Occupational Therapy and Perinatal Mental Health
Updated: Sep 22
By Mauly Her Lo
Trigger warning: brief mention of stillbirth
I found out I was pregnant exactly one month after I graduated with my master’s degree in occupational therapy. Beyond graduation, there were plans to study and take the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy and be employed full-time. Plans changed when I was filled with repetitive thoughts and fears of losing my pregnancy.
“You can do anything when you put your mind to it.” A phrase that we often hear too much. You can be pregnant and study, take the boards, and apply for a full-time job. I (my mind) did not feel healthy enough to take on too much. Witnessing my mother go through depression, a sister’s ectopic pregnancy, and another sister’s placental abruption that led to stillbirth was something I knew I did not want to experience. Fortunate enough to have an occupational therapy and healthcare education background, (1) I knew the risk of having depression increased because of my family’s history and (2) I had some knowledge of how to broadly care for my mental health.
What is Occupational Therapy?
You are probably wondering, “What is occupational therapy and how does it relate to perinatal mental health? Is it about getting a job?” Or maybe you know someone who had a stroke and had occupational therapy to work on dressing, feeding, bathing, and toileting skills and don’t know how it relates to perinatal mental health.
The mosaic beauty of occupational therapy supports the physical, psychosocial, and mental well-being of every individual across the lifespan – from those who are not yet born to elderly adults. Occupational therapy uses a client-centered, holistic approach to empower and support individuals to regain independence in all areas of their lives. By taking into consideration the whole person and their strengths and abilities, occupational therapy also recognizes the need for both the body and mind as well as other factors (age, gender, cultural values, beliefs, environment, etc.) that influence their participation in meaningful activities.
Simply put, occupational therapy uses meaningful and daily life activities to enhance engagement, participation, and health at home, in the community, at work, and in other settings.
Where does Occupational Therapy fit in with Perinatal Mental Health?
Being a first-time mother or having a new baby is a major life event. This significant role change impacts the habits and routines that have developed over time. A mother’s sense of identity begins to evolve, as well as their beliefs and expectations of being a mother. The transitions during the perinatal period can influence their self-esteem and self-confidence with:
Self-care activities: personal hygiene, sleep, nutrition, or sexual activity
Parenting/Caregiver activities: feeding (bottle/breast/pumping), changing, bathing, positioning/holding the baby, or playing with the baby,
Daily activities: meal preparation and cleanup, household chores, shopping, or religious and spiritual expression
Play/Leisure/Social activities: family and friend relationships, sports, exercises, reading, or arts and crafts
Work/Education activities: bending, lifting, sitting, standing, typing, or writing
Occupational therapy practitioners have the knowledge and experience to conduct screenings, assessments, and evaluations, deliver treatment and interventions, and measure progress and outcomes. Considering their strengths and abilities, daily routine and habits, motivation, interests, meaningful activities, and social supports, we can collaboratively establish individualized interventions and goals.Perinatal PeriodExamples of Occupational Therapy Practitioner’s Role/InterventionsPrenatalMaternal mental health screening, preparing for a change in role, facilitating home modifications before arrival, pain prevention, education awareness for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, supporting groups for parents/caregiversPostpartumMaternal mental health screening, postpartum recovery – personal hygiene after vaginal birth or Cesarean-section, enabling the development of healthy routines for themselves, functional and positional support during feeding, dressing, changing, lifting, and carrying the baby), breastfeeding support, supporting co-occupations between mother and newborn, self-regulation, and developmental milestones, returning to sexual activity, returning to work, supporting groups for parents/caregivers
Overall Benefits of Occupational Therapy in Perinatal Mental Health
With the support of an occupational therapy practitioner, mothers can
Become more aware of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders,
Advocate for their health and well-being by identifying resources and community support,
Increase their self-esteem and self-confidence in their roles and abilities as a mother/caregiver, partner, worker, and/or student,
Establish a secure co-bonding relationship with their newborn,
Create a safe and healthy environment for themselves and their family, and provide grace for self-care, daily, play/leisure/social, and work/education activities
Through our holistic lens, we advocate and work on what matters to you, your health and well-being, and your family.
Learn more about OT & Perinatal Mental Health! Join Mauly & MMHI for an Instagram Live on April 14th at 1:30 p.m.