This is the most vulnerable time in a woman’s life.
During the “fourth trimester” – the 12 weeks after birth – many perinatal specialists believe that new mothers need more support than during pregnancy.
But Australia’s health system doesn’t provide much support. Once the baby is born, the mother no longer has public health resources.
Postpartum care is often referred to as the Cinderella sector of maternity care; the main event is over, the pregnant princess becomes the postpartum poor girl and she has to fend for herself.
It’s an emotional characterization, but it’s also the reality for most pregnant mothers in Australia, where unless you have continuity of care with a private midwife, you will be discharged from hospital or care midwives at home and will not have scheduled health appointments. see you through until your six week check.
In his Postnatal Care Guidelines 2022, The World Health Organization considers realistic information an essential part of a positive postpartum experience.
This may be why many new parents turn to social media for information and reassurance.
Social media offers connection and support
If you’re a mother, you know that the fourth trimester is a decisive time.
Maternal brain changes that occur during pregnancy prepare new mothers for this period of rapid learning and sleep deprivation, while the hormone oxytocin contributes to physical healing, mother-infant bonding, and breastfeeding.
But like any major life transition, uncertainty and second-guessing are common and practical and emotional support is vital.
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A high proportion of new parents in Australia are likely to use Instagram; Scrolling while stuck under a cluster feeding baby is a common experience.
Social media can offer connection and support as well as information.
Over the past few years, significant progress has been made in postpartum education and awareness, with many perinatal health specialists calling out doulas on Instagram for changing the conversation.
The insidious encouragement to “enjoy every minute!” is no longer the main message on Insta.
Instead, there is an understanding that you can love your baby and simultaneously be challenged by the unacknowledged mental load of motherhood; angry at the lack of social structures to support new parents.
On Instagram you can also find information about the root biological causes of anxiety and stress related to new motherhood; how changes in the maternal brain can make you more empathetic and responsive to facial cues and potential threats; and that the dark side of oxytocin is that it can also increase hypervigilance.
Information like this helps women understand themselves amid the changing upheaval of life after birth. We have been conditioned to think that this is the happiest time in life, but while there is joy, there are also profound challenges.
And there is also a deep loneliness. Researchers have only recently begun to study loneliness during the perinatal period and findings show that it is more prevalent among new parents than in the general population and is more likely to affect young parents, migrant families, trans and queer parents, as well as those with previous of mental illness.
In the isolation of nuclear homes, we go in search of a virtual village to keep us company.
But there are drawbacks
While social media can offer connection and support, it can also convey unhelpful ideals and unrealistic expectations, exacerbating a mother’s doubts and loneliness.
Postpartum doula, Samantha Woods, is trained in the language and act of caring for new mothers as they navigate the seismic changes of postpartum.
When she gave birth to her second baby earlier this year, she felt a responsibility to pull back the curtain on her personal experience and share it with her followers.
“I was looking at my life and trying to figure out how I could make it easily digestible for other people, but it’s not really very pleasant to look at life through one lens and try to figure out how to fit it into the squares you have. share online,” she says.
Ms. Woods also noticed that the information and stories she was consuming began to undermine her own choices and contentment, prompting her to disconnect from social media and focus on her family.
“I know social media can be a lifeline during this season, and it’s certainly an accessible way to connect with other moms, but for me, the line between perception and reality felt a little too distorted.”
Postpartum is a relatively new topic on social media where it is no longer confused with depression (as it still is on other parts of the internet).
In the common parlance of modern motherhood, postpartum is the inevitable stage after birth, immediately followed by the almighty transition of becoming a mother, the biological, hormonal and psychological upheaval also known as matrescence.
Matrescence is to mothers what adolescence is to adolescents; awkward and uncertain, best experienced with the social support that we know is a buffer against perinatal mental illness.
But while the language used to talk about the postpartum period is evolving, the images are not.
Postpartum body positivity isn’t obvious on Instagram, nor are realistic postpartum bodies; there’s a distinct lack of stretch marks, pasty bellies, C-section scars and cellulite.
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In 2022, the results of a content analysis were published in Healthcare, which examined 600 Instagram photos with the hashtag #Postpartumbody.
Megan Gow, a dietitian and lecturer at the University of Sydney and Westmead Children’s Hospital, was motivated to undertake the research by her own experience of social media during postpartum.
“The images I saw were unrealistic and inaccessible, and the analysis results showed that only 5 percent of the images showed features typical of a postpartum body, while almost 50 percent showed women who were thin or middle-weight wearing sportswear,” Dr. Gow said.
“If you’re trying to breastfeed and rest and see images of women in workout gear aimed at you, it adds extra pressure to an already overly stressful situation. Perpetrating these ideals while a mother is already juggling is really harmful.”
It also pedals the harmful trope of the “twist,” the domino effects of which can be profound.
Re-emergence of an eating disorder is very likely during the perinatal period, with 70% of new mothers dieting four months after giving birth.
Exercising too soon or without professional advice can also contribute to and exacerbate pelvic floor problems like incontinence and prolapse.
So what do new moms want from their daily Instagram scroll?
Dr Gow’s latest research aims to find interventions to interrupt harmful social media content. Although the results have not yet been published, its conclusions are clear.
“We conducted a survey of over 500 women and over 90 percent said they wanted to receive health information through social media, which is really positive,” she says.
Social media can be filtered to represent the ideal, but it also creates space for honest stories, especially when it comes to discussing experiences once hidden in a conspiracy of silence; infertility, miscarriage, baby loss and birth trauma.
We are witnessing in real time the breaking of this silence as we challenge the gap between myths about motherhood and reality and subsequently change the postpartum status quo.
Awareness of this gap is one thing, social and cultural change is another.
We can bring our small communities together for support, rallying the comrades so to speak, but it may be another generation before we see the societal structures needed to holistically support new parents.
In the meantime, we’ll share what we know on Instagram.
Sophie Walker (Australian birth stories) and Jodi Wilson are the authors of The Complete Australian Guide to Pregnancy and Birth and will soon publish The Complete Guide to Postpartum.
This story is part of the ABC’s Project Birth.
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