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Dealing with Postpartum Emotions

What Should I Expect?

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Smiling parents holding baby
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Many men who are expectant fathers experience a series of transitions as they prepare for and greet a new member of their family. Sometimes, dads can't wait to get through pregnancy and the rush of emotions and physical challenges associated with it. But in many cases, the emotions associated with pregnancy, as different as they can be for an expectant mother, are nothing compared with the feelings and moods that come within the few weeks after the baby is born.

Medical and mental health professionals have a lot to say about this emotional phenomenon. It is often called the "baby blues" or postpartum depression. And while we have a name for it, these postpartum emotions are no less real or personal to a new mother.

It's important for a new father to realize that some level of postpartum emotional challenges exists for about 80 of new moms. So expect to deal with these emotions; knowing that they are likely and being prepared to handle them is an important "life skill" for a new dad.

Most professionals categorize these postpartum emotional events into five general categories, ranging from the very common "baby blues" to full-blown psychosis.

The Baby Blues

Research suggests that most new mothers experience this form of anxiety within a week or two after birth, usually lasting about 3 weeks or so. With the baby blues, mom will feel sad, be a little weepy and have fairly wide mood swings. Her hormones are fully involved, and she will likely not know quite what is happening to her. The baby blues will also often include feelings associated with coming off the high of labor and birthing to the new realities of a demanding little creature, less sleep, being anxious about this new responsibility and concern about spousal support (or the lack thereof). As the dad, you may even feel like the target of her frustration, despite all you may be doing to help.

It is important to know that these are really natural feelings, and that in most cases, they will not last more than a few weeks. Lots of communication, tenderness, patience, and responsiveness are helpful attitudes for a dad during this important time.

Postpartum Depression

This is the next level of postpartum mood challenges, and affects about 15 percent of new moms. The best way I can describe this is the baby blues on steroids. The depressed postpartum mother will have persistent sad moods, finds herself very irritable and short-tempered and may feel hopeless. Sleep problems are amplified and she will feel seriously fatigued. Often, she begins to feel some detachment from the baby. She may say things like, "Things were so much better before the baby came." She may feel isolated or want to withdraw into her own room or home. She may also see her weight change dramatically (either gaining or losing).

If this is a second or subsequent pregnancy, and your partner was subject to postpartum depression before, there is a particularly high likelihood that it will happen again.

Panic Disorders

A small percentage of new moms will experience panic attacks. The mom will feel extreme anxiety, may experience chest pains or shortness of breath and may be almost immobilized by worry. She may think she is losing her mind when in the midst of an attack; she could have hot and cold flashes or break into cold sweats. And it may all happen without any warning or any reason.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Usually less than 5 of mothers experience OCD. This is a much more dangerous level of postpartum moods. A mom with OCD will have thoughts, dreams or fantasies which play themselves out repeatedly in her mind. Often the thoughts are about hurting or killing the baby, and she will usually feel personal disgust or guilt after having these feelings. She may even feel so strongly that she will make sure there are no knives, guns or ropes around the house (or ask you to get rid of them for her).

Postpartum Psychosis

The most serious and dangerous manifestation of postpartum disorder is when mom becomes psychotic. Fortunately, this only happens in the rarest of cases-perhaps only once or twice in a thousand births. The psychotic mom will have hallucinations, hear voices, will be delusional, and may relive past traumatic events (like a posttraumatic stress disorder). She may feel suicidal or homicidal toward the baby. If your partner is experiencing any of these kinds of symptoms, she needs to be hospitalized and always be supervised with the baby.

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