The Post-Baby Blues and Peripartum Depression

April 19, 2019

Being a new mother has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life.  The love that I have for my new daughter is almost indescribable and I finally understand what my parents meant when they said, “You’ll understand when you have one of your own.” That being said, I can’t say I felt the same way in the days and weeks immediately following her birth; to be completely honest, I still feel like I’m experiencing so much transition as we adjust to being a family of three (plus one fur baby).

Ground Zero

Two days after Collins’ birth, I began to experience a feeling I had never felt before: I felt sad, guilty, fearful and anxious about the present and the future. My hormones were on a molecular roller coaster and I had enjoyed close to zero sleep. My normally constant contact with family and friends faded away as I isolated myself to the best of my abilities. I didn’t answer my phone because I just didn’t feel like talking, and I ignored text messages because I believed devoting an ounce of energy to anything other than this new little human was wrong. Unfortunately, what I really needed was the exact opposite: I needed support and I needed help!

The objective, rational counselor in me knew this. I focused on self-care by meditating and starting to reach out to my support system in the hopes that it would cure me. Most of the time it helped, but sometimes there was just nothing that would move my emotional needle out of the grey zone. I knew it was important to be patient; this little girl was trying to figure out how to live outside of the womb and I was trying to figure out how to give her life. Unfortunately, our first few weeks were not filled with storybook bonding time. I distinctly remember my mom at one point looking at me and saying, “Haley, you need to hold her,” but all I wanted to do was retreat to my room and fall asleep.

What is Peripartum Depression?

The most common complication of childbirth is postpartum depression: one in seven women who give birth experience postpartum depression, which is characterized by long-lasting mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and depression following childbirth. Want an even scarier statistic? 70-80% of new mothers experience the “post-baby blues,” the slightly-milder-but-still-awful-cousin of postpartum.  

The symptoms of post-baby blues include crying for no apparent reason, impatience, irritability, restlessness, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, sadness, mood changes, and brain fog or poor concentration. These symptoms are thought to be the result of hormone changes that precipitate chemical changes in the brain. The monumental, abrupt transition to life with a newborn baby (re: sleep disturbances, loss of identity, and sudden changes in routine, emotions, and relationships) don’t exactly help in the feelings department. Fortunately, these symptoms should improve over time and disappear within about two weeks post-delivery.  

If your symptoms last longer than two weeks, it could be a sign of postpartum depression. If you’re in this boat right now, it might be time to reach out to your obstetrician and/or find a mental health provider to evaluate how you’re doing and work with you to develop a plan to get you on a path towards feeling like yourself again.

A note on breastfeeding: I have come to believe that the ridged expectations hoisted upon mothers to breastfeed at all costs is one of the single-largest non-hormonal contributors to the baby-blues. Breastfeeding is one of the hardest jobs in the world and if it works for you and it’s what’s best for your baby, that is amazing! But if it doesn’t, do NOT force it; your baby will be just fine and the mental anguish you spare yourself will allow you to be a much better mother!

Throughout it all, remember that peripartum and the post-baby blues are so, so common. You are not the first person to experience this wild ride and you won’t be the last. Nothing you say about how you’re feeling will shock your care provider. Think of the worst thing that you have felt or thought in the last few weeks and I can assure you they have heard it before and can help.

Growing Together

Jumping back a second to where I said I basically wanted to choose my bed over my baby at one point- When I finally sat down and held her that day, things started to click. She isn’t a robot who is supposed to eat exactly every 90 minutes and fall asleep when I want her to. I had to let go of the holy schedule for a while and just “be” with my daughter. I shudder now to think about the amount of time I wasted writing down the exact time and amount I fed her, how “successful” my pump was, how much she slept. But at the time, recording what was going on felt like one of the only things I could control and therefore it was the only thing that was going to work. Yes, I realize that I am saying I thought being a control freak was the answer!

My take away from those first two weeks? Survive, stay in touch, and accept the help that is offered to you. Above all else, know that it will get better.

Once I started getting a little more sleep—don’t get excited, we’re talking four hours per day—I started researching the aftermath of childbirth in hopes that it would help me figure out what was going on between my ears. I also reached out to some of my mom friends who were so incredibly open and honest with me about what I was experiencing, which helped normalize my experience. As I found more first- and second-hand information on the “baby blues” and peripartum depression, I started to hear more horror stories about the postpartum period and couldn’t help but wonder, “Why have I not heard how common this is?” Or worse yet, had I and I just dismissed it as a “not me” problem? In all honesty, it was probably a little bit of both!

About a month before my due date, I remember telling one of my friends, “I don’t think I’ll struggle with ‘baby blues’ or any of that” like I was somehow above a well-documented physiological response to one of the most intense experiences in the human condition. Ha! It sounds hilarious now. I will say, I remember certain people smiling and telling me, “Nothing will prepare you for what you’re about to go through.”

I get it now!

At the end of the day, know this: outside of food and shelter, all your baby needs is mama’s love! So, take care of yourself, nurture your relationships, and accept all of the emotional and physical support that is offered. And meal deliveries, oh sweet meal deliveries—a special thank you to all of the amazing families who provided us with meals! You will figure everything else out. Now, two months out, I am happy to say that our lives have changed forever, but in the best way possible.  

My daughter gave me the blues… but then she gave me all of the other colors, too! 

Special Note:  

My husband and I both have amazing parents who helped us more than we could have ever imagined. It’s a little scary to think about where we would be without their 24/7 help the first couple of weeks. They did the hard things, lost tons of sleep and got us back on track. We are forever grateful for everything they did for us!

To our wonderful friends who absolutely SHOWERED us with love and support, thank you. We remember!

Haley Papajohn, LMHC & new mama