Having a baby is something that many women dream about and look forward to throughout their lives. But when the little one finally arrives, new moms can often struggle with worry, turning what should be a joyous time in their lives into a period that is overcome with anxiety.
Discover what anxiety in new moms can look like, and when it might be time to talk to a medical professional for help with the anxiety.
Is anxiety normal after having a baby?
In short, yes. It’s absolutely normal to feel some level of anxiety after giving birth. After all, you have just come through a very physically difficult time, and there is now a little baby, who is completely dependent on you for care.
Who wouldn’t be anxious after becoming a new mom for the first time?
But while some anxiety is normal, it can sometimes grow to a level that interferes with normal functioning, and your ability to enjoy your life and your baby.
What is anxiety anyway?
According to Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW, writing for Psychology Today, “anxiety is understood to be an ally; it is an internal signal that can serve to protect us, motivate us and alert us to danger.”
Anxiety can help us to avoid dangerous situations and prevent us from harm. For example, you might feel anxious about standing too close to the edge of a cliff because you might fall and seriously hurt yourself.
How anxiety can develop in new mothers
Anxiety can develop in new moms as a result of the great physical and emotional changes that a woman endures in the first few days and weeks of motherhood.
Firstly, the extreme hormone swing that new moms experience can cause a change in emotions. Elizabeth Fitelson, M.D., the director of the Women’s Program at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry, tells Parents magazine that “estrogen and progesterone levels increase 10- to 100-fold during pregnancy, then fall to essentially zero within 24 hours of delivery.”
The loss of estrogen is especially problematic, as it is our “anti-anxiety producing, anti-depression hormone,” according to Dr. Barabara Byers, a reproductive psychiatrist.
Overwhelm of caring for a new baby
Along with the hormone changes, new moms are also not getting a lot of sleep, as they are waking throughout the night with a newborn that eats every couple of hours.
Caring for a new baby is also stressful, especially if you haven’t had a lot of experience with infants. Mothers usually have these sorts of questions running through their minds several times a day:
- Is the baby breathing?
- Is the baby getting enough milk/formula?
- Is the baby sleeping enough?
- How many wet diapers is the baby making each day?
- Is it OK to take the baby out?
Lack of help
Most of the time, today’s mothers don’t have extended family around to help them with the baby. Instead, they turn to parenting books, which can be a source of anxiety in themselves.
As a new mom, I found myself in exactly this same situation. I lived thousands of miles away from my mother, aunts and cousins, who I would have turned to for advice on caring for my new baby.
Instead, I consulted parenting books which warned me of a myriad of possible problems, and caused an increase in my anxiety.
Visiting the pediatrician at my daughter’s 4 week check-up, I ashamedly asked him if my baby was overweight. I had read in a parenting book that the numbers on the height and weight charts should match. Instead, her weight number was slightly above her height number.
The doctor, alarmed at my question, immediately reassured me that she was at a healthy weight and that I was to continue her feedings like before.
While hormonal changes and normal fears over the unknown of infant care are enough to worry over, there is one thing that new moms face that is perhaps the worst of all: the cultural assumption that all mothers fall instantly in love with their child and live happily ever after in the glow of motherhood.
When a new mom doesn’t instantly bond with her baby or feels as though she is not good enough to raise a child, she can start to worry, and feel like a failure, because she isn’t living up to this perfect ideal of motherhood.
How to recognize when new mom anxiety reaches the level of disorder
While some level of anxiety is natural and even normal in new mothers, it can grow over time to a more serious problem that needs to be treated by a doctor.
It can be difficult to recognize when worries rise to the level of an anxiety disorder, because they usually worsen steadily over time and it can be hard to see the change.
But when the worries start to influence our behavior to a point at which it interferes with our normal life, that is the time to consider seeing a physician for help.
You’ll want to pay attention to the three main areas in which anxiety can show itself: in the body, the mind and in actions and behaviors.
Anxiety in the body
Anxiety symptoms in the body usually take the form of things like an increased heart rate, rapid breathing, tightness in the chest, stomach troubles and insomnia. It can also bring on panic attacks or fainting spells.
If you are experiencing physical symptoms like these on a regular basis, it’s important to see your doctor for help.
Anxiety in the mind
Whether or not you experience physical symptoms of anxiety, you may still have worrisome thoughts that can contribute to anxiety disorder.
An example of this is when your mind races with thoughts about all the bad things that can happen to you or your baby.
You might also have trouble concentrating on anything besides your current worry, or need constant reassurance from others regarding a fearful situation.
These kinds of anxious thoughts can prevent you from living a normal life.
If you avoid certain people or situations, constantly check and re-check things, or refuse to leave the house for fear of something bad happening, your anxious behaviors are at a level in which your life is affected.
For more detail on the different types of anxiety symptoms that new moms sometimes experience, check out the Here to Help website. They have an insightful chart that can help you to gauge the seriousness of your anxiety (look for the green, yellow and red zones).
How to help new moms with anxiety
If you or a friend or family member is suffering from anxiety after becoming a new mom, the first thing to do is to talk about it.
Unfortunately, anxiety has a very negative connotation in our society, and many times a woman that is suffering with it believes that she cannot admit her feelings.
I think this is especially true after giving birth to a long-awaited baby, when others think that the mother “should” feel nothing but happiness.
Kleiman believes that, “women should not be afraid to talk about it and seek help. Family members and healthcare providers must take the expression of anxiety seriously, they must stop responding with dismissive comments and they should feel obliged to help the mother find symptom relief either through self-help measures or professional support. ” (emphasis mine)
Seeking professional help for anxiety
If there isn’t a close family member or friend with whom you can talk about your anxiety, then it’s important to reach out to your OB/GYN or even your child’s pediatrician.
They can help you figure out whether your uneasiness is run-of-the mill worry, or if you need to consult with a counselor or other physician to help with an anxiety disorder.
Oftentimes, they can also refer you to a good licensed clinical social worker or psychologist that specializes in new moms that are suffering from anxiety disorders.
Self-care for the relief of anxiety
Adrienne Griffen, founder of Postpartum Support Virginia, an organization that helps new moms, believes that self-care can go a long way towards helping a mother with anxious feelings:
Some of the things we teach about are basic self care. Many of these things go out [the] window when a new baby comes home. New moms need enough sleep, exercise, and time off from the baby. Being a new mom is exhausting and having trouble breast feeding exacerbates things. Women need five to six hours of uninterrupted sleep. Often this means that if the mom is a breastfeeding mom, she has to give up one feeding. This can be difficult, but it’s a needed break for new moms.
While taking time for self-care in the midst of raising a newborn sounds impossible, the fact is that new mothers must find ways to look after themselves, or risk burn out and high levels of anxiety.
It’s a little like what you are told to do on an airplane in case of emergency…put on your own oxygen mask before you help others put on their masks. You have to ensure that mom is OK so that she is empowered enough to care for baby.
This self-care doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive, such as scheduling a day at the spa. Simple things like going for a short walk, enjoying a cup of coffee while reading a book, or taking a nap while the baby naps are ways to nurture a new mom.
Simple ideas for self-care
Getting enough sleep is arguably the most important thing a new mom can do for herself in the first weeks of motherhood. It is also the hardest thing to accomplish!
A good night’s sleep or even a good, long nap can work wonders for making you feel like a whole new person. So try to nap when the baby naps, or enlist the help of friends or family to care for the baby for a few hours so that you can get some sleep!
Regular exercise is also important for moms and their well-being. Walking outdoors while pushing the baby in the stroller is a great option, especially if you are newly postpartum.
Take time to meet with friends. Being able to talk with other adults can improve your mood, especially if you’ve been at home alone with baby for several days. Mom friends can also give you great help with questions that you might have about baby or his routine.
Lastly, taking a few minutes to yourself can also help lift your spirits when you are overwhelmed. Hire a sitter to stay with the baby so that you can shop uninterrupted or get your hair cut. You’ll feel better after having a short break 🙂
Whether or not you are struggling with a few worries or feeling quite overwhelmed with anxiety, please understand that this happens to most every new mother when their baby arrives. Sometimes we might need the help of a professional to get us back on track, or we might be able to feel confidence again with the help of our friends. No matter which it is, finding help for your anxiety will not only help you, but will help your baby too.