Healthy Ways for New Moms to Handle COVID-19 Related Stress

When I gave birth to my firstborn earlier this year, I was overcome with the stress and demands that come with caring for a newborn, while experiencing sleep deprivation, learning how to breastfeed, and wondering what to make of fluctuating hormones. While my son was a joy, the newborn phase wasn’t fun.

Having a new baby can feel and be incredibly isolating in itself, but I was fortunate enough to have some friends and family visit those first few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we were under social isolation. I was also able to deliver in a hospital without concerns of being surrounded by COVID-19 patients like many women were experiencing this spring and summer. And though I was going through this with a supportive partner, the long nights awake felt very lonely.

“Sleep deprivation along with the 24/7 demands of caring for a newborn can quickly make a new mom feel alone,” says Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, founder of The Postpartum Stress Center, and author of Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts.

That alone time can lead to constant worry, scary thoughts, and mounting insecurities, she says. “One of the greatest protectors of a new mother’s well-being is social support, but COVID-19 has forced moms inside with little or no contact with friends and family.”

Addressing the demands of an infant under sleep deprivation for days, weeks, and months can rattle the best of us. But when you tack on a global pandemic, diminishing resources, and take away the social support you might normally call on for a break, it adds on layers of stress and anxiety.

“Social and physical isolation has forced moms into an unfamiliar space with little opportunity or the much-needed support, validation, nurturance, distraction, rest, and practical assistance,” says Kleiman. “Any preexisting stressors will likely be intensified and new anxieties will emerge with a vengeance. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where this imposed isolation wouldn’t increase the risk for depression and anxiety,” she says.

Researchers from the University of Alberta confirmed what many new moms like myself were experiencing during this pandemic: “we’re not okay.” The research reported in Frontiers in Global Women’s Health surveyed 900 women, some of whom were pregnant and others who gave birth within the past year and found that 40 percent of new moms reported depressive symptoms compared to 15 percent before the pandemic. It also found that 72 percent of new mothers felt moderate to high anxiety.

While every new parent will have stress and worries no matter the situation, here are some healthy ways new moms can handle stress and anxieties during the pandemic.

Get moving. You’ve probably already heard that exercise can improve your mood and help with depressive symptoms. One of the findings of that University of Alberta study mentioned above was that women who engaged in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity during the pandemic had lower scores of depression and anxiety. Going on walks with the baby (sometimes two a day!) helped me feel better. Getting out of the house and seeing other people in my neighborhood to wave hello to helped me feel ‘normal.’ “Spend some time in the fresh air,” advises Kleiman. “Walk with the baby in sunshine. Exercise and vitamin D will feel restorative.”

Start a supportive group text. I was in a small group chat with mom friends who had children in recent years. They were so helpful with information about what worked for them when I asked random questions or when I just wanted to vent. We occasionally did group video chats, too. When you need to talk, make a phone or video call to a safe person, suggests Kleiman. “Let them know how you feel. Then…try to distract your brain and chat about something other than the way you feel. Distraction can trick your brain into believing that all is well, and that feels good.”

Create a network to help with supplies. Most of the country was worrying about lack of access to toilet paper, but do you know what many new moms were concerned about missing from shelves? Formula shortages. Diapers. Wipes. Medicine. 

“Lack of access to resources is particularly challenging and worrisome for new parents,” says Kleiman. “Having a baby in the midst of a global health crisis is likely to heighten fears. Will I have enough of what I need? Will I be prepared just in case? New moms should be reassured by loved ones that they could fill in and make sure she feels she has what she needs to protect herself and her baby.”

Support systems can gather supplies, offer to help in safe ways, and let mom know that she is not alone by connecting her to community resources that might be helpful, suggests Kleiman. Let friends and family members know what you need and where they can drop it off if you’re concerned about being in close contact.

Join social media support groups. Whether or not you have mom friends and family members in your life that can offer guidance, you might find it helpful to follow social media groups for parents in similar circumstances. Check out our Communities on the Fitbit app, request to join a Facebook group (there’s a COVID-19 babies group), and engage in conversations with new moms who gave birth around the time you did through the pregnancy websites and apps’ message boards.  

Remember to engage in self-care. Take a few deep breaths. I know, you’re probably thinking, With everything I have to do, I don’t have time to meditate. But when anxieties and stressors feel insurmountable and there’s no babysitting help in sight, a few breaths can bring you back to the present. “Breathe in and out slowly, through the nose, expanding the diaphragm,” advises Kleiman. “Longer exhales are helpful for anxiety.” 

Remembering to fill up your own tank is crucial, because you can’t give as fully as you’d like to when your own stores are depleted. Listen to a podcast, indulge in a little mini spa moment by giving yourself a mani/pedi, take a long bath, enjoy a soothing cup of tea—or all of the above! And also remember—you’re doing a great job.  

Find something funny or entertaining to distract you. As hard as it can be sometimes, it is helpful to look for little moments, or people, or hobbies that make you feel good and smile, suggests Kleiman. “Finding a reason to laugh can be surprisingly healing,” she says. I found it helpful to listen to audiobooks at times while doing mundane chores and taking care of my son. It made me feel like I was connecting with a hobby ‘old me’ liked to do—reading—but in a way that worked with my new lifestyle.

Talk to your doctor. “When levels of anxiety or depression are high, they can interfere with one’s ability to function and take care of things that need to be done,” says Kleiman. “If mom feels her anxiety is beginning to interfere with her day or if she doesn’t like the way she is feeling, she should let her healthcare provider know.

When in doubt, do not hesitate to reach out to a healthcare professional for information, support, or treatment. “There have never been so many well-trained maternal mental health providers who specialize in the treatment of pregnancy and postpartum-related mood and anxiety disorders, who are now available for individual or group support through teletherapy,” says Kleiman.

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