The Science Behind Perinatal Mental Health Challenges

For most new moms, the excitement of pregnancy and the birth of a child is a time of joy. But for first-time moms, it’s also a time of newness: New life, new expectations, and – most surprisingly for many – a new identity.

We are only now starting to really recognize motherhood as a developmental stage of being a woman. Yet the more we focus on this exciting time, the more we realize just how impactful it is! Plus, a greater understanding could shed brighter light on the residual mental health complications of pregnancy, such as postpartum depression and anxiety.

Here’s what we know about the science behind the perinatal period, as well as what we can look forward to learning more about in the future.

The perinatal period is a time of profound neurological change

We continue to find out more and more about how pregnancy and the "4th trimester" are game changers for new mothers’ brains. As recently covered by the Boston Globe, motherhood ushers in the most profound neurobiological changes for women.

This is in part due to a flood of hormones that happen. As a result, new moms can experience symptoms like:

Viewing motherhood as “matrescence” – a developmental stage

When we view new motherhood through the lens of a developmental stage (much like we do adolescence) we see it in a new, more understandable light. This stage has been coined "matrescence.”

During matrescence, you may feel like – while parts of your pre-pregnant self remains intact – your whole world is shifting as you adapt to having a baby in your life.

You are immediately thrust into a new version of you, one whose sole focus at first is caring for your infant; it takes time to integrate the new role you have with your identity as the "old" you.

This can mean many additional changes in your life – including your work, your living structure, and other factors. In fact, moms often talk about the "new normal" that develops after their babies are born.  

I believe this kind of statement or feeling is actually identifying this developmental change.  To assist in adapting to all this change, moms definitely need a support team in place to tend to her needs, and share the responsibility of caring for her baby as well.

The “old you” isn’t gone – you’ve just expanded

When you move through becoming a teenager, the little girl in you isn't completely gone – you carry her with you into adulthood.  The same is true for the 'you' before motherhood. I really believe we integrate that version of you into this new mom version of you, you bring her with you into motherhood.  

Adolescence was a confusing and strange time that had a lot of social transitions and growth as well as hormonal shifts.  Most of us even got a whole video in health class devoted to this.  

But for motherhood?  No video yet. But a lot of the same ideas apply.  

Our brains and bodies are going through a significant amount of change, and our social constructs are also shifting.  So please be gentle with yourself during this time, and know that you may require more support than you usually do.  Allow yourself to ask for help and receive help.  Know that integration takes time, and a new normal will develop and begin to feel more comfortable.