There’s a pretty darn good chance you will experience the emotional roller coaster known as the “baby blues” sometime in the first few weeks after delivery. That’s because “the research shows that up to 85 percent of moms will have them,” says Karen Kleiman, LCSW.
The “blues,” which are characterized by weepiness, intense highs and lows in your mood, as well as a general feeling of being overwhelmed (hello, new motherhood!), and a very low frustration tolerance or even anger, are caused by the drop in hormones that happens immediately after giving birth. All those hormones, which helped your body do all the challenging things it needed to do to bring a healthy baby into this world, can wreak havoc on your mood when they plummet.
Add in sleep deprivation, the physical experience of childbirth, and the massive life transition of becoming a parent (or adding another child to your family), and it makes perfect sense that the early days of having a baby can feel very, very hard—even overwhelming. Your body will adjust to the hormone changes and your mood will likely stabilize as it does, but there are things you can do now to weather this emotional storm. They are outlined in detail in the coming chapters (because they are helpful habits to maintain your mental health at any time), but I will list them briefly here.
EXPECT TO FEEL EMOTIONAL AND MOODY:
“You will have moments when you feel joyful and moments when you are overwhelmed and anxious,” explains Kleiman. “And that is okay.” In fact, some experts suggest we should change the name to the far-less catchy “postpartum reactivity,” because many women just experience more intense reactions to things, and those reactions can also be happiness—not just feeling sad.
ASK FOR (AND ACCEPT) HELP:
“Do not let feelings of guilt or inadequacy get in the way of letting people help you,” recommends Kleiman. “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.”
DON’T EXPECT TOO MUCH OF YOURSELF:
“Take it easy,” says Margaret Howard, PhD. “Have other people feed you. Let other people take care of the baby so you can sleep. Stay in your pajamas if that’s comfortable for you. Ease into motherhood.” (See here for ways to ask for and receive help.)
PRIORITIZE YOUR WELL-BEING:
“The mom’s experience in those first few weeks is the most important one,” says psychotherapist Sarah Best, LCSW. “You might get messages that tell you otherwise, but I am here to tell you straight: your well-being matters most. Pleasing your in-laws, entertaining the neighbors, or doing the dishes should all be relegated to the back burner.”
CONSIDER A “NO ADVICE” RULE:
“One thing I hear so much in my practice,” says Best, “is that much of the unsolicited advice moms get during the baby blues period hits hard. So I really say it’s okay to say, ‘We have a “no advice” rule in the house right now’ or outsource that job to a partner or friend.”
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 you being relatively comfortable, get on the line with your provider and address it.
HYDRATE AND EAT:
Dehydration can actually create physical symptoms that feel like anxiety, says Best. And birth and breastfeeding can lead to dehydration. So get a good water bottle and have someone keep it filled and by your side. In addition, stash snacks around the house, ask visitors to bring meals, or order takeout if that’s an option. “Everything feels harder when your brain doesn’t have the nutrition you need,” says Best.
GET BREAKS FROM THE BABY:
Even if it’s just a five-minute walk outside or a good long nap while someone holds the baby in the other room. Get. Breaks. From. The. Baby.
PRIORITIZE SLEEP AND REST:
Sleep is one of the best ways to restore your mental health and physical function. See here for how to get good sleep.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH PEOPLE WHO MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD
Avoid people who don’t.
GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO FALL APART:
“Women need kindness after they have babies,” says Carrie Bruno, IBCLC. “It’s a challenging time when women feel uncertain about themselves and can be pretty mean to themselves.”
“Let your house fall apart, let your social plans fall apart, let balls drop,” advises Jill Krause. “In a few years, none of that is going to matter. In the here and now, you just have to protect your sanity.”
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE “BABY BLUES” AND PPD?
As many as 20 percent of women experience perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) such as postpartum depression or anxiety, so it’s important to know what signs point to the fact that some professional help is what you need to feel better.
The key difference between the baby blues and PMADs (see here)—such as postpartum depression—is how long you have been feeling this way and how much it interferes with your ability to function (relatively) normally.
“If your symptoms of distress begin or last longer than two to three weeks after delivery, it is no longer considered to be baby blues,” says Kleiman. “And some of the emotions of baby blues can overlap with 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.”
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, sadness-filled woman you may have seen on the hospital PPD pamphlet you were given. But because that is our conventional understanding of what postpartum depression looks like, many women don’t realize what they are going through is a mood or anxiety disorder that can benefit from professional support.
THERE IS NO HARM IN GETTING CHECKED OUT:
“There is so much pain we could all avoid,” says Katherine Stone, the founder of Postpartumprogress.com, who experienced postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) after the birth of her first child fifteen years ago, “if we reach out sooner and realize that we don’t have to white-knuckle through this.”
That’s right. If you are struggling, you don’t have to settle for that. “Anytime you are worried about the way you are feeling or thinking,” says Kleiman, “it is time to let someone you trust know how you feel.”
So check out here for a detailed explanation of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, the symptoms that accompany them, and how to get the help you need to feel better.
Been There, Done That: Moms Talk About the “Baby Blues”
I felt the baby blues a few days after we were discharged from the hospital. I kept everything to myself because I thought I sounded needy or would feel less of a mother. My husband was the one to suggest reaching out. He provided links to articles and phone numbers to different doctors. He allowed me to spill all my feelings out. That was the start to alleviating the blues. It’s normal to feel the way you do. You’re not crazy. You’re the perfect mom for your baby.
—TIFFANY, HOUSTON, TEXAS
The first three weeks were the hardest of my life. I was all alone, had no real idea what I was doing, and have such an independent nature that it was really difficult to ask for any help.
—JACKIE, SEATTLE, WASHINGTON
Immediately after my daughter was born, my mood shifted dramatically and quickly. I was sometimes incredibly overwhelmed and sad. For me, this was exacerbated by isolation—spending long days trapped in the nursery with a helpless, demanding human was harder than I thought it would be. I felt more stable and less alone when in the company of other new moms, even more than when I was in the company of my husband or other friends. Find a tribe. Force a tribe. Go to whomever you need to be with.
—JAMIE, ATLANTA, GEORGIA
I grieved being pregnant. I was in such a hurry to meet our son and be a mom, I hadn’t really processed that when he was born I wouldn’t be pregnant anymore. I went through a few days of missing feeling his kicks and knowing he was safe.
—AMBER, INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA
I had the baby blues with both kids. I realized I would not experience their labor again and felt depressed that the first days and hours went by so quickly. I cried a lot for “no reason.” I talked a lot to friends and my great midwives and felt better after about two weeks.