9 things no one tells you about postpartum mental health


Dr. Kelly Fradin, pediatrician and author of Advanced Parenting, knows a thing or two about the pressures modern parents face.

As a practicing physician and a mom of two children herself, she started the popular social media account Advice I Give My Friends to share some of the health information and advice she hoped could help other parents.

And as a survivor of childhood cancer, she saw first-hand how the stress of a child’s diagnosis can impact a family. In Advanced Parenting, Dr. Fradin shares insights from behind the pediatrician’s desk to help parents be their own best advocates for their family’s health and mental health care. 

On the occasion of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month in May, Cradlewise spoke with Dr. Fradin about postpartum mental health traps to avoid, and what she wishes more overwhelmed new parents knew.

Cradlewise: As a medical expert, what do you wish more parents knew about navigating mental health post baby?

Kelly Fradin: When parents have a newborn, it’s a joyful time, but it’s also a time with a lot of change, stress, and sleep deprivation. It’s normal that people struggle with their mental health due to all of the change and all the stress. 

I think some parents feel pressured to be happy, because if they’re not happy, it’s an indication that they don’t love their child—but it’s really rather the opposite.

It’s because you’re so committed and love your child, that you’re working so hard to adapt to this change in your life, that you may feel sad or anxious or overwhelmed. And that’s to be expected.

CW: Definitely. And what are some common misconceptions or challenges that you’ve seen with parents of patients in your practice?

KF: Most pediatricians make a habit of checking in about new parents’ mental health, just because of how common it is to have sad, upsetting, or anxious thoughts.

It’s a misconception for parents to think that they’re the only one who struggles with these sorts of concerns, when really, nearly half of parents meet criteria for having postpartum mental health concerns.

CW: It definitely feels like you’re the only one when you’re going through it. What challenges do parents face when navigating our mental health care system, either for themselves or for their children?

KF: The unfortunate reality is that the mental health care system is not very accessible in the United States.

There are not enough mental health care providers in many communities. The wait lists are long, the availability of accessible time slots is low, and insurance-covered services are often extremely limited. It can take a lot of work and patience to find the right fit for your mental health team. 

But again, you’re not alone in that work. You can ask your primary care doctor. Many insurance companies have resource lines to help you find a good solution.

Many states have programs where you can get connected in your time of need. You just have to keep trying and continue to reach out for resources. 

CW: I know you spoke about parents often feeling like they’re the only ones going through this. But are there any other mental health traps that parents should be aware of?

KF: I think parents put a lot of pressure on themselves to be experts about everything related to their child’s well being.

And they also put a lot of blame on themselves when their child has extra needs identified, whether it’s developmental delays or mental health concerns. 

But you know, the truth of the matter is that parents don’t have control over everything. And sometimes, even if you’re doing everything right, your child may struggle and need extra assistance, and it’s not your fault.

I think that’s one barrier that may keep parents from reaching out for help—they feel guilty somehow, or as if they could have avoided it somehow. That’s just something that we as parents tell ourselves, that’s not true. So if we can get past that, we can be more open to asking for help.

CW: We know that parenthood is a joyful experience, but can definitely also be lonely at times. How can parents cope with that loneliness and build meaningful connections with other families in their community?

KF: That’s a great question. Being open and vulnerable with other parents is an important way to build those connections.

Sometimes parents feel like they have to have everything together and be perfect and have their kids in the right outfits and hitting the right milestones and doing everything along a certain timeline, like sleeping through the night.

And then they feel judged by others if they aren’t doing everything “right,” like maybe they can’t handle it. 

But the reality is that most parents struggle to get through the day to day when we have little kids. If we can be honest and open about that, we can find more authentic relationships and authentic support for where we are in the parenting journey.

CW: I know you touched on this a little bit, but how can parents reassess their expectations? What are some practical tools they can use? 

KF: One thing that parents often tell themselves is that they’re the only one that can really do something—like when you’re first trying to get your child on a schedule, or learning how to feed your child in a way that works for them.

It can feel like you can’t step back and let somebody else help, because no one else can do it like you. 

Maybe nobody else will do it exactly like you. But other people can substitute in to feed your child or watch your child, so you can get rest and take care of your own well-being.

That time away is often very restorative and important. So I’m always encouraging parents to accept help, even if the grandparents or the babysitter might not do it exactly the same way. It’s good enough to take good care of your child while you get good care for yourself.

CW: What are some practical strategies and resources parents can use to prevent parental burnout? Taking a break is definitely an important one, but are there any other things that can help?

KF: Yes—setting limits, and acknowledging that you can’t do everything. Acknowledging that it’s okay to do less is important! We want to take every opportunity for our child, but sometimes you just can’t. So thoughtfully doing less, I think, is one way to prevent burnout. 

And accepting that when you have a little baby, just getting out of the house one time a day is a pretty ambitious plan! When you reset your expectations for what a successful day looks like, you might set yourself up for more satisfaction.

CW: How can parents cultivate a sense of joy in their day to day lives?

KF: I think finding moments of flow is really helpful for this. That can be really hard as a new parent when everything feels new. But when you get into more of a routine, and you can live in the moment where you are, that can help you to feel more joyful. 

Often, it’s a form of meditation to think of something you can see, something you can smell, and something you can hear. Grounding yourself in the present moment helps to keep you from worrying excessively, or being anxious about the next parts of your day and staying on schedule.

Having those moments where you’re really just living in the moment is a good way to promote joy.

CW: We know that a lot of the challenges parents face are really symptoms of a society that wasn’t built around our needs. So from a larger standpoint, what structural support do parents need to thrive?

KF: Yes. Today’s parents are physically isolated from others in a way that generations previously weren’t.

We weren’t really meant to be able to parent by ourselves—the idea was that we lived in multi-generational homes and we had siblings and neighbors and more supports. Reorienting our communities to make it so that it’s easier to ask for help, and to be surrounded by others who share your mission of raising your children, is the real secret sauce to helping parents actually be more supported in their parenting journey.  

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