“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m supposed to feel a surge of maternal instinct, right? I’m supposed to love my baby. Why am I so overwhelmed and uninterested?”
I’m just getting to know Michelle. She had her first baby 3 weeks ago and has been sad and irritable ever since. Her pediatrician was worried about her at the well-baby visit this week and sent her to me. She’d had a tough pregnancy (morning sickness that wouldn’t quit for what felt to her like forever), made tougher by the financial stress that came from her husband being out of work for several months. The doctor is worried that she and her baby aren’t getting off to a good start.
Sadly, moms like Michelle often feel alone and guilty. Not feeling what they think they are supposed to feel, they are embarrassed to admit to themselves and others that things aren’t going well. Just when they need help the most, many don’t reach out. Some start to resent their babies and begrudge them time and attention. They force themselves to do what needs to be done but don’t provide their newborns with the nurturing they need.
Still others give up on nursing, or holding their babies when bottle feeding, depriving themselves and their babies with the closeness that comes with the quiet feeding times. Propping a bottle is the best they can do. Overtired, irritable, and sinking into depression, life after birth isn’t at all what they expected.
As hormones shift and settle, it’s absolutely normal to feel what is commonly known as the baby blues in the weeks following birth. One of my clients described the first couple of weeks after her first child was born as PMS times ten. Others feel more emotionally fragile than usual and maybe a little weepy. Still others are surprised that they are on an emotional roller coaster, feeling great one minute and set off into tears by something that normally wouldn’t bother them the next. It’s all because the endorphins from delivery are leaving the new mother’s system and the body is resetting itself.
Different women react differently but normal baby blues are usually accompanied by moments of joy and wonder and happiness about the baby and motherhood. The emotions settle down after a couple of weeks and the routines and rhythms of new parenting get established.
But when those up and downs last more than a few weeks, and especially if they get worse, it may indicate that the new mom is developing postpartum depression (PPD). This happens to between 11 and 18 percent of new mothers, according to a 2010 survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Surprisingly, it can last anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years.
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression
Postpartum depression looks like any major depression. Things that once gave the mother pleasure are no longer fun or interesting. She has trouble concentrating and making decisions. There are disturbances in sleep, appetite, and sexual interest. In some cases, there are thoughts of suicide. Many report feeling disconnected from their baby and some worry that they will hurt their baby. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness immobilize them. Many feel guilty that they can’t love their child, which makes them feel even more inadequate.
In some cases, women develop psychotic delusions, thinking their baby is possessed or has special and frightening powers. Sadly, in some cases, the psychosis includes command hallucinations to kill the child.
Who Develops Postpartum Depression?
There are a number of issues that contribute to a woman’s risk of developing PPD:
- A prior diagnosis of major depression. Up to 30 percent of women who have had an episode of major depression also develop PPD.
- Having a relative who has ever had major depression or PDD seems to be a contributing factor.
- Lack of education about what to realistically expect of herself or the baby. Teen mothers who idealized what it would mean to have a baby to love with little appreciation for the work involved are especially vulnerable.
- Lack of an adequate support system. Unable to turn to someone for practical help or emotional support, a vulnerable new mom can become easily overwhelmed.
- A pregnancy or birth that had complications, especially if mother and baby had to be separated after the birth in order for one or the other to recover. This can get in the way of normal mother-child bonding.
- Being under unusual stress already. New mothers who are also dealing with financial stress, a shaky relationship with the baby’s dad, family problems, or isolation are more vulnerable.
- Multiple births. The demands of multiple babies are overwhelming even with substantial support.
- Having a miscarriage or stillbirth. The normal grieving of loss is made worse by the shifting hormones.
What to Do
In cases of the normal “baby blues,” often all a new mom needs is reassurance and some more practical help. Engaging the dad to be more helpful, joining a support group for new parents, or finding other sources of support so the mom can get some rest and develop more confidence in her mothering instincts and skills can put things back on track. As with any other stressful or demanding situation, new parenthood goes better when the parents are eating right, getting enough sleep, and getting some exercise. Friends and family can help by bringing some dinners, offering to take over with the baby for an hour or so so that the parents can get a nap, or by babysitting siblings to give the parents time to focus on the infant without feeling guilty or pulled in multiple directions.
Postpartum depression, however, is a serious condition that requires more than naps and caring attention. If the problem has persisted beyond a few weeks and has been unresponsive to support and help, the mother should first be evaluated for a medical condition. Sometimes a vitamin deficiency or another undiagnosed problem is a contributing factor.
If she is medically okay, those who care about her and her baby need to encourage her to get some counseling, both for the emotional support counseling offers and for some practical advice. Cognitive-behavioral treatment seems to be especially helpful. Since women who have experienced postpartum depression are vulnerable to having another episode of depression in their lives, it is wise to establish a relationship with a mental health counselor to make it easier to seek help if it is needed in the future. If the mom has had thoughts of suicide or infanticide, the therapist can help the family learn how to protect them both. If the birthing center or hospital offers a PPD support group, the new mom and dad should be encouraged to try it. Finally, sometimes psychotropic medications are indicated to alleviate the depression.
The baby blues are uncomfortable. Postpartum depression is serious. In either case, a new mom deserves to get practical help from family and friends. When that alone doesn’t help a new mom adjust, it’s time to seek out professional help as well.