What to know about postpartum anxiety and how it goes beyond typical new baby worries

What to know about postpartum anxiety and how it goes beyond typical new baby worries
Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • It's typical to worry about a new baby, but 10% of women will experience clinical anxiety in the postpartum period.
  • Postpartum anxiety can make it difficult to function and can interfere with bonding.
  • Many women can treat anxiety without medication, although some will need pharmaceutical support.

In recent years, more and more women have spoken out about postpartum depression. Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon to Chrissy Teigen have spoken about the sadness and dark moods that go beyond the baby blues.

Because of this increased awareness, many people now know that postpartum depression is the most common pregnancy complication for American women, affecting one in 8 moms. But there's another postpartum mental health condition that hasn't received the same amount of attention despite the fact that it affects many mothers: postpartum anxiety.

It's normal to have some worries after bringing home a new baby. Nearly every parent has gotten up at some point to check if their infant is still breathing — an experience so universal that there are now products meant to put your mind at ease.

But for approximately 10% of women, worry and fear goes beyond this level, and begins interfering with day-to-day life, said Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.

"That's when it becomes a problem because they're not functioning because they're so focused on the fear," Mendez said.


Here's how you can recognize signs of postpartum anxiety, and get help if you need it.

Recognizing postpartum anxiety

Humans have evolved to fret over their babies. It's normal for a parent to wonder if the baby is eating enough and developing normally, or if they're doing OK in the new role of parent. In fact, those traits are adaptive, Mendez said — they help our species stay alive and thriving.

Postpartum anxiety occurs when typical, adaptive worries become maladaptive, and begin interfering with a person's life. For example, a mother who is afraid to let anyone else hold her baby, or who misses doctor's appointments because she's too worried about leaving the house has anxiety that is interfering with her life, Mendez said.

Oftentimes, anxiety can begin during pregnancy, and is diagnosed most often in the first six months after giving birth. Many women experience both postpartum depression and anxiety.

Treating postpartum anxiety

Women who believe they're experiencing postpartum anxiety can reach out to their OB/GYN, or even their child's pediatrician. Oftentimes, that doctor will be able to help facilitate a connection to a licensed mental health counselor.


For many women, treating postpartum anxiety doesn't have to involve medication.

"Medication can be an option, but would not be the first choice, unless the person as a history of struggling with anxiety disorder," Mendez said.

For people who are diagnosed with clinical anxiety, Mendez recommends talking with a licensed counselor who can help develop strategies for keeping anxiety at bay.

But for many people who are experiencing anxiety, making behavioral and lifestyle changes is enough to help get anxiety under control. Mendez recommends:

  • Practicing mindfulness: Simple steps like doing a 10-minute meditation while the baby sleeps in the same room can help quiet your mind.
  • Make time for yourself: Taking care of yourself by showering, exercising and getting fresh air can all help with anxiety symptoms.
  • Connect with other mothers: Having a community of moms — whether in person or online — can help you learn about strategies to overcome your anxiety.
  • Sleep: Sleep deprivation makes anxiety symptoms worse, so allow someone else to take the baby and give you a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.

It's ok to start slow, Mendez said. If your anxiety makes it difficult to be away from your baby, meditate in the same room as your child, but not holding them. When you're comfortable with that, allow someone else to stay with the baby while you nap in the other room, or take a walk around the block.


"Changes don't have to be so drastic and dramatic. They can be slow and gradual," Mendez said.

Long-term effects of postpartum anxiety

Because depression can lead to fears of self-harm or suicide, there's been a big push to recognize and treat the condition, Mendez said. For a long time, postpartum anxiety that leads to overprotection was considered less serious, but now mental health providers recognize that it needs treatment, just like depression does.

"When anxiety becomes so untenable that it paralyzes the mother, that will severely impact the relationship with the baby," Mendez said.

Children raised by mothers with uncontrolled anxiety are more likely to exhibit signs of anxiety themselves, for example.

"That inhibits their ability to learn and prosper," Mendez said.


Helping someone with postpartum anxiety

Oftentimes, family members and friends can find themselves frustrated by a mother's postpartum anxiety.

"Family members will dismiss a mother's worries, or say, 'you're being ridiculous,'" Mendez said. "Things like that aren't helpful. We don't want to shame anybody."

Instead, family members should acknowledge that the woman is struggling. Recognize her worry, like a fear that something will happen if she leaves her baby. Then, help her deconstruct that worry. For example, talking about other times when the baby has been fine when left for a few minutes could help.

"Help her check in to reality versus the catastrophic thinking that's not reality based," Mendez said.

If you continue to be concerned, talk to your loved one about postpartum anxiety, and help her understand how common the condition is. Offering to help make a doctors appointment or to accompany her to one can be a first step.


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