Moms' Hidden Health Risks

There's a good reason flight attendants insist that in an emergency you put on your own oxygen mask before you help your child with his or hers. If you pass out first, you could both be doomed! It's a good metaphor for parenting, too. In order to take the best possible care of our families, we first have to take care of ourselves. After all, if we're not healthy, it's a lot harder to meet the demands of parenting — let alone be an example for our children to teach them the importance of taking care of themselves.

It's crucial to eat healthy and exercise as much as possible, but even when moms make their own health a priority, there are some less obvious health risks that could thwart their efforts. We talked to some of the Lowcountry's best doctors and health providers to learn how to minimize the risks.


Parents today juggle so many things: their own work, their kids' schools, homework and other activities. While most of us recognize when we're feeling stressed out, we might not realize what a negative impact it can have on physical health.

Stress can cause headaches, upset stomach, heightened blood pressure, chest pains and sleeping problems. Over time, it can turn into depression and/or anxiety. Luckily, there are many ways to combat stress including exercise, changing the way we think about stress and learning tools to prevent and manage it.

“We often attribute the development of stress to external life circumstances, such as managing children's schedules, striving to be the perfect mother, wife, friend, sister, or just keeping up with our daily to-do list,” said Hallie Clark, a clinical counselor and co-founder of a Charleston Wellness Group, which helps people manage stress through yoga therapy, counseling and health coaching. “In reality, stress begins with our thoughts. It begins in the mind and then shows up in the body when the sympathetic nervous system gets activated, thus placing us into the fight-or-flight response.”

Clark recommends when you notice you're feeling stressed by a thought (for example you think your child will feel you're a bad mother if you're late to pick her up from school again) slow down, take a deep breath and ask yourself three questions: What am I thinking about this circumstance? Do I know this to be true for a fact? Does this make me feel the way I want to feel? When you break it down this way, often you realize the thought that is causing the stress is not a fact. If the thought doesn't make you feel the way you want to feel, try to redirect your thinking, Clark suggests. Think, “I am doing the best that I can right now in this moment. Life is flexible, there is room for me to make mistakes.”

If you have a difficult time managing stress, your doctor might suggest ways to get more exercise and other stress outlets into your schedule, refer you to a counselor like Clark, or even prescribe medication to help you through a tough time.

Depression and Postpartum Depression

Stress can lead to depression, but there are also other factors that can contribute such as genetics, substance abuse, insomnia, and even gender. In fact, women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression as men, according to Mayo Clinic. (Though it's important to note that women could simply be more likely to seek treatment.)

Depression increases the risk of obesity, substance abuse and even suicide. When you're depressed or anxious, your parenting skills might be compromised, too, says Dr. Eleanor Oakman, an OB/GYN at Harborside OB/GYN. Depression is often treated with medication, counseling, and lifestyle changes.

New mothers are susceptible to postpartum depression, or a less severe version of it sometimes called “the baby blues,” spurred on by a combination of hormonal imbalance and the high stress that comes with caring for a newborn. Oakman estimates postpartum depression affects 5-10 percent of new moms, and the baby blues affect 30-40 percent.

“When it's abnormal is when you don't want to get up or take care of the baby, don't want to shower or leave the house,” Oakman says.

Mothers who experience postpartum depression should let their doctor know so he or she can work with them to manage it through medication or counseling.

Sleep Problems

Sleep can turn problematic for moms with children of all ages. Parents of infants are up and down during the night taking care of feedings, but parents with older children often have trouble sleeping either because they worry about their kids, or they're doing so many things at once during the day they have a hard time winding down at night.

Being sleep-deprived might seem par for the course, but it can have a big impact on your overall health. According to the National Center of Sleep Disorders, 30-40 percent of adults say they suffer symptoms of insomnia within a year, while 10-15 percent report chronic insomnia. People who suffer from sleep deprivation are more likely to become overweight or obese. Sleep-deprived people aren't as aware as they would be otherwise, and it makes parents more likely to make mistakes that could affect both themselves and their kids. For example, 37 percent of people in a National Sleep Foundation Poll admitted to falling asleep while driving.

Going to bed at the same time every night, avoiding caffeine and alcohol and not having a heavy meal right before bed can help people who struggle with sleeping problems. Exercise, medications and counseling can also help, and there's always the option of going to see a sleep specialist or sleep lab such as the Sleep Lab at MUSC.

Addiction to Technology

Many moms are good about monitoring their kids' media use, but they might not think to set perimeters on their own, which in the worst cases can turn into an addiction.

“We're living in a society where we're all plugged in all the time, and what I see is a lot of people missing out on their kids because they're always looking at their phone,” said Dr. Natalie Gregory, an OB/GYN at Lowcountry OB/GYN.

It is possible to become addicted to your iPhone, Facebook feed or email. This poses a particular risk when you look at your phone or text while driving.

A technology addiction can be identified in the same way as other addictions—if you notice you get irritable when you have to be away from it or if it's having a negative impact on your relationships. Too much time in front of a screen can also cause headaches and insomnia.

Any doctor or counselor should be able to help if you feel like you have a problem, but you can start by taking small steps to cut back such as turning the phone off in the evenings after work. Gregory recommends a no-cell-phone policy in the car for all parents or suggests allowing kids to play games on your phone while you're driving.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Vitamin D deficiency is a common issue that doesn't often get diagnosed because there aren't many clear symptoms. Those at risk include vegetarians (particularly vegans, who don't consume dairy products since vitamin D is found in dairy) or people who don't get out in the sun much (since the body produces vitamin D in response to sunlight).

“We don't want people to risk skin cancer,” Oakman said, “so we talk about ways to supplement.”

Vitamin D deficiency can lead to bigger problems—including rickets, cardiovascular disease, depression, low energy and increased risk of osteoporosis. Research suggests that getting enough vitamin D might also plays a role in preventing diabetes, hypertension and multiple sclerosis.

If you think you might be at risk, your doctor can do a blood test to find out for sure, or you may just want to start taking a supplement or consuming more vitamin D fortified foods, such as dairy, to make sure you're getting enough in your diet.

Mommy Weight

We all know that obesity has all kinds of negative effects on overall health, but what if you're just carrying a few extra pounds?

“You think that extra 10 or 15 pounds is just your 'mommy weight,' but it can be really detrimental,” Gregory says.

You might not realize that carrying just a few extra pounds can be a health risk because you might not look unhealthy. But that little bit of weight can actually increase your risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and many other diseases if it puts you into the overweight category.

The good news is there are many ways to get help from nutrition coaches, personal trainers and even weight loss programs like Weight Watchers. Talk to your doctor to find a program that will fit your lifestyle. As an added bonus, healthy eating and exercise required to lose weight will also help you relieve stress, too, which will keep even more health hazards at bay.


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