WHEN IT BECOMES A PROBLEM, YOU AND YOUR BABY SUFFER

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Following the birth of a child, some new mothers (and a small percent of new fathers) experience mild depression, a condition popularly referred to as “the baby blues.” Ten percent of new mothers experience a more severe form of distress, which is called postpartum depression, or postnatal depression. And, in rare instances, an extreme form of depression develops, called postpartum psychosis.

The symptoms of postpartum depression are similar to the symptoms of depression, including lethargy, sleep and eating disturbances, and persistent sadness or mood disorder. With true postpartum depression, however, as distinguished from clinical depression, these symptoms typically resolve within 6 to 18 months after the birth. This, and the fact that men as well as women can suffer from this condition make postpartum depression less of a psychological disorder and more of a temporary condition that reflects a profound change in life-style, a hormonal shift (for women), and the likely absence of sufficient emotional and social support for the new parent.

Treatment for postpartum depression, therefore, not only includes traditional psychotherapy and counseling, but also includes practical assistance with creating social support systems and identifying applicable community resources for the new parent. Under some circumstances, brief couples counseling or marital therapy may also be indicated.

Of greater significance is the fact that a mother suffering from postpartum depression also has trouble bonding with her baby. She may avoid or deny her infant’s distress, which can promote an insecurely attached infant. It is well established that an infant not properly attended to is at high risk for becoming developmentally impaired and will bear the life-long burden of his or her insecure attachment history. Consequently, without a timely resolution, postpartum depression can have a negative impact on the infant.

For the vulnerable infant, maternal avoidance is overwhelming and traumatic. Maternal avoidance, in fact, is a “double-injury” of sorts for the infant. There is the original maternal avoidance, which is felt by the infant as a deprivation (of feeding, for example) and constitutes the first injury. And, there is the second injury, felt by the infant as another deprivation—this time as a deprivation of maternal empathy—in which the trauma of the first deprivation is not recognized and mitigated, but allowed to remain and fester as trauma.

As with depression, there is treatment for postpartum depression. Therapy can provide a safe, professional arena for holding and exploring emotional concerns. The patient may also choose to be evaluated for anti-depressant medication and for hormone therapy.

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