Baby Emma looks tired, so I’ll put her to bed. What if I’m wrong and she isn’t tired? What if I’m putting her to bed too early and she doesn’t sleep? What if I don’t hear her wake up and cry because I’m so tired? What if she stops breathing while she is sleeping!!?
This is what we call going down the anxiety What if rabbit hole. We’ve all been there at times and this kind of thinking is very common after having a baby. Postnatal anxiety is actually just as common as postnatal depression, although much less talked about.
So why does this thinking often arise after having a baby? First of all it’s probably helpful to have a look at what anxiety actually is.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences. It’s function is to keep us safe, by warning us that something may be dangerous and allowing us to pre-plan to avoid risky situations. This can actually be very useful.
Anxiety though can sometimes get a little bit overenthusiastic about it’s job in life. Somewhat like that overly helpful shop assistant who keeps following you around and popping up when they’re not needed. This is where people might experience what we call an anxiety disorder, with one in four Australians being affected by an anxiety disorder at some point in their life.
So back to our original question: Why might anxiety increase after having a baby?
1. Sleep deprivation
People need sleep. In fact adults need between 7-8 hours of sleep per night for optimum functioning. This is difficult (some might say impossible) after having a baby! Irritability, stress, poor concentration and anxiety are all symptoms of sleep deprivation.
High stress is a risk factor for many different mental health difficulties, including anxiety. Having a baby is a HUGE adjustment. In fact absolutely everything changes in some way when a baby comes along and adjusting to this change can be very stressful.
3. Physical and emotional recovery from childbirth
During pregnancy, labor and the postpartum period, the female body undergoes huge changes in hormones, which play a key role in our emotions. Alongside this, the female body needs to recover physically, with pain and physical restrictions adding to stress and anxiety.
4. Unhelpful Helpers
Friends and family often have helpful advice or parenting tips for new parents. Sometimes this is useful, but other times it is not. Information that is contradictory or seems critical, can often fuel the What if thoughts such as What if I’m not doing it right!?
5. Kids matter to us
As obvious as it may sound, the more important something is to us, the more likely we are to worry about it. So it’s no surprise that after giving birth, we might start to worry about our baby.
When you look at all these factors, it’s really no wonder so many new parents suffer with postnatal anxiety. For some new parents, these symptoms will be familiar due to past anxiety symptoms, but for others it might be your first experience of anxiety, which can be really scary. So it’s good to know that there are things you can do to help.
Some tips for managing postnatal anxiety
Self-care: Take time to make yourself somewhat of a priority. It doesn’t have to be for long, but finding some me time is very important, whether it be a cup of tea outside or a quick walk with a friend.
Be kind to yourself: Being a parent is a rewarding but tough job. So keep in mind that we learn as we go and no-one is perfect
Accept help from others: Gaining practical and emotional support from family, friends and other parents is important. You may need to ignore the ‘but I should be able to do it on my own’ thought, which is likely to arise. In reality caring for a baby requires a team effort.
Keep your thoughts in check: Notice your What if worries and try to keep them in check. Ruminating on these thoughts or letting them rule your life can lead to more anxiety
Get professional help: It can be difficult tackling postnatal anxiety on your own. Gaining support to help you understand your symptoms and put in place strategies to help can be very beneficial.
Written by Lauren Ell, Clinical Psychologist