When a new baby comes home, a host of new questions arrive like how to nurse successfully, how to secure a diaper and how to get the baby to burp. But for some moms, darker, desperate questions can arise, too: “Why am I so miserable when we have this beautiful baby?” and, more to the point, “Will I ever sleep again?” And fed-up dads wonder: “Who is this irritable woman, and what has she done with my wife?”
These questions aren’t always spoken, but they require answers. That’s because powerful anxiety or depression assails many expectant and postpartum women, sometimes pushing them to the emotional brink and wreaking havoc on once-happy marriages. Yet there are numerous resources that can provide support, and partners in particular can help new moms navigate potentially treacherous territory.
Dr. Christine Truman, a Virginia Beach psychiatrist with Finney-Zimmerman Psychiatric Associates, specializes in these conditions, which she says in her field are increasingly referred to as “perinatal mood and anxiety disorders,” generally not labeled as postpartum depression. They can develop during pregnancy, not just postpartum, and may resemble anxiety more than depression, but require prompt treatment either way.
Expectant couples will do better if they recognize that such disorders are “a very normal thing that could happen,” affecting as many as 1 in 5 women, according to Diana McSpadden, a postpartum depression survivor and leader of a Williamsburg support group offered by Postpartum Support Virginia (PSVa). It’s equally important, she says, for men to understand that “a supportive partner can really shorten the time [that women experience such disorders].”
Pregnant or postpartum women with depression typically exhibit the symptoms of any episode of major depression, including: sadness, reduced interest in formerly enjoyable activities, decreased appetite, feelings of worthlessness and/or guilt, and difficulties with concentrating or sleeping. Quite commonly, however, Truman says her patients instead exhibit signs more like anxiety, such as insomnia, irritability and physical restlessness.
Depression or anxiety requiring treatment can sometimes be confused with what’s known as “baby blues,” a milder postpartum condition that affects up to 85 percent of women, Truman says. Normally indicated by mood swings, irritability and tearfulness that develop in the first one to two weeks postpartum, baby blues often dissipate within a week or two if a mom is able to get adequate sleep and receive early support from family, friends and her obstetrician.
Disorders that require treatment, in contrast, can plague a woman for weeks, months or even longer, and they often develop in women with a history of such disorders, Truman says.
Women with so-called “type A” personalities, who seem “very, very capable” prior to motherhood, are more prone to developing depression or anxiety during or after pregnancy, says Dr. Natasha Sriraman, an associate professor of pediatrics at Eastern Virginia Medical School who sees patients at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters, a PSVa board member and a postpartum depression survivor. Yet because of the stigma still attached to mental illness, she says, these women try hard to seem in control. But if such a disorder takes hold, she says, “You feel completely out of control and have no idea what you’re doing.”
In this daunting scenario, new dads can do much to support their partner, according to Jodie Dolci, a Williamsburg postpartum doula (trained to help couples adjust to the arrival of a new baby). A new dad can: encourage his partner to talk about her feelings; help with
the baby; assure his partner that it’s not her fault and that she will get better, and help her to find supportive resources.
Finding ways to preserve a new mom’s sleep, according to Christine Truman, “gives you the most bang for your buck” as a way to help resolve anxiety or depression symptoms early. A dad can sleep in alternate shifts with his partner, changing diapers and feeding the baby bottles with breast milk that a mom has pumped earlier, or with formula.
An important sign that more than sleep is needed, Truman asserts, is if a new mom is unable to sleep even when her baby is. Medication and/or talk therapy with a counselor may be needed, and dads can help by identifying therapists or psychiatrists that a mom can interview.
In addition, the support of other moms can be a lifesaver, many survivors say, and new dads can help locate area support groups.
Dads who feel overwhelmed themselves may benefit from recruiting family members, friends or babysitters to assist. Also, the Postpartum Support International website (postpartum.net) enables moms and dads to call in for anonymous phone chats with their peers in similar situations. Says Chris Harper, a Toano, Virginia, father whose wife Jenna experienced postpartum depression, “Men don’t want to talk to people other than other men, and they may not want to admit that there’s anything wrong with their relationship, much less ask for help.”
Harper says his wife is an extremely capable woman and that their marriage prior to her depression was one that many admired.
When her depression set in, he knew early on that something was off, even if he couldn’t name it. He remembers, “Everything I did seemed to be wrong.”
Searching for help, he went online and Googled “walking on eggshells.” To his relief, the phrase brought up a website with surprisingly familiar stories from other new dads. Harper and his wife eventually got help through a PSVa support group, counseling and medication for his wife, but he urges other new fathers to trust their gut and take action, if needed. “If you notice anything with your partner that’s completely out of character,” he says, “keep an eye on it…Those [inexplicable] things that are happening in front of you really are happening.”
Support group leader Diana McSpadden sums up simply how new dads can help: “You don’t need to believe in mental illness, or believe that [disorders like] postpartum depression are real,” she says. “You just need to support the mom.”
For help, support and resources on postpartum depression and anxiety, consult Postpartum Support International at postpartum.net, or its Virginia affiliate chapter, Postpartum Support Virginia at postpartumva.org.
Baby Blues Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of the baby blues—which last only a few days
to a week or two—may include:
- Mood swings
- Decreased concentration
- Trouble sleeping
Postpartum Depression Symptoms
Postpartum depression may appear to be the baby blues
at first—but the signs and symptoms are more intense and longer lasting, eventually interfering with your ability
to care for your baby and handle other daily tasks.
Postpartum depression symptoms may include:
- Loss of appetite
- Intense irritability and anger
- Overwhelming fatigue
- Loss of interest in sex
- Lack of joy in life
- Feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy
- Severe mood swings
- Difficulty bonding with your baby
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Thoughts of harming yourself or your baby
Untreated, postpartum depression may last for many months or longer.
Courtesy of the Mayo Clinic