Debbie had heard of postnatal depression; she knew the signs and what to look out for. But a couple of months after she had her first baby in May 2020, the start of the pandemic, she found herself crushed by what she know knows to be postnatal anxiety – far from the ‘baby blues’ they talked about in NCT classes. In this piece Debbie talks about her experience of postnatal anxiety and what she wishes she’d known.
“It will pass” and they’re right, it did. But that really didn’t help me in the moment. It felt like ‘it’ would go on forever. My son was born in May 2020 and I was lucky to experience a straightforward pregnancy and delivery. My husband and I were captivated by him. It was over, we’d made it.
A friend had warned me whilst I was pregnant about postnatal depression and potentially not bonding with my baby. Our NCT classes covered the baby blues. I was relieved in those first few weeks that I felt really well. No one has ever mentioned postnatal anxiety.
A couple of months in, my experience started to change. I chose to breastfeed my son and despite attempting combi-feeding, he wouldn’t take a bottle. He woke very regularly during the night and there would usually only be an hour or two between feeds. In the day, I struggled to transfer him to the cot so that I could rest. I was exhausted. Unlike is often associated with postnatal depression, I never felt he’d be better off without me. The opposite: I felt a crushing sense of responsibility.
The health visitor suspected CMPA and advised I trialed cutting out dairy. The idea that I had inadvertently been making my baby ill with dairy in my milk made me think I was doing a bad job. I felt even worse when I struggled to change my diet. When you’re sleep deprived and out on your fourth pram nap walk of the day, the last thing you feel like doing is reading all thirty-seven ingredients on a packet of crisps, only to find whey powder in there.
Despite my best efforts, the night time waking didn’t improve. I was desperately seeking a solution that felt right, spending all my down time obsessively canvassing opinion, researching and reading. I thought that maybe it could be silent reflux and read that holding him upright for thirty minutes after every feed would help. I didn’t have it in me. By the time I’d held him and done the merry dance of trying to get him back in the cot, I’d crawl into bed so wide awake I couldn’t sleep. Imagining it would only be forty minutes until he was awake again (an example of anticipating the worst), I’d lie there silently going over and over my many failings and catastrophising. I was so, so tired but totally unable to quiet my mind, such is postnatal anxiety.
I became fixated on trying to get his naps to a text book routine as a way of improving everyone’s sleep. If they didn’t go exactly to plan I felt hot, a physical tension in my stomach and a rising anger. At around four months, he began waking every forty-five minutes through the night unless held. It went on for seven weeks. My husband and I did shifts. I still found it extremely hard to sleep and couldn’t get comfortable holding my baby. I recognised that I didn’t feel well mentally. I had no resilience – small things felt overwhelming. I had no energy to do anything during the day. I was rarely without my tiny sidekick and yet I felt desperately alone. I also felt ashamed that I wasn’t coping with something so many millions of people have managed in far worse circumstances.
I started to find it hard to leave the house because I’d feel so stressed and anxious about getting the conditions right for his sleep that I’d feel sick. I felt panicked by trying to get somewhere for a specific time, so avoided activities. I was plagued by fears that we were creating bad habits, or worse, harming his emotional development. My son definitely seemed to sense my mood and I felt that that not only did I not have physical autonomy anymore but even my thoughts weren’t my own. I decided to call the GP.
Unfortunately, with the pandemic, support was very limited. Our health visitors were unavailable and our GP appointments were over the phone. We didn’t have local family and, even if we had, restrictions meant people weren’t allowed in our home. My GP did spend much longer than the allotted ten-minute appointment time talking to me. When I asked if it was PND I was experiencing, she asked if I felt sad for no reason. I didn’t, I explained through tears, I felt sad because I was exhausted and getting everything wrong. Postnatal anxiety was still never mentioned. Instead she arranged to call me back in two weeks and suggested that maybe my husband could do more. A lazy stereotype because he was already giving it his all. We recognise now that he was also suffering with similar feelings. For him it could manifest as sadness or rage rather than panic or obsessive thoughts.
With time our son’s sleep improved. He started doing eleven hours overnight around his first birthday. I started to feel better and found some coping mechanisms. I got a small diary and would focus on capturing one or two lines about something positive or cathartic from the day. I tried to engage more with people in person and that helped me put aside my concern that they would see I wasn’t doing it right. I realised the importance of getting some time for myself. I reframed how I thought about that; not as a dereliction of duties, but as still giving my all because to give my all I had to be whole. I also listened to white noise and my hypnobirthing tracks at bedtime. They kept my mind off obsessive thoughts. I tried to find acceptance of our situation and adjust my expectations. I’ve come to believe that his night waking was completely developmentally normal and not the result of an allergy or parenting decisions we made. It also helped that my son’s personality started to shine through and I could see he was happy.
On World Mental Health Day 2021, I came across an article about postnatal anxiety on an Australian website. I wish I had seen it sooner. One lady’s description leapt out at me as capturing exactly how I was feeling. I still sometimes feel like it on the odd occasion where he wakes earlier than expected or refuses a nap. I’m working up to going back to the GP and seeking some support to make sure I’ve really addressed it.
Support for Postnatal Anxiety
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