You’ll be bringing your baby home soon. Or maybe you already have. And you want to be there for your spouse. You know that having a baby not only affects your wife’s body, but it also affects her mental health. You want to be supportive, encouraging and helpful.
But you’re not exactly sure how to do that.
What does it look like to support your spouse’s mental health? Where do you start? What should you avoid?
Here, you’ll find suggestions from Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, a perinatal mental health and relationship expert. She’s the co-author of The Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads: How to Support Your Partner Through Birth, Breastfeeding & Beyond with Brian W. Salmon, a dad, doula and certified lactation consultant. Their new book is filled with relatable stories and practical, wise strategies. You’ll also find several excellent tips from the book below.
Listen and validate. Don’t try to fix the problem or talk your partner out of their feelings, Brunner said. (Which is something most people do.) For instance, your partner is devastated that she had to have a C-section or got an epidural. You’re trying to be supportive and reassuring, so you say there’s no reason to be upset, because your baby is perfectly healthy, and she did an amazing job.
This sounds helpful, but it actually minimizes and dismisses her feelings. Instead, what’s more helpful is to validate what your partner is saying, and empathize, Brunner said. For example, you might say: “I hear that you are feeling sad and disappointed. That wasn’t how we imagined the birth would be and we had to switch gears so quickly. I know that must have been difficult for you. I love you, I’m here for you and I’m so proud of how you navigated those unexpected challenges.”
Also, don’t get defensive, quickly change the subject or skip to your own experience, Brunner said. For example, don’t immediately blurt out, “Oh, you think you are tired? I only got 3 hours of sleep last night because of the baby crying and I had to get up and go to work this morning. I hear you on being tired!”
Help your partner get some sleep. “Sleep is essential to emotional wellness,” Brunner said. But, of course, when you have a newborn, sleep can feel like a distant dream.
Brunner suggested encouraging your partner to rest when the baby is resting. “Tell her that you’ll take care of the dishes or the laundry while she sleeps and restores her energy.”
Know what postpartum illness looks like. Brunner noted that new moms can struggle with a wide array of mental health challenges, such as depression, anxiety and/or obsessive-compulsive behaviors (known as perinatal mood and anxiety disorders or PMADS).
Thankfully, women can recover from these conditions and concerns, but the key is to get professional help. It can be hard for moms to recognize that they’re struggling with an illness, which is where you step in. If you notice any of these signs, encourage your spouse to seek help.
- Symptoms of postpartum depression last for more than 2 weeks and might include: sadness, frequent crying, intense anxiety, irritability, loss of interest in usual activities, guilt, appetite changes, excessive worry about baby’s health and suicidal thoughts.
- Postpartum anxiety disorders might include: “panic attacks, hyperventilation, excessive worry, restless sleep, and repeated thoughts or images of frightening things happening to the baby.”
- Postpartum psychosis can be severe and life-threatening, and it’s vital to get an evaluation and treatment immediately. According to Postpartum Support International, postpartum psychosis can include: delusions (thoughts that aren’t based in reality); hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that aren’t there); irritability; hyperactivity; inability to sleep; paranoia; rapid mood swings; and difficulty communicating.
Dads can struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety, too. In fact, Brunner is seeing more and more dads at her counseling practice. It’s not surprising: You’re also likely sleep deprived and stressed out. Maybe you don’t feel like you’ve really bonded with your baby. Maybe the transition to parenthood has been tougher than you imagined. If that’s the case, it’s important for you to seek help, too.
Learn your partner’s love language. “I encourage dads to make sure they are showing mom appreciation and affection in a way that feels sincere,” Brunner said. One way to do this is to know your partner’s love language and to do things that honor it.
If you’re not familiar with this concept, it comes from Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages. Each of us speaks a different love language: how we want to experience love. Chapman notes there are five love languages: words of affirmation; acts of service; receiving gifts; quality time; and physical touch.
(You and your partner can both take the quiz to discover your love language.)
For example, if your wife’s love language is “words of affirmation,” you can regularly discuss the incredible job she’s doing, Brunner said. If it’s “acts of service,” you can look for opportunities to help around the house and with the baby, she said.
Remind your partner you’re newbies. For new moms, it’s all-too easy to feel like a failure with everything they do. One big reason is the expectation that moms are supposed to inherently and intuitively know how to breastfeed, soothe the baby, and basically do everything else. So when they have any kind of trouble, they’re devastated (sleep deprivation, of course, only exacerbates this).
Brunner noted it’s natural for everything to feel like a struggle as your baby “adjusts to being in the outside world and as mom and dad gain confidence.” It will get easier, but it’s hard to see it right now. Which is why it’s so helpful for you to keep reminding her.
Practice patience with postpartum recovery. It can take women a while to recover from birth, Brunner said. It’s also common for moms to feel “touched out” because of breastfeeding and snuggling the baby, she said. This can be frustrating, but you can find other ways to feel close and connect with your partner.
For instance, you might cuddle on the couch while watching a movie; exchange shoulder rubs; hold hands while walking, lying in bed or sitting on the sofa; and share a long hug, Brunner said.
Take care of yourself. Brunner emphasized making sure that you’re getting enough sleep and reaching out to friends and family. Of course, this can feel impossible when you’re trying to help with household chores, support your partner and be with your baby.
This is when having a solid support network and postpartum plan are critical. Can a loved one watch the baby while you catch up on sleep? Can you hire a housecleaning service? Can you ask friends and family to bring meals? (More on the plan below.)
And, again, if you’re struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety, don’t hesitate to seek counseling.
Create a postpartum plan. Salmon noted in The Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads that in his experience, couples who create a thorough postpartum plan have a much easier time coping after they bring their baby home. When creating your plan with your partner, he suggests considering the following:
- the type of help you want: For instance, maybe a relative stays with you for a week, and your partner’s best friend comes over to help with chores. Be very specific with loved ones when making these requests.
- meal delivery: If you’d like loved ones to bring food, also be specific about the food you want (and don’t want). If you’d like to keep visits to a minimum, place a big cooler on your porch. Ask loved ones to drop off the food, and come back when your partner is feeling more settled.
- breastfeeding and baby care support: Include a list of local lactation consultants and infant-sleep experts. And consider if you’d like to hire a postpartum doula, whose main focus is to support mom in whatever she needs.
- self-care and relationship care: Think about days and times you can get breaks and extra sleep, along with who can babysit so you can occasionally go on a date.
If you have other kids, Salmon recommends creating a separate postpartum plan for them. It might include: who’ll be watching them during the birth and hospital stay; play-dates with friends; and little outings with relatives to make them feel special.
One of the greatest gifts you can give your partner is to support their mental health—along with supporting your own.