Kathy Radigan’s first-born child is 20 years old, but she remembers the “baby blues” she had with him like it was yesterday.
“I was happy I had this beautiful baby, but I also had this very PMS-y weepiness,” says the 53-year-old writer from Long Island. “I would cry and then be OK. I would cry and then I would nurse him.”
But what she remembers most is the day — two or three weeks after her son was born — when she woke up and thought to herself, “I can feel good or I can feel bad today.” Radigan says. “And then I thought, if I can make a choice, it must be over. It was like somebody put a coat on me and then took it off. It lifted on its own.”
Radigan is one of the 85 per cent of women who experience the “baby blues” some time in the first two to three weeks after delivery. The “blues” are different from postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety in that they will resolve on their own fairly quickly. What the baby blues look like can be different for everyone, but they usually involves dramatic ups and downs in your emotions, a general feeling of being overwhelmed, a very low frustration tolerance, or even anger.
That’s because the hormones in your body, which helped your baby thrive for nine months, plummet after delivery. Remember how emotional adolescence was? The baby blues are like condensed adolescence with the added elements of sleep deprivation, the physical recovery from childbirth and the responsibility of a new baby. That’s a strong cocktail.
The good news about the blues is that, like Radigan experienced, they will lift within two to three weeks; but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for feeling badly now. There are things you can do to ride out the storm more comfortably and know whether you might need additional help to weather it.
Expect the blues
Some of the greatest suffering we experience in life comes when reality falls short of our expectations. So, knowing that the blues could happen to you and what that might look like can make the experience less scary and much more bearable. And it will help you not feel like a weirdo when your experience doesn’t resemble the Hollywood story lines.
“You will have moments when you feel joyful and moments when you feel overwhelmed and anxious,” says Karen Kleiman, founder of the Postpartum Stress Center in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. “And that is OK.”
Ask for and accept help
This is one of many moments in your motherhood journey when you deserve every bit of support you can get. You are recovering from nine months of pregnancy followed by the incredible physical trial of childbirth and, possibly, major surgery. You need time to heal and rest. It does no one any good if you are pushing yourself too soon or too much.
Stay in your pajamas. Stay in bed. Ask friends and family to help out. “If people are cleaning or caring for you or taking care of your toddler while you take care of the baby, you will get through it much more easily,” says Kleiman.
Prioritise your well-being
Everyone focuses on a new baby, but the truth is that “the mum’s experience in those first few weeks is the most important one,” says Sarah Best, a psychotherapist in Manhattan who specialises in reproductive mental health.
“You might get messages that tell you otherwise, but I am here to tell you straight: your well-being matters most,” she says. “Pleasing the in-laws, entertaining the neighbours, or doing the dishes should be relegated to the back burner.”
Take pain seriously
“Physical pain - whether we’re talking about sore nipples, a C-section incision, tearing from a vaginal birth — makes everything so much harder,” says Best.
If your pain is getting in the way of being relatively comfortable, get on the line with your provider and address it. And, for those recovering from a vaginal birth, I have two words: Doughnut pillow.
Hydrate and eat
Dehydration can create physical symptoms that feel similar to anxiety, says Best, and both birth and breastfeeding can cause dehydration. So, get out your best water bottle and keep it filled by your side.
Ask any visitors to bring nourishing meals and healthy snacks like nuts and dried fruit, so you have something good to munch on at all times.
“Everything feels harder when your brain doesn’t have the nutrition you need,” says Best.
Get breaks from the baby
A baby demands a high level of attention from you at all times. That is not only physically exhausting, but emotionally draining, too. You might not realise how much so until you step outside your house, blink your eyes in the bright sunshine, roll your shoulders back and feel a release of responsibility wash over you. I highly recommend it.
Ask your partner or a trusted family member or friend to watch the baby and get outside your house for a small walk or just to a sit on a bench in a park. If your recovery is keeping you inside, barricade yourself in the bathroom with a white noise machine app on your phone (so you won’t feel pulled to go back to a fussy baby who is, by the way, just fine with Aunt Irene). Add some nice lotion or a bath and give your body some love and your mind a break.
Focus on sleep
Don’t laugh. OK, go ahead and laugh; I’ll wait. New babies and sleep are not a natural pairing, I know. But the cold, hard truth is that there is almost nothing more important to your emotional wellbeing than sleep.
“Parents spend so much time educating themselves about everything they can do so that their children have the best possible experience, but you can’t be this amazing parent if you are exhausted,” says Janet Krone Kennedy, author of The Good Sleeper: The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby (and You). “You don’t have the patience or the mood stability. You’re irritable. Everything feels like a challenge.”
Know when it could be something more
The baby blues are very common, but perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), such as postpartum depression and anxiety, also are not uncommon. In fact, as many as 20 per cent of women will experience one. It’s important to know what signs point to the possibility that some professional help is what you need to feel better. The key difference between the baby blues and PMADS is timing.
The baby blues start and stop sometime in the first two to three weeks after delivery. If your symptoms last longer than that, or begin later than that, that’s your first clue that you could be experiencing a PMAD. The other big difference is how they make you feel.
“Some of the emotions of baby blues can overlap with depression,” explains Kleiman, who is also the author of This Isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression. “For example, all new mothers cry, but if you cry all day, for many days, and are unable to function because you are crying too much, that’s different.”
Radigan developed postpartum depression after the birth of her second child and says that it felt “darker, heavier and more hopeless” than her experience with the baby blues. Her crying was constant and she says, “It felt like nothing I was doing was relieving it.” It did not go away on its own, but with therapy and medication, “it lifted.”
It’s also important to know that some of the most common symptoms of PMADs — persistent anxiety and rage, for instance — don’t resemble the placid pictures on the covers of hospital brochures about postpartum depression.
The bottom line for your mental health in this new phase of life, is this: There is no harm in getting checked out.
“Anytime you are worried about the way you are feeling or thinking,” says Kleiman, “it’s time to let someone you trust know how you feel.”