Mommy Brain: The Neuroscience of Postpartum Depression and Ways Caregivers Can Help

Date Posted

May 14, 2024


Rose De Guzman, PhD

Mommy Brain Dr Jodi Pawluski 0628

Jodi Pawluski, PhD, HDR, is a neuroscientist, therapist, and author. I learned about Dr. Pawluski’s work when I was a PhD student in Behavioral Neuroscience. Much of my work on understanding the brain regions involved in stress response during the postpartum period stemmed from her research. Dr. Pawluski is a leading neuroscientist in perinatal mental health, SSRIs, memory, and brain plasticity. Her recent book, Mommy Brain, explains the neuroscience of “Mommy Brain” and ways that we can help those with postpartum depression.

Read the highlights from my recent interview with Dr. Pawluski and watch the full discussion here.

Mommy Brain: Discover the Amazing Power of the Maternal Brain

Mommy Brain Book Cover Dr Jodi PawluskiDo you sometimes have the feeling that your brain is going to mush and that your baby is sucking the life out of your neurons? Don’t worry, you’re not losing your mind! In fact, your brain is getting a complete makeover and focusing on new areas of learning that are essential for parenting. In this book, Dr. Jodi Pawluski questions our relationship with motherhood and explores the fantastic universe of the maternal, and parental, brain. Drawing on numerous scientific studies, including her own neuroscience research and experience, she provides insight into how and why your brain changes with motherhood.*

Parenthood comes with a full range of emotions

“Pregnancy and motherhood are often privileged periods of fulfillment and joy. However, their idealization by society is likely to lead to the denial of the difficulties that many pregnant and postpartum women may encounter.” – Dr. Jacques Dayan, the first perinatal psychiatrist in France (translation provided by Jodi Pawluski)

Societal pressures that parents experience during pregnancy and postpartum increases the stigma around seeking mental health resources and help. We often hear, “Oh, you have a beautiful baby. You should be happy!” This underscores the lack of understanding of the full range of emotions that new parents go through.

There is a constant pressure for new parents to be happy all the time. If you are not, then you may be perceived as a bad parent. This is not true. It’s okay to be sad sometimes when you’re pregnant. You’re allowed to have emotions in life.

How can you tell when a mother is struggling with her mental health?

Mommy Brain Woman Kissing Baby Head Looking Out WindowIt is often hard to tell when someone is feeling depressed. Society’s expectations that new parents will be happy can make it even more difficult to identify their signs of depression.

One place caregivers can start is to ask, “How are you, really?” This may lead to a new mom opening up that they are not sleeping well, not eating enough, not feeling like going outside, or have been crying a lot. During the first two weeks postpartum, there are many ups and downs. Past that time of 2-3 weeks, if there is continued anxiety, sadness, and anger, then caregivers can gently try to intervene and point the person toward professional help.

Even though we may be most interested in how the baby is doing, the key takeaway is to check in on the mom.

Below are several common symptoms of depression within and outside of the perinatal and postpartum periods. A diagnosis of depression requires two or more consecutive weeks of either depressed mood or loss of interest in people or activities that were previously enjoyed (or anhedonia), in addition to some of the following:

  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Having frequent anger or irritability
  • Feeling empty or hopeless
  • Decreased personal hygiene
  • Nonspecific physical pains (e.g., headaches, stomach aches)
  • Lethargy or slowed-down movement and thinking
  • Difficulty concentrating, analyzing, making decisions, being organized, or remembering
  • Engaging in self-harm
  • Experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Refer to FFDA: Depression and Bipolar Disorder Basics to learn more about additional symptoms to look for.

How caregivers can support a person with postpartum depression

Understandably, new parents often neglect their own self-care. However, all of us benefit from addressing our basic needs. Below are four main areas (SELF) to check on to support individuals with postpartum depression:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise/Movement
  • Laughter/Social
  • Food

Dealing with the baby’s needs and with her own recovery from childbirth, a new mom may need practical support in addressing each of these areas.

Watch the full interview with Dr. Pawluski on how to approach these topic areas and other strategies.

Checking in on individuals who are expecting and postpartum is important both at home and work. As mentioned in an FFDA interview with Dr. Sharon Batista, “Working moms are often carrying a double burden.” I shared with Dr. Pawluski how grateful I was to have had laboratory technicians at my work when I was pregnant. They jumped in to help me with tasks like picking up a bin that was on a top shelf or carrying a container of liquid. Simple, small acts can go a long way when it comes to providing support.

You can also encourage your loved one to take our perinatal depression screening tool to see if they are experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression. The tool will help them determine how soon they should talk to a healthcare provider.

Small actions can be big

It can be extremely difficult to know if a new parent or parent-to-be is experiencing depression. Parents often face societal pressures to be happy or to focus on taking care of their families. If you want to help, the first step is to check in with them. A small act like a simple and non-judgmental question –  “How are things going for you?” – can go a long way.

*Families for Depression Awareness recognizes that there are people who give birth who do not identify as women or mothers. However, Dr. Pawluski’s work and book refer to “Mommy brain,” so we are using compatible words.

Rose De Guzman 1Rose De Guzman is a neuroscientist and advocate for mental health. Despite the sex difference in mood disorder prevalence, pre-clinical studies that have led to anxiolytic drug discoveries have primarily focused on male brain and behavior. Her PhD work focused on sex differences in stress response and investigated the brain regions involved in stress response during the postpartum period. Her work has implications for sex-specific therapeutics, especially for perinatal and postpartum anxiety and depression.

As a postdoc at Harvard Medical School – Massachusetts General Hospital, she founded “Pathways to Science and Medicine” program to provide mentorship and opportunities to historically marginalized and under-recognized communities.