Becoming a mom is hard, both physically and emotionally. After completing the triathlon that is childbirth (push, catch, latch), you're immediately thrust into your new role: Mommy. There's no week off to recover, no day-long seminar to teach you the ropes.
Nope, you receive your training on the job while sore, sleep-deprived, and wearing a body that only slightly resembles the one you started off with nine months ago. And that's if everything else is going perfectly and you're not also struggling with breastfeeding, complications from delivery, or having to return to work.
It's easy to get overwhelmed, especially while looking at the precious little creature that you created (and for some reason, the people at the hospital saw fit to send home with you). You may feel like you have no idea what you're doing. Or it may seem like you're losing touch with reality because you cry simultaneously because your baby is so precious you can't stand it, and also because you think you might put your head in the oven if you don't get more than 45 consecutive minutes of sleep at some point this week.
Between the all-night feedings and how hard it is to even get to the bathroom, you may even find yourself questioning if you've made a mistake.
Three years ago, I found myself in that very position, clutching a screaming newborn to my chest as my husband slept peacefully beside me. Somehow, he was unaware of the sobbing infant, as well as the running commentary I had playing in the back of my brain. I kept asking myself, was this all normal?
What is normal in the postpartum period?
You may have heard of the term "baby blues." It's typical to undergo a significant emotional and hormonal shift in the days following giving birth. The symptoms of the baby blues can vary in intensity, but they mainly consist of experiencing sadness, anxiety, and occasional bouts of weepiness (especially in response to those adorable baby coos).
These symptoms should begin to let up within 10 days but can go on a couple more weeks as well and still be considered part of the normal process. Still, when these symptoms don't begin to ease, or instead intensify, that's a pretty good indicator you may have more than just the baby blues. Instead, you could actually be suffering from postpartum depression.
What is postpartum depression?
Carly Snyder, a psychiatrist who specializes in comprehensive reproductive psychiatry and women's mental health services, says the symptoms can include sadness, poor energy, tearfulness/frequent crying, loss of appetite, poor sleep, irritability, difficulty bonding with baby, poor concentration, feeling overwhelmed, guilt, feelings of worthlessness and despair, shame and sense of failure.
Whew. Yeah, that's a lot.
"Anxiety is often also experienced and can include 'intrusive thoughts,' or the 'what if's,' that can range from 'What if I drop the baby?' to 'What if I put the baby in the microwave?'" she says. "These intrusive thoughts are not psychotic in nature, but instead are due to severe anxiety."
These symptoms can also go on for far longer than 10 days.
Three years ago I experienced anxiety when my daughter cried that was so intense I would feel physically ill. My heart would begin to race, my cheeks would flush, and I'd feel a steady heat begin to burn between my shoulder blades. There was almost a primal need for me to just make it stop. It became a compulsion. I didn't eat. I didn't sleep. I just focused on doing everything in my power to soothe her. Not everyone who has postpartum depression will have those same sensations, but they may be familiar to some who do.
What should you do if you think you are suffering from postpartum depression?
First off, you should know that you are not alone. Up to 15 percent of mothers suffer from postpartum depression. And you should also seek help. Your obstetrician, your child's pediatrician, and your primary care physician are all excellent resources.
Personally, when I realized that something wasn't right, I talked to my daughter's pediatrician during one of her well visits. I told her that I was concerned that I may be experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression. Just saying the words out loud lifted a weight off my shoulders. Better yet, when she confirmed my suspicions and advised me that I could get help, I knew that there would be an end in sight. This feeling wouldn't have to last, and this wasn't my new normal.
Iffath Hoskins, M.D., OB/GYN, suggests that even if you think you just have a light case of the baby blues, you should definitely talk about how your feeling to your kid's pediatrician at the well baby checkup. "This will help ensure that a trained medical professional is hearing you and assessing the situation appropriately," she says.
And what does treatment look like?
There are many treatment options, from talk therapy to medication. "Zoloft can be very effective in treatment and has been shown to be safe in a number of studies of pregnant and lactating women," says Victoria Jewell-Mahler, M.D., FAAP. For me, talking about what was going on was the biggest help. As soon as I opened up about everything that I was feeling, it didn't seem quite as overwhelming.
Other women may benefit from more alternative approaches, such as aromatherapy, certain exercises, or by finding a support group of other mothers who have been diagnosed with postpartum depression. Your doctor will work with you to determine what the best treatment is for your situation, but just remember that help is out there.