Two women smiling. The woman on the left is passin a baby boy wearing a grey wooly hat to the woman on the right.

Occupational therapy and perinatal mental health

The MMHA invited Dr Sally Payne, Professional Adviser for Children, Young People and Families at the Royal College of Occupational Therapists, and Debra Jeffery, Specialist Perinatal Community Occupational Therapist, to share their thoughts on the vital role of occupational therapy in supporting women’s perinatal mental health.

Guest blog by Dr Sally Payne and Debra Jeffery

When you think about occupational therapy, who comes to mind? Maybe an older person needing equipment to be independent at home, or someone having difficulty taking care of themselves after major surgery. But did you know that occupational therapists support people with physical, learning, and mental health needs of all ages, including those not yet born?

The Royal College of Occupational Therapists (RCOT) includes a growing number of members working in perinatal mental health. In this blog, we describe the unique contribution of occupational therapy in supporting women who experience mental health problems before, during and after pregnancy.

What is the focus of occupational therapy in perinatal mental health?

When a woman experiences mental health problems during the perinatal period it can affect her self-esteem and sometimes impact her relationships with her family and baby. For example, she may struggle with:

    1. Self-care occupations, including getting washed and dressed, sleeping, or eating.
    2. Productive occupations, such as household chores, shopping, cleaning, and preparing meals, or work tasks.
    3. Leisure occupations, like maintaining relationships with her partner, family, or friends, and finding time to exercise or pursue her own interests.
    4. Parenting occupations, by which we mean carrying out activities and routines associated with motherhood such as feeding, changing, and playing with her baby.

Occupational therapists help by enabling women to carry out the activities (occupations) that are important to them, their babies, and their families.

How do occupational therapists help women and families?

Underpinning occupational therapy practice is the belief that taking part in the things we need, want or have to do is fundamental to enabling and maintaining our health and well-being. You’ll find occupational therapists supporting women experiencing perinatal mental health problems in community perinatal mental health teams, inpatient mother and baby units (MBUs) and in some third sector organisations.

Occupational therapists take a holistic approach, considering each woman’s strengths as well as her mental health, physical, learning, and cultural needs and choices. Occupational therapists start by developing an understanding of a woman’s:

    • daily routine (including what is working well and what isn’t)
    • interests and motivations
    • support networks
    • activities that she identifies as important for her health and well-being.

Understanding factors that influence a woman’s sense of identity, including her beliefs and expectations about her role as a mother, partner, caregiver, and worker is also important.

Occupational therapy goals are developed collaboratively with each woman and, where appropriate, her partner/family to ensure they are relevant and meaningful. A woman’s goals might include being able to take care of her own self-care needs, spending time playing with her baby, or planning a daily routine that ensures a healthy balance of self-care and parenting activities.

Interventions are personalised and delivered individually or in groups. You might find an occupational therapist:

    • Supporting a woman using public transport to attend a mother and baby group.
    • Enabling a woman to take part in creative or physical activities that she finds personally motivating.
    • Running a group to help women prepare for role changes such as becoming a mother or returning to work.
    • Recommending equipment or task modifications to ensure a woman can carry out parenting tasks safely.
    • Promoting mother/infant attachment by building the woman’s confidence and skills to take part in shared occupations such as feeding, soothing and sensory play activities.

With occupational therapy, women can…

With a focus on practical interventions, occupational therapy can really make a difference in the lives of women and their infants. With occupational therapy women can:

    • feel more confident in their ability to care for their baby
    • establish routines that allow time for self-care, productive, mothering and leisure activities
    • access community amenities and services
    • have a safe environment in which to bring up their family
    • feel secure in their role and identity as a mother, partner, carer, and worker/student
    • establish a good relationship with their baby.

We see the increase in specialist occupational therapy posts in perinatal mental health services across the UK as good news for our profession. More importantly, it is good news for women and their families who can now benefit from the unique skills and expertise that occupational therapists provide.

Find out more about occupational therapy and perinatal mental health

Watch this short film of Michelle talking about her role as a perinatal occupational therapist:

See also: Kate discussing her role or visit RCOT’s YouTube channel for more video content.

Online training programme developed by RCOT in collaboration with Health Education England. This is available to NHS organisations and anyone with an OpenAthens Account.

To learn more about occupational therapy, visit RCOT’s website or follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.