A New Lens on Postpartum Depression and Anxiety: How Connection Can Help

When moms used connecting behaviors during Family Nurture Intervention, they described feeling like a weight had lifted; like they were in a “protected bubble” with their baby; like they had found what “home” feels like.

Depression and anxiety can feel debilitating—like a lump in your throat, weight on your chest, a knot in your stomach, or the foggy haze of exhaustion. Postpartum depression and anxiety can feel uniquely overwhelming and lonely. You might feel really disconnected from your baby, your partner, and yourself, wondering where all those happy first experiences are hiding. 

It’s important to know that you are not alone, and this is not your fault. As many as 1 in 5 new moms will experience a postpartum mood disorder. Many modern birthing practices involve stress, a loss of agency over your body and choices, separation from your baby, and routine disruptions of the normal processes of mother-infant connection. For many new moms, it takes time to feel connected to their baby. But feeling connected is possible.

Through Family Nurture Intervention (FNI), the Nurture Science Program has developed a way to help connect moms and babies. And one of the most rewarding results from our study of FNI was that moms felt less depressed and anxious, and more confident caring for their babies. 

How Does Connection Help Depression and Anxiety?

When new moms feel anxious and depressed, they often describe feeling shut down, alone, scared, guilty, sad, or even a flat “fine.” But they’re not fine. Feeling separate from your baby (and your partner or family) is deeply painful and can cause you to withdraw and put up walls. While that might feel like protection against these overwhelming feelings, bottling up your emotions actually makes it even harder to connect and recover. 

Often, approaching things from the outside in can help. Even though you may not feel connected right now (or even if you do, but are still struggling with depression), doing connecting activities can help you start to feel better. Connecting behaviors tell your body and brain to send out connecting hormones (like oxytocin, “the love hormone”). Those hormones make you feel better. When you feel better (even a little bit better), you feel more able to do these behaviors, and it becomes a positive cycle. 

When moms used connecting behaviors during FNI, they described feeling like a weight had lifted; like they were in a “protected bubble” with their baby; like they had found what “home” feels like. Many of them said things like, “I feel like a mom for the first time,” or, “I feel so clear now.”

So what are these behaviors of connection? 

Interacting with your baby using as many senses as you can:

  • Do lots of skin-to-skin holding—there’s no better place for your baby than on you
  • Even clothed, holding your baby chest to chest stimulates pressure receptors in the torso, which are calming for you and your baby.
  • Touch your baby’s soft skin.
  • Smell their sweet head—this lights up reward centers in your brain and boosts your oxytocin.
  • Look into their eyes and have lots of face-to-face interaction.
  • Listen for their cues, gurgles, and babbles. Answer them as if you are having a conversation. 
  • Let taste come into play through kissing their hands and feet, and letting them put their exploring hands in your mouth. Let them taste your skin and milk (this is proven to be extremely calming for babies). 

And tell your baby what this experience feels like. Speak in your first language. Expressing our full range of emotions helps break down the walls we so often put up to make ourselves feel “safe.” 

If you’re not sure what to say, try talking about something that’s deeply emotional, such as:

  • The story of their birth
  • A scary moment when you worried about their well-being
  • The story of how you chose their name
  • How it makes you feel not to be connected right now
  • What you hope for their future. 

If you’re experiencing negative emotions (fear, anger, sadness), it’s not that you should direct them at the baby; you’re just showing your emotions to your baby. Babies respond to an emotional tone of voice and expressive faces—in fact, in our studies, when a mother expresses her emotions, that’s often the first time her baby will orient toward her and make eye contact, which can feel so rewarding.

A particularly wonderful way to get your senses and emotions engaged at the same time is breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is linked to better postpartum mental health and gives you and your baby a big boost of that feel-good hormone, oxytocin. Nursing throughout the night can help regulate the body chemistry that affects your mood. 

If breastfeeding isn’t going well, it can be hard on your mental health. Try not to assume difficulty early on means it won’t work for you. Find a lactation specialist (like an IBCLC), or attend a meeting run by a knowledgeable person or group (like La Leche League, which is often free or donation based, and has chapters nationwide). Remember that support is helpful when learning any new skill! 

There is nothing wrong with you if you need help improving your and your baby’s breastfeeding relationship or connection. 

There are also therapists who specialize in treating postpartum mood disorders, new parent support groups (both virtual and in-person), as well as medications that can help (including some that are safe for breastfeeding). There’s a wide community of people who understand what you’re going through. Ask for help and support. If you don’t know where to look, visit www.postpartum.net (Spanish and English).

Depression and anxiety can feel hopeless when you’re in it. But there is so much hope ahead for you. 

You are not alone, and you won’t feel alone forever. Practice the activities of sensory connection and emotional expression (described above) with your baby, and even with your partner, and family. When you awaken your connection with one person, it helps clear the way for connection with everyone. 

Let’s take care of each other,