The Road to Recovery: Maternal Mental Health | Sally Parkes


The road to postnatal recovery can be a long and sometimes bumpy journey.  Senior MFML yoga teacher Sally Parkes shares some tips to help you on that journey.

Maternal mental health and the road to recovery takes a different route for everyone. The manner in which motherhood is perceived around the world differs from country to country, and whilst some cultures honour the mother through ceremony, in the western hemisphere we currently tend to place heavy emphasis on a mothers’ physicality. 

Particular attention is often placed on postnatal weight loss, and whilst this can occasionally be a valid place to start recovery for some, we must place more emphasis on the mothers mental health in order to increase the likelihood of making the best recovery possible. It is helpful then, to consider the mother as the multilayered holistic being that she is (as we all are). We must recognise that a mothers mental and physical health are inextricably intertwined. It is this consideration that will help shape the bond between mother and baby and also her experience of motherhood as a whole. Firstly, let’s look at what mental health actually is…

Read more about yoga for stress and anxiety in this complete guide

What is mental health?

Thankfully, there is much discussion now around the subject of mental health and how we can improve our mental wellbeing, but what actually is it? 

The Oxford Dictionary explains it as ‘a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being’. But how are our emotions formed and what is an emotion anyway? 

In short, we take in information through our nervous system via our senses; we then decide on a thought as a result, (our human conditioning will also play a part in our thought process too at this point of course). We then release hormones (messengers of the endocrine system) in response to this, which creates a reaction. For someone who has balanced mental health, the expected reaction would be an adequate response to the stimuli. This creates a wave of feeling (emotions) that proportionally relates to what is being perceived by the nervous system. However, if there is an imbalance in someone’s mental well-being, the reaction to stimuli could be disproportionately strong, or adversely they could feel nothing at all. 

In relation to a postnatal mother, an example of this could be having very little emotion when holding her baby.  Adversely, she may also have a wave of extreme anxiety if she considers leaving the house with her baby for an appointment later in the day. This is known as ‘dysregulation of the nervous system’ and even though it is a physical response, it is often considered a mental health issue because of the thought processes that occur during times these times. This is very common amongst women who are experiencing postnatal depression and anxiety.

Depression and anxiety affects 15-20% of women in the first year after childbirth’

Symptoms can also include (from

  • a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
  • lack of enjoyment and loss of interest in the wider world
  • lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
  • erratic eating patterns
  • trouble sleeping at night and feeling sleepy during the day
  • difficulty bonding with your baby
  • withdrawing from contact with other people
  • problems concentrating and making decisions
  • frightening thought processes 

‘Mental Health during pregnancy and post birth is a major individual, family and public health issue’,

Alain Gregoire, Chair of Maternal Mental Health Alliance.

But why does this happen?

Firstly, maternal mental health issues after giving birth can happen to anyone, no matter what their circumstances. This is often due to a combination of physical and emotional changes and challenges that can come with motherhood.

The symptoms can arise for a multitude of reasons, such as: 

  • A history of mental health issues
  • A difficult birth situation and transition into motherhood as a result
  • Body image issues
  • Relationship
  • Financial problems
  • It can sometimes happy simply because of the way the mother body releases hormones.

It is also important to note that many women do not realise that they have postnatal depression, because it can develop gradually within the first postnatal year. 

Getting help and self-care 

For anyone who thinks that they have mental health issues, it is advisable to see a professional care provider, such as a midwife, health visitor or a doctor. This can be helpful to give an overall assessment and guidance on support and possibly medication if it’s deemed necessary.

‘It’s important to seek help as soon as possible if you think you might be depressed, as your symptoms could last months or get worse and have a significant impact on you, your baby and your family. With the right support most people make a full recovery’.

Then… every day:

Lower Expectations

It may sound unusual to actively lower expectations, but when we consider the amount of pressure society, the media, and in particular social media, places on a new mother, it can be a relief to have a reality check and take some of that pressure off. 

New mothers are inundated with weight loss and bladder continence adverts, social media posts on how to be a more ‘connected’ mother, and much more along those lines. It may help to remember that marketing is generally there to make the consumer feel as though they have something missing and need to be better. In this way, they will be more likely to buy into the product. 

Realistically though, it takes time to transition into motherhood and it is an ongoing journey that never ends. This is a journey that constantly fluctuates, mistakes will be made because ultimately, we are all learning on the job, and that’s ok. So, a little time out from social media and acknowledgment that there is no such thing as a perfect mother, can do wonders for one’s mental state.

Celebrate small wins

In a society full of high expectations (that can often leave the mother feeling isolated), the smaller achievements can get missed. But throughout the day (and night) there are many things a mother can congratulate herself on. From making herself a nice meal to managing night feeds again, to getting out for a walk and/or calling a friend for example. 

These things might be small but are all important and are worth celebrating.

Good nutrition

It is near impossible for the mind and body to function well without good and plentiful nutrition. A balanced diet of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and plenty of fluids, is essential for healthy brain activity, physical recovery, and hormonal balance. 

However, managing this with a new baby can be tricky. 

Try some alternative approaches: 

  • Online shopping
  • Batch cooking 
  • Using a slow cooker

Healthy movement

We know physical movement helps the body to release ‘feel good’ hormones such as serotonin and endorphins. This makes physical movement essential to healthy mental wellbeing and your journey to recovery after birth. 

When the body has been through the ordeal of childbirth, we must also be mindful to go gently to begin with, slowly building in more energetic movement patterns. 

Yoga and Pilates, specifically designed for postnatal recovery, are an ideal place to start and are readily available via apps. This helps new mothers to integrate bite size chunks into their days. 

Simply start with 2 x 5 mins a day for a week and see how that feels, then slowly increase time and frequency from there. 

Gentle Post-Natal Recovery class with Sally Parkes on MFML

Try this very gentle Sun Salutation Sequence to get moving in a gentle way:
  • Mountain Pose

Stand at the top of the mat in Mountain Pose with the feet apart a three to five inches. Reach the arms out to either side and up over head. Then relax the arms back down by the side. Repeat three times, breathing deeply. 

  • Roll Down

Now bend the knees slightly and drop the chin to the chest and slowly roll the spine downwards so the hands are in line with the knees. Now slowly roll back up to Mountain Pose. Roll down again, this time placing the hands to the floor, bending the knees more to protect the lower back at this point. 

  • Cat and Cow Pose

Step the feet back and move on to the hands and knees into Box Position and move into Cat and Cow Pose three times. Exhale during Cat Pose, inhale through Cow Pose. 

  • Low Crescent Lunge

Step the right foot forwards to the outside of the right hand, lift the upper body and reach the arms upwards, keeping the hands apart. The toes on the back foot can be tucked under for stability if needed. 

  • Spine Twist with Arm Reach

Now turning the torso to the right and place left hand to outer right thigh. Reach back with the right arm so it’s parallel to the floor, palm of the hand facing outwards, chin in line with the sternum. Pause and breathe. 

  • Box Position into Roll Up

Return the spine to neutral and lower the hands down all the way down to the floor. Move again into Box Position before walking the hands back towards the knees. Tuck the toes under and slowly begin to straighten the legs, leaving a slight bend in the knees. Roll up slowly to standing. 

  • Triangle Pose variation into Mountain Pose

Step the right foot forwards, so the feet are about a meter apart, and turn the back foot out ninety degrees. Place the right hand just below the right knee, and wrap the left arm behind the lower back. Externally rotate the left side of the torso. Drop the gaze to the right lower leg to help release the neck and pause here for several breaths. Bend the right knee slightly and lift the upper body so the spine is in neutral. Step the left foot in line with the right foot, moving into Mountain Pose at the top of the mat. 

Repeat, this time leading with the left leg.

A note from Sally:

‘For me, my first birth experience included long labour leading to major birth surgery and severe back injury resulting PTSD. This ultimately led to difficulties in day-to-day activities and in bonding with my new job as a mother. After much experimentation and questioning, the most effective treatment for me turned out to be a combination of medical treatment alongside a holistic approach to life. This combination allowed me to be proactive in my healing journey and start to enjoy my children as well as get my head around how I was actually going to heal my body, which hurt most days for what felt like a really long time.

It has been long journey and there have been many lessons on the way, but it has taught me that a mother really must find HER own way to healing and adapting to her new mothering roll. It is a deeply personal and individual experience and one that will lay deeply within our bones for many years to come. So my invite to you, is to dig down in to you heart so you can find your inner wisdom, and ask yourself what is it that YOU need in order to heal. Then take the help that is out there in what-ever form that comes in, so that you can begin to recover and enjoy being a mother, as well as enjoy being you again’.

Read more in Yoga for Stress and Anxiety: A Complete Guide

For more support: The National Childbirth Trust is a support line that offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents: 0300 330 0700.

Thank you to Sally Parkes for sharing her wisdom on maternal mental health – Sally Parkes BSc specialises in pregnancy and postnatal yoga and wellbeing and is the author of bestseller ‘The Manual of Yoga Anatomy’ and teacher for MFML. @sallyparkesyoga @sallyparkeswomensyoga


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