Maternal mental health describes women’s mental health during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period. Up to 20% of pregnant or postpartum women experience perinatal mood disorders, including postpartum depression (PPD), perinatal post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and postpartum anxiety, which negatively affect daily function during pregnancy and the post-birth year.
Many women struggle with the “baby blues,” some more severely than others. The “baby blues” are used to describe mild mood changes and feelings of worry, unhappiness, and exhaustion that many women sometimes experience in the first two weeks after having a baby. If mood changes and feelings of anxiety or sadness are severe or last longer than two weeks, a woman may have postpartum depression.
After firsthand experiences with new mothers, Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) graduate Victoria Briltz decided to focus on occupational therapy’s role in maternal mental health for her OTD capstone project.
During her literature research, she found several articles on maternal mental health and breastfeeding and the correlation between the two. She recalled her internship experience in a neonatal intensive care unit and narrowed her topic to maternal mental health in mothers who had NICU babies and their transition from hospital to home.
“When diving into the research for the early-intervention population,” Dr. Briltz said. “What I found to be the number one stressor within the daily routine of new mothers is difficulty with feeding, specifically breastfeeding, because they have received lactation services during their baby’s NICU stay. The co-occupation between breastfeeding dyads is complex; mothers need support within their natural environment to feel confident.”
She completed the dissemination process at an early intervention site called STARS Therapy Services and connected with the company’s program director. She was then paired with a therapist who worked with fragile NICU babies. She was with the babies for 16 weeks, first observing, then interviewing mothers, and finally introducing the potential roles of OT practice in this area. These could include professional support upon transition home, as well as providing education and individualized care for families when discharging them home.
The first OT role in assisting new moms that Dr. Briltz discovered comes in the form of self-care. New moms tend to focus solely on their babies, so their self-care is diminished. Dr. Briltz said she interviewed some mothers that had not showered for days because they felt they were doing their baby a disservice in interrupting constant attention.
Due to the fragile state of many NICU babies, this puts an extra stressor on the moms in Dr. Briltz’s research because their babies require extra care.
“It’s essential to reassure moms that it’s okay to take a shower or have some time for yourself because research shows that mothers mental health has a direct correlation to the baby’s cognitive and emotional development,” Dr. Briltz said.
In addition to mental health, another focus of Dr. Briltz’s research was the mothers’ sleep routines. OT can help provide a sleep routine that satisfies the baby’s needs and the mom’s needs, including crafting the right sleep environment. Lastly, Dr. Briltz found these new mothers were also in need of help with home environment settings and medical management routines for their newborns.
“Collaboration, advocacy and education are the three pillars I have adapted during my capstone experience. As a part of an interdisciplinary team, OTs work in parallel with Physical Therapists, Speech Language Pathologists, International Board Certified Lactation Consultants, Applied Behavior Analysts and other healthcare professionals. It is important to implement the three pillars to ensure the mother and baby dyad’s success.”
Dr. Briltz learned the importance of advocating for her patients and setting aside any judgements or preconceived notions about how these mothers should be interacting and progressing with their babies. Education provides the mothers with the specific skills they need to succeed on their own, based on their situations and home environments.
Her research experience made Dr. Briltz excited about where she could take her career as an OT. Maternal mental health is an emerging practice area, and her research inspired her to dive deeper into maternal wellness and breastfeeding from an OT perspective.