Navigating the postpartum stage is difficult for any mother, whether it’s your first baby or your third. The sleepless nights, the change in routines and roles, the physical and hormonal changes and simply the stress of caring for an infant tends to be overwhelming for all mothers at some point during this period. Many women have family and friends that they rely on to help support the transition into motherhood and beyond. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it increasingly difficult for parents to be able to rely on individuals outside their home for the support that they may so desperately need. As a result of this, many women may experience increasing feelings of isolation and anxiety with the thought of having minimal to no external help from outside the home.
1 in 4 women in Canada will experience postpartum depression and recent studies are showing an increase in anxiety and depression among mothers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although this statistic may seem daunting for women currently pregnant or who have just given birth, it does not necessarily mean postpartum mood disorders are inevitable for a large portion of women. There are protective practices that all women can utilize to minimize the onset of or greater cope with these negative emotions during postpartum.
Occupational therapists (OTs) are well positioned to work together with women through the postpartum period by helping to navigate and support the early stages of motherhood, especially during a pandemic. OTs can support women who identify with any postpartum mood changes, either temporary or lasting, by helping them engage in meaningful activities to promote their mental and physical well-being. Below are some tips that can be helpful to keep healthy during periods of isolation.
Although most of us at this point are exhausted of using online communication platforms like Zoom (including myself!) it is vital for our mental health to maintain some form of social connection during these isolating times. Modern technology has allowed us to stay connected through a variety of outlets. This may look like setting up coffee chats over Facetime, playing board games over Zoom or participating virtually in a shared hobby with a group of friends. Regardless of the way you make it happen, socialization is an important part of keeping healthy. Checking in with an acquaintance, family or loved one outside of your immediate household helps to add variety to our normal day-to-day connections. It can provide an escape to a very routine, standard day and give everyone something to look forward to. Of course, these days, it is important to ensure that you are following your local government COVID regulations if connecting beyond an online visit.
As an OT, we consider socialization to be a crucial leisure activity. By completely eliminating this aspect of one’s lifestyle, the result could be feelings of loneliness and possible experiences of fluctuations in mood, our capacity to handle stress, and episodes of fear, anxiety and worry. Although it likely does take more effort to socialize during this time, it is important for our overall health and well-being to feel connected and supported by others. If we, as adults and parents, are able to build even a little bit more resiliency within ourselves, we can be better equipped to support our children’s mental health and, hopefully their overall experiences of growing up in a global pandemic.
It’s in response to an identified need, that Willow Family OT is now running free weekly virtual gatherings every Wednesday and Friday for mothers at any postpartum stage to meet and connect with others. We are hoping to create a safe space for mothers to socialize and feel a sense of connection that so many of us are in need of right now!
Get in the Outdoors
Something that I think many of us forget to do now that we may not have as many reasons to leave the house, is simply going outside once a day. Prior to the pandemic, we had regular work and school hours, appointments, meetings with friends, shopping trips, and so many other activities and responsibilities that we didn’t have to think twice about leaving out homes. All of these reasons were motivators for us to get out of the house and be outside, even if just running to and from our car. So, when we are faced with provincial stay-at-home orders and the need to consider if leaving our house is safe or necessary, it’s becoming more common to simply not go outside at all.
Personally, I am guilty of going days without realizing that I haven’t been outside and eventually I start to feel pent up anxiety and stress without having the calming effect of being outdoors. A large component of the practice at Willow Family OT is using eco-therapy and aspects of the environment to promote mental well-being. Research has found that getting outside for only a few minutes per day can help to reduce mental fatigue and experience more positive emotions while eliminating negative and depressive feelings. Making the purposeful effort to get outside at least once a day, as hard as that can be some days, can have a significant positive impact on our overall well-being. Building regular outdoor time into the daily family routine can help motivate everyone to get outside and experience the many mental and physical benefits associated with being outside.
Although it may be more difficult to get outside during the colder winter months with your baby or older children, there are so many benefits of being outdoors in the winter. When considerations for appropriate clothing, duration of time outside, and changing weather conditions are made, it can be safe and healthy for children of all ages to spend time outside.
There will be days where it just might not be a realistic part of your day. These are the days where stepping outside momentarily on your porch, deck or balcony can be helpful. During this time, take a break and focus on your surroundings, pay attention to the activation of your senses; hearing, touch, and smell to elicit the relaxation and restorative effects gained when spending longer periods of time outdoors. By dedicating some time within the day to get outdoors, you are likely to feel more at peace, grounded and prepared to carry on with the rest of your motherhood responsibilities.
It is so important for all of us to remember that self-care isn’t selfish, especially after giving birth. Oftentimes, questions and concerns are baby-centred; how is the baby gaining weight? How is the baby nursing? How is the baby sleeping? Which are important questions, however, it is equally important to be asking, how is mom managing? How is mom eating? How is mom sleeping?
As an OT, we urge our clients to try to find a balance between productivity, self-care and leisurely activities within their day to help maintain optimal health. Although this may seem improbable to achieve for a lot of new moms, it is critical to identify some activities that you can do throughout your day for yourself that you find meaningful and will help to promote your well-being. Prior to the pandemic, our self-care activities may have looked differently and involved going to different places with different people. But there are still activities to engage in that can help promote positive mental health and wellness. This can include some form of light and safe physical activity outside or around the home, creating a meaningful morning or evening routine, such as listening to a podcast or book before bed, journaling, knitting or even just watching a TV show you enjoy. Regardless of which self-care activity you find personally meaningful, finding time within your day to commit to engaging in an activity that is purely for yourself and your own benefit is an important part of being human! Once becoming a mother, self-care can become less of a priority but it is important for mom’s needs to be met so she can meet the needs of her baby.
Too often throughout our days, we complete tasks mindlessly, and as a result, tend to rush through our day looking toward the next thing to do instead of staying present with what we are doing in the moment. If we utilize a mindfulness approach to help focus on the task and activities at hand, we can begin to have a greater appreciation for even the more mundane or routine tasks throughout our day. I know this is easier said than done, but with the lack of external help right now, we are more likely to experience greater rates of physical and mental exhaustion, whether you are a mother or not. Mindfulness training can help to enhance our well-being by grounding us and bringing the focus back into the activities that we are participating in. Research has found that mindfulness techniques can help prevent burnout and improve our attention retention skills. Caring for children, especially a new baby, can lead to mental and physical burnout due, in part, to the severe fatigue that many mothers experience. This supports the perceived benefits of incorporating mindful moments throughout your day.
Oftentimes, when we think of mindfulness, we automatically think of mediation, which may or may not be the right approach for all individuals. However, a mindfulness approach takes on a variety of forms and can include engaging in activities such as yoga and meditation but it also can simply be taking a moment to stop and focus on your breath, focusing on the movement and cues within your body, stopping to actively listen to someone and making eye contact, and allowing yourself to become aware of what you are doing. It is an attempt to come out of autopilot, even if at first, just for a moment. Making these simple yet powerful activities part of your day, you are likely going to positively impact your mental health and feel more engaged in the activities that you are participating in.
Going through labour and postpartum during lockdown is something that no mother would have expected for themselves when they were considering their birth plan and recovery. It is important to reach out for support during this time if you feel you are experiencing any postpartum mood changes and take the necessary steps to protect your mental health. Remember that while each of our situations are different, you are not alone experiencing this isolation. My hope is that there is comfort found in applying these strategies to daily life.
At Willow Family OT we offer a free 20 minute consult to ensure our services would be a good fit for you. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you need to speak to someone about your experiences transitioning into motherhood or parenting during a pandemic.
Written by: Sydney-Ellen Cooke, Student Occupational Therapist