How To Support A Friend Experiencing Postpartum Depression
When It’s More Than “Baby Blues”
“The first month seemed to be nothing but bliss, and then it hit,” my sister tells me about her postpartum depression. “For five months, I found myself in the trenches—I’m still there. It’s been the darkest season in my life emotionally. My husband and daughter have seen me at my worst. I have seen myself at my worst.”
She’s not alone. About 20 percent of new moms and 10 percent of new dads experience postpartum depression and anxiety, says Dr. Harvey Karp, an American pediatrician and the founder and CEO of Happiest Baby. During COVID, those numbers have nearly doubled.
Postpartum depression, or PPD, is a type of depression experienced in the weeks and months following a baby’s arrival. It different than the “baby blues,” a sadness and moodiness that often occur for only a few days after birth.
PPD shows up differently than depression, according to Dr. Karp, who explains it’s often characterized by nagging guilt, internal criticism, intrusive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and the desire to run away. These symptoms aren’t always obvious to new parents, and they can be even harder to detect if you’re a family member or friend.
“It ebbs and flows,” my sister shares. “You may feel fine one day, and then something that wouldn’t normally trigger you sets you off.”
While doctors used to think PPD was caused by the hormonal shift that occurs after birth, Dr. Karp explains that many new parents don’t have those hormonal changes—like men and adoptive parents—yet they still develop PPD.
“It’s a complex picture,” he says. “Some parents who suffer with postpartum depression are predisposed by a history of depression or anxiety. And life stresses (financial stress or prior trauma, for example) also can raise the risk.” Additional triggers may include exhaustion, persistent crying, or feeling unsupported or incompetent as a new parent.
Just because a parent didn’t experience PPD with their first baby doesn’t mean it won’t show up with subsequent children, either—and vice versa. “If you had PPD with one pregnancy, the risk is definitely increased that you will have it again,” says Dr. Karp.
My sister, who’s now working with her doctor and therapist to get help, experienced PPD with both of her children. I didn’t know what she was going through the first time, but I do now.
As the old saying goes: It takes a village. And we can support our loved ones in their postpartum journey by listening, learning, and reaching out. Because frozen casseroles aren’t always enough, and it’s easy to assume the newborn stage is magical or that parents want us to give them space as they nest with their child. Though this may be true and it varies depending on the parents, we can learn how to offer support when it’s needed—and also how to watch for signs that someone may be struggling.
“The best thing you can do is assume parents will need support,” says my sister. “Parenting is hard. It’s better to reach out than to assume someone is fine when they’re actually drowning and don’t know how to ask for help.”
Practical Ways To Support Parents Who Experience PPD
1. Ask How You Can Help
Start by asking what they need instead of assuming you know how to help. “Everyone wanted to take the baby from me to ‘give me a break,’” says Liz Turrigiano, the co-founder and CEO of Esembly, a sustainable diaper brand who recently launched a Zine for new parents. “But what I really needed was people to take care of me so I could learn how to take care of my baby.”
For Turrigiano, she needed help with dishes, laundry, and cooking. But it may be different for your friend or family member. Start by asking simple questions: “How are you really doing?” and “How can I best help you?”
2. Take Over Daily Tasks
It may be that your loved one doesn’t know how they need help—and that’s normal and okay. Exhaustion and fluctuating hormones can make it difficult to articulate thoughts or needs. For parents experiencing PPD, having others take care of daily tasks can make all the difference.
Is the house messier than usual? (Mess is okay and normal!) Does laundry need folding? Do bottles need to be washed? Cooking meals, stocking the fridge, walking the dogs, sorting the mail—these simple tasks allow new parents to focus on getting rest and caring for their baby.
3. Gift Them Therapy
Outside of talking with a physician, therapy can be a necessary resource for those experiencing PPD. One friend who recently became a mom met with her therapist via Zoom three times before the baby arrived. They continue to speak weekly. “Being a new mom can be isolating, especially with COVID, so I think those check-in’s are really helpful,” she shares.
Therapy can be expensive and isn’t always accessible—especially with all the new costs that come with caring for a baby—consider gifting therapy in place of a baby shower gift. These online therapy platforms are affordable, and many have gift card options.
4. REMIND Them They’re A Good Parent
Two symptoms of PPD include feelings of guilt and internal criticism (“I’m a bad parent”; “I’m not taking care of my baby”). Getting help with PPD starts with recognizing that you’re a good mother, says Dr. Karp. “You gave birth to a precious new life, and you deserve to have help.”
We can help our loved ones by simply reminding them they are good parents, and that they’re doing everything right. Send texts, drop off cards, or pick up the phone.
5. Remind Them Of Their Individuality
We can also remind parents of their individuality and offer them time and space to practice actives they loved before having a baby. Having children can be a beautiful and transformative experience, but it can also be a startling transition.
“Art helped,” one mother, who is also an artist, tells me. “I found an hour a day to do little drawings…it brought me joy and some stillness. Having an hour sometimes helps me feel like my old self.”
Your loved one is now a parent, but they are also more than a parent—and that’s okay! Try encouraging them to find small moments for alone time and individuality. Offer to watch the baby while they work on creative projects or engage in activities that make them feel like themselves. Support them as they learn to balance who they were with who they now are.
6. Keep Checking In
Finally, keep checking in—check in after a week, a month, a year. New parents need support in every parenting stage, not just in the days after giving birth or bringing home the baby.
“In hindsight, I wish I had told all of those amazingly helpful people that surrounded me in the first weeks to come back in three months!” says Turrigiano.
Are you a parent who has experienced postpartum depression? We’d love to make space for your stories. What did you need more (or less) of from family and friends? Feel free to share in the comments below. 💛
Kayti Christian (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.