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Mom looking sad as she holds her baby close in her arms

Breaking the Silence on Maternal Mental Health

By Dr. Natasha Sriraman, Pediatrician and Breastfeeding Medicine Specialist

The idea that having a baby is the most joyful time of a woman’s life is hardwired into the culture of American society.

And while it’s true for many women, as many as 1 in 5 mothers experience anxiety or depression in the time before and after giving birth. In fact, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are the most common complications to arise after childbirth.

The Virginia General Assembly has designated May as Maternal Mental Health Month. It’s a good time to discuss these statistics, particularly for new mothers who may think, “This should be the happiest time of my life. Why am I stressed, sad, overwhelmed?”

Four years ago, pediatricians in my practice – General Academic Pediatrics in Norfolk – began screening new mothers for anxiety and depression when they brought their children to us for well-child visits. Out of thousands of mothers we have screened, we referred nearly a third to further care, support, and resources.

While other CHKD pediatric practices around the community have joined in, nurses and social workers in CHKD’s neonatal intensive care unit have also been trained to do this screening. We also started two postpartum depression and anxiety support groups at CHKD, one specifically for moms of NICU babies.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics first recommended this type of screening, some doctors in the field asked, “Is that really the responsibility of a pediatrician?”

I can tell you it is, based on my experience as a pediatrician. It’s also borne out by studies that show children with a depressed mother are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems, and are at increased risk to experience cognitive delays.

Since pediatricians typically see babies seven times during their first year of life for well-child visits, it’s a perfect time to connect with struggling mothers. Juggling breastfeeding, baby care, and waking up at all hours of the night to feed and console a baby can be stressful. Add to this stress the fact that many women who suffer from mental health disorders were untreated before pregnancy. Others who were prescribed medication sometimes stop taking it during pregnancy because of fear of risk to the developing baby.

That increases the risk for severe depression. Women who take medications for anxiety and depression are often concerned about whether they should continue these medications throughout pregnancy and breastfeeding. We encourage mothers to speak with their obstetricians and psychiatrists about their medication options, with the goal being optimal health for mother and baby.

A nonprofit organization called Postpartum Support Virginia supports mothers who are suffering from these disorders. Successful treatment is a combination of self-care, social support, talk therapy, and sometimes medication.

Remember, this is not your fault, you are not to blame, and with help, you can get well.

Signs of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, angry, or overwhelmed.
  • Feeling anxious or panicky.
  • Regrets about having a baby.
  • Having trouble sleeping, even when the baby sleeps.
  • Thinking your family is better off without you.
  • Having thoughts that scare you.


  • Talk to your doctor.
  • Make an appointment with a therapist or other mental health provider.
  • Join a support group. Groups meet throughout Hampton Roads and also online. These groups are listed at For more information about two groups that meet at CHKD, call 757-668-7165, or email
  • If you would like to learn more about postpartum mood and anxiety disorders or would like to get trained in running a support group, please email:

More from Dr. Sriraman in this segment on WTKR-News 3.

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About CHKD Medical Group

About CHKD Medical  Group Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters has been the region’s most trusted name in pediatric care for more than 50 years. As members of CHKD Health System, our pediatricians work closely with CHKD’s full range of pediatric specialists and surgeons. They also share a commitment to quality, excellence and child-centered care. With 18 practices in 29 locations throughout the region, a CHKD pediatrician is never far.