Pregnant women are frequently advised to exercise properly, to watch what they eat and to avoid drinking or smoking while with child.
But most women are not instructed to consider psychotherapy as an important part of their prenatal care regimen, which can be critical to the well-being of both the mother and the baby during and after pregnancy. While pregnancy is often viewed as a time full of excitement, eagerness and anticipation for a soon-to-be mother, it is not uncommon for a woman to experience maternal mental health disorders, including depression and anxiety, during pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Consider that people frequently choose to attend therapy before they make a major life transition, such as getting married or changing career paths. Tackling all of the challenges that come with pregnancy and parenthood can be just as stress inducing as embarking on any other monumental life shift.
Motherhood is an identity shift that can bring about a lot of complex feelings for women. Similar to how getting married signifies a shift from single life to married life, pregnancy signifies a shift from being solely responsible for one’s self to being responsible for another human being’s life.
The anticipation of a baby’s birth can easily evoke optimistic, happy emotions but it can also leave a woman feeling anxious and unsure. She may feel torn between wanting to have a child and feeling like she is losing her independence. A woman may worry about how motherhood will affect her relationships with others, her career and her finances.
Psychotherapy can often help expectant mothers work through some of these stressors and effectively express the conflicting emotion that they are experiencing, Therapy sessions offer new moms a safe place in which they can talk about topics such as fear and regret and receive support without feeling as though they are being judged.
Research shows that when pregnant women experience anxiety, stress and depression, it can have lasting effects on them as well as the developing baby. According to studies conducted by the March of Dimes, high levels of stress that continue for a long time may cause a variety of health problems, like high blood pressure or heart disease. This type of prolonged stress can also increase a woman’s chances of having a premature baby (born before 37 weeks of pregnancy) or a low-birthweight baby (weighing less than 5½ pounds). Babies that are born too soon or too small are at an increased risk for health problems.
Unfortunately, the stigma that is associated with maternal mental health frequently keeps pregnant women from seeking therapy. There is a sense of shame that is often linked to mothers who are thinking anything other than happy thoughts during their pregnancy.
The introduction of mental health care and therapy as part of routine preventive prenatal care would help to offset that stigma. By starting earlier in pregnancy to prevent these depressions, maternal mental health care can help women be physically, mentally and emotionally healthier.