also, unless you are adopting, there are 6 weeks or more of recovery when sex is “off limits,” so it’s important to find ways to stay connected during that time. The Bringing Baby Home class has an exercise (with privacy for the discussion) to talk about what’s working and what you need.

You can create touch rituals at the beginning of the day, when you say goodbye to go to work, when you come home at the end of the day, or before bed. One of my favorite rituals (which I learned from Bringing Baby Home) is dancing with my husband most days after breakfast. It’s become a special way that we connect and it gets our day off to a much calmer start.

Express Your Needs Clearly and Often

A “bid” is a term we use in the Bringing Baby Home Workshop for the ways that we express needs or ask for help. We teach you about the 3 ways people express their needs: a clear bid, an unclear bid, or a negative bid.  

The intention of Bringing Baby Home is that you’ll learn to express your needs clearly and respectfully. Couples who thrive in their relationships tend to use “I” statements, like “I felt upset when the dishes weren’t done last night. I need you to help me with the dishes so that they don’t pile up.”  

The challenge is that some needs are more vulnerable to express than others. In these situations, it can be easy to be unclear about what you need (an unclear bid). You might say “It’s cold in here,” when what you really mean is, “How interested are you in sex right now?”

When your needs are unclear or unexpressed for too long, they can start to build up. In these cases you often end up stating your needs in negative ways, including sarcasm, mockery, or criticism. When you hear these divorce-predicting behaviors happening, you can ask each other, “What do you need right now?”

I always tell couples, “You have an awesome partner, but they’re not a mind reader. They don’t know what you appreciate or what you need unless you tell them.” So tell them, and be as clear as possible.

Stress Reducing Conversations

What makes a conversation reduce stress? Empathy. When you focus on making your partner feel heard and valued, rather than fixing the problem for them, you help them reduce stress. And often, if you can learn to ask great questions, you may find that your partner figures out the answer themselves! Being able to talk to your partner or a friend in a way that makes you feel seen and heard is a gift.

A Positive Cycle

Relationship strain is a risk factor for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Research shows that two-thirds of couples who have a baby experience significant increases in hostility when a baby is born. The Bringing Baby Home Workshop helps couples to reduce hostility and strengthen their relationships.

I like to say that babies are emotional sponges. When you use the “small things often” approach to feel better, your baby will feel better too. And that can create a positive cycle where your baby cries less because you feel better, and you feel better because your baby is crying less.  

If you are at higher risk for PMADs or are starting to show symptoms during pregnancy, talk to your care provider about your concerns.

If you find yourself experiencing a PMAD, where can you go for help?  

References:

Stamm, J., & Spencer, P. (2007). Bright from the start: the simple, science-backed way to nurture your child’s developing mind, from birth to age 3. New York, N.Y.: Gotham Books. 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18086500/



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