Many postpartum parents can attest that the first two weeks after delivery can feel like a nightmare. With the numerous changes that a parent experiences (e.g. hormones, sleep patterns, feeding schedule, diaper changes, etc), those initial days are about surviving the storm. Unfortunately, for many of us, adapting to these new changes can feel like an emotional roller coaster, and we begin to experience baby blues.
Baby blues can show up in a variety of ways. Within the first few days postpartum, caregivers can experience one of the following symptoms:
- Easily irritable and snappy
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sadness or tearful (sometimes with limited reason or triggers)
- Higher levels of anxiety and worry
- Difficulty sleeping (even when the baby is asleep)
- Mood changes
- Poor concentration
Unfortunately, baby blues is a normal part of the postpartum phase. It is experienced by approximately 80% of caregivers, and improves within two weeks without any intervention. While baby blues is no longer considered a mental health issue, many parents struggle during these early days. For anyone who has experienced this distress, you can relate to the desperation of needing to get off this emotional roller coaster. I hope the following tips will offer comfort to you and your family during these times.
1. Remember that it takes time to adjust
Beyond the hormonal fluctuation, a new parent is thrown into various physical and lifestyle changes. Your body has just gone through the painful experience of child birth, and is trying to recover. You are figuring out how to breastfeed, or coming to terms that you will use formula with your little one. You may have limited access to rest as you wake up every two hours to feed your baby. Perhaps you are struggling with regrets (e.g. you were hoping for a different delivery experience, or grieving that you have a baby boy instead of your preferred baby girl). Many mothers struggle to accept their post-delivery body, and resent that they still look pregnant. There is a huge learning curve with your partner in managing household chores and parenting. These are just a handful of changes that a parent can experience during these early days.
These changes are significant, and can take time to sort through. When it comes to adjustment, every one has a different capacity of how well they transition. For most people it can take anywhere from 4-6 months before accepting a new reality (e.g. adjusting to new job, new career, new city). This time frame will vary if there are additional stressors placed on our system (e.g. lack of sleep, financial constraints, loneliness, grief).
While we know that change can take time, we often have a hard time accepting that we need the time to adapt. Ideally, we’d love to shine and present as well-adjusted human beings irrespective of whatever stressors are thrown our way. While I hope you are one of the lucky few who are adaptive, chances are you are among the norm for needing some time to readjust. My favourite reminder during my own postpartum phase was that it took me 9 months to grow this baby, it’s okay for me to take the 9 months to learn and adjust. This time frame helped me ease my own expectations of getting things right or expecting fast results. What time frame have you set for yourself?
Watch out for shame
Baby blues is not your fault! I hope you repeat this line to yourself as many times as you need to in order for that message to sink in. The majority of your emotional distress is influenced by hormonal changes. During the course of pregnancy, there are thousands of hormones taking over a mother’s system. These hormones quickly leave your body within the first two weeks following your child’s birth. Unfortunately, this quick shift in hormonal fluctuation can create a huge emotional roller coaster inside. For example, a reduction in estrogen can affect our ability to concentrate, and a drop in progesterone increases our fatigue. Both estrogen and progesterone plummet once our body recognizes we are no longer pregnant.
Many new parents struggles with attaching to their newborn. While this is perfectly normal, it’s not often openly discussed. Instead, we are bombarded with images online of parents who are overjoyed and attached to their new baby as soon as delivery happens. There can be a lot of shame for parents to voice that they do not feel attached to their baby. I want you to know this is perfectly normal. In all other relationships you are given the time to build rapport and get to know another person. This doesn’t mean we stop taking care of the baby, or attending to its needs. However, like with any relationship, it’s okay to take the time to get to know one another. For many folks attachment can take a few months. We often see improvements when the baby becomes more interactive and starts to respond to smiles and other social cues.
As often as possible, I encourage you to practice self-compassion and forgiveness during these two weeks. You will, understandably, have less patience when you are sleep deprived and tired. It would make sense that you are having a hard time concentrating on what others are saying because you feel like a walking zombie. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed during a major life transition. As much as this is a beautiful moment in your life, it can also be a moment of suffering. This moment will pass, and you will keep surviving. As long as you are not jumping on that guilt/shame-train, you can get through this moment.
Find opportunities to rest
I found that the most frustrating tip that others gave to me during my postpartum period was to nap when the baby was napping. Unfortunately for me, I am not a napper. I realized I became more frustrated and upset whenever I tried to nap during the day.
So let go of the pressure to fall asleep. Instead of focusing on getting some shut eye, try to take some time for your body to relax. This may involve watching TV, reading a book, or taking some quiet time outside in your backyard. If you happen to take a snooze during one of these activities, great! But ease off on the pressure to make this rest happen.
If it’s feasible, make a sleep chunking plan with a partner or family member. Find a way to ensure you have four hours of uninterrupted sleep so that you have the opportunity to complete a full sleep cycle. For example, speak with your partner and assess which one of you prefers to stay up late versus wake up early. This might involve going to bed at 7 PM so that your partner can do the 11 PM feed. You may also have to problem solve with your partner about feeds. This may involve pumping or formula feeding in order to have this time for sleep.
Do you want help or do you need space?
Everyone’s need for space and help changes and fluctuates. Knowing what your system needs, and being able to request this openly with our loved ones can make a huge difference to our moods.
There may be times where you are really craving alone time with the baby, and this is perfectly healthy and allowed. Pushing yourself to see friends and family who are eager to meet the baby may actually be causing more stress than good. The majority of us are conflict-averse, and oftentimes, we say yes for the sake of avoiding potential drama. However, what does that short-term aversion create for your system? If you find you are irritable or tired for hours afterwards, you get to decide if this option is actually working for you. The hard part with boundaries is that they are OUR limits, not those of others. Others will keep voicing their own needs; however, our mental health struggles if we become a ‘yes person’ for too long.
There may be times when you need support. If so, try and be specific of what would be helpful. Do you want someone to watch the baby while you rest? Would you like your parents to bring over some home cooked meals? Do you need a friend to help you organise the nursery? Your loved ones may say no to these requests, which is allowed. However, they will not always know that this is the type of support you need unless it’s stated. We would all love for others to mind read and “know” just what we need and crave. However, until this ability becomes feasible, we just have to ask.
What can my family members do?
Whether you have your loved ones read this section, or you have to explain it to them, make sure they are well-versed in these points. Family members, please try the following suggestions:
- Check your expectations. Delivery is similar to surgery; your body needs 6 weeks to fully recover. Pushing a mom to do chores, make meals, manage what she used to, have sex, or any other responsibilities may not be feasible right now. Asking for these requests will not work in your favour and will only cause this new parent to feel guilty, ashamed or enraged. For everyone’s sake, wait it out.
- Show lots of compassion. This is not a parent’s fault. Baby blues is not based on will power. This is truly a biological upheaval that is happening before your eyes. Your loved one will get better, and you will see a semblance of that person in a few days.
- Ask what would be helpful. A lot of us love to cuddle babies. But if your only offer of support is to hold the baby while mom rests, this may not actually be as helpful as you intend. The easiest way to avoid this issue is to simply ask or offer suggestions.
- Find other support systems. This new mother may be your favourite person to talk to and confide in. While this relationship works beautifully most days, she may not have the capacity to attend to these needs right now. Ask her what’s preferred. Pay attention to cues of stress. If it’s too much, it’s okay to reach out to other friends and loved ones.
- Learn about postpartum mental health. Your loved one may not see the signs of postpartum mental health struggles until it is too late. It can be challenging to acknowledge we are struggling, and most of us experience a time of denial or avoidance. By knowing the signs for postpartum mental health disorders, you can be aware when you see your loved one shows symptoms. Let them know that postpartum mental health is treatable, and they can absolutely get better with the right help.
When should you be concerned?
The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) is a self-assessment that can be taken during pregnancy and postpartum to assess moods. Complete the EPDS during your first two weeks postpartum, and take it again when you are closer to 4-6 weeks postpartum. If this current struggle is truly baby blues, your score numbers will be down significantly (either 8 or lower) by 6 weeks postpartum. If your anxiety and sadness continue to be a struggle, you may be experiencing other perinatal mental health struggles like postpartum depression. The wonderful caveat about postpartum mental health is that it can improve! With support and the right interventions, you can start to feel like your old self.
If you have any questions about the above information, reach out.