Knowing what could go wrong or how everything impacts our little one can be overwhelming. The night before I took the pregnancy test that revealed I would have my first child, I had a nightmare about a giant pregnancy test chasing me around the world. This pregnancy was planned and hoped for, but there was still a lot of anxiety.
Then once I got comfortable with the idea, there were other concerns. I didn’t want to tell everyone about the baby until the end of the first trimester when the main risk of miscarriage had passed. After that, there were worries about birth defects or delivery complications.
Once a woman has battled through labor to push a baby out, a switch is flipped. It’s like their brain is fixed on seeking out every imaginable danger and avoiding it, especially after having their first.
You don’t just have to worry about yourself, now you have this tiny human to look out for. New moms often have anxiety, and worry about things like: Is my child breathing? Should I let someone else hold him? What if he gets sick? Is she eating enough? This anxiety is caused in part by fluctuating hormones.
The Role of Hormones
Women are no strangers to the ups and downs (literally) of their hormones. Our cycles have the continual rise and fall of estrogen and progesterone, and pregnancy hormones aren’t all that different.
During pregnancy, “estrogen and progesterone levels increase 10- to 100-fold,” and “then fall to essentially zero within 24 hours of delivery,” according to Dr. Elizabeth Fitelson, director of the Women's Program at the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry.
Estrogen and progesterone levels essentially drop to zero within 24 hours of delivery.
This sudden drop in hormone levels cause new moms to feel emotional changes, and it’s only worsened by the fact that estrogen is our “anti-anxiety producing, anti-depression hormone,” according to Dr. Barabara Byers, a reproductive psychiatrist.
Pregnancy Changes the Structure of Your Brain
Not only are your hormones in overdrive during pregnancy, but a 2016 study revealed that a new mom’s brain structure is changed.
Neuroscientist Elseline Hoekzema led a research team at the Autonomous University of Barcelona that scanned women’s brains before they got pregnant for the first time, after giving birth, and two years later. They found “significant gray matter changes in brain regions associated with social cognition and theory of mind,” areas of the brain that are connected to developing attachment bonds, up through that two year mark.
The changes were actually a reduction in gray matter – a kind of pruning and sculpting of the brain connections to “become more specialized in ways that will help them adapt to motherhood and respond to the needs of their babies.”
A kind of pruning of the brain connections occurs to become more specialized for motherhood.
Mel Rutherford, an evolutionary psychologist at McMaster University in Ontario, commented on the study: “As a parent, you're now going to be solving slightly different adaptive problems, slightly different cognitive problems than you did before you had children. You have different priorities, you have different tasks you're going to be doing, and so your brain changes.”
After birth, you literally engage with the world differently. Your brain has organized itself around a new priority – your precious new baby.
When Is Postpartum Anxiety Not Normal?
When first caring for a newborn, every fear seems so real. I remember being more paranoid about intruders after having each of my children than in any other period of my life. In the first few weeks after giving birth, some women have strong irrational fears about someone else hurting their baby, or that their baby would randomly die, or that the neighbor’s dog they passed on the street would attack their baby. These fears might be accompanied by “excessive worrying, racing thoughts, and feelings of dread.”
This anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. Karen Kleiman MSW, LCSW writing for Psychology Today, explains, “Historically, 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. In these ways, anxiety reactions are understood to be adaptive and to a large extent, primal and instinctive.”
In the early weeks of new mommyhood, this anxiety, combined with the changed brain structures, can actually be understood to be a way to help women transition into motherhood. And while it’s common and normal, when these fears interfere with your ability to function or induce panic attacks, then the baby blues might have developed into postpartum anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is an internal signal that can serve to protect us, motivate us, and alert us to danger.
"We call postpartum anxiety 'the hidden disorder' because so few moms recognize it and it goes undiagnosed," says Dr. Jonathan Abramowitz, associate chairman of psychology and director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Clinic at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "It hasn't been discussed or studied much, even though it's likely more common than postpartum depression."
Other factors that can contribute to postpartum anxiety disorder are having suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth before your successful delivery of a healthy baby, or having a Type A or sensitive personality.
If you’re not sure that your fears are “normal” as a new mommy, then don’t be afraid to ask your doctor.
You Learn As You Go
It seems insane after the fact, but most postpartum fears come from love. It’s easy to watch a one-day-old baby sleep and worry about them. They’re so new and tiny. Thankfully these fears become fewer and farther between over time as we deal with other stresses.
As babies develop healthier, louder lungs, moms begin to realize that they aren’t as fragile as they look. Our house gets dirty, we’re in desperate need of a night out, and life goes on. The longer we live with a healthy baby, and no big bad tragedy comes to whisk them away, the easier it gets.
Some days will be more effortless than others, and it’s always helpful to have a good support system. Women who have friends and family they can rely on are better able to deal with their irrational fears. Having a good husband is also important because mothers quickly learn how fast men can become a good father and that eases every concern — even if it doesn’t remove them altogether.
Moms were made to worry. Thankfully our hormone levels and brain changes are balanced with oxytocin that’s released when mother and child share skin-to-skin cuddling and/or breastfeeding. I can’t express enough how peaceful and calming it is for me to just sit in a rocking chair with my baby and feed them. Being able to provide nourishment and love pushes away every fear. It’s a beautiful reprieve.
For the women who experience an unfair degree of postpartum anxiety, worry, or paranoia, I want to stress that you shouldn’t punish yourself or feel bad that this is happening. Reach out to family, friends, and your medical team and get the support you need.
Mothers are allowed to fear for their babies. No matter how irrational, it’s normal for us to imagine scary situations and look for ways to avoid or even escape them. This is all part of having a baby and adjusting to caring for a new life.
Sometimes this becomes a serious issue for mothers, and they need help, but most often moms grow into their parenting life and adjust with grace. We love our kids. We don’t want anything bad to happen to them, and that is something that never changes.
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