We have all heard of postpartum depression- that severe baby blues that some women experience after the birth of a their children. Most of us have heard about the famous actress Brooke Shield’s battle with severe postpartum depression after the birth of her first child. Fortunately, serious depression like Brooke Shields experienced is not all that common but less severe mood difficulties are. That is what we are going to talk about today. Specifically, the mood and relationship changes that new parents experience after a previously childless couple brings new child home.
The New Baby Effect
The truth is that the stress of having a baby has affects on both Mom and Dad, with 50% of new parents experiencing transient sadness and 10-20% have something more–a deeper change in mood– an actual depression where the parent is not able to function effectively. That’s what happened to Brooke Shields. But how else does a new baby’s appearance effect their parents? Does the new baby effect the relationship between Mom and Dad? Is their satisfaction with the marriage as high as before they became parents? Unfortunately, the answer is usually, no. In fact, 80% of married couples have a fall in marital satisfaction after the birth of a child according to Dr. John Medina, a neuropsychologist and author of Brain Rules for Babies. Dr. Medina also says that marital satisfaction doesn’t recover until all the children have left the home! That’s a fact about being a parent that you don’t hear much about before you said “I do”, I’ll bet.
Additionally, Dr. Medina says that research shows that the dirty little secret about having a new baby is that marital conflict goes up. Satisfaction is down and marital discord up. This sounds terrible but why should this be? What has changed so much to have such an effect on new parents? Dr. Medina says it comes down to four factors:
- Sleep deprivation of parents
2. Social isolation of parents
3. Unequal workload, that is a feeling that the other parent is not pulling their load.
4. Depression and mood changes of the parents.
Anyone who has older children will attest to the truth of these words. After a baby arrives, everything is different. The needs of the parents are always trumped by the child’s needs. And this is very stressful and this stress goes on 24/7. The baby needs attention train never stops. Demands on parents rise dramatically after a baby comes home compared to their pre children days. The new baby severely limits new parent’s lifestyle choices and opportunities for relaxation. Most young parents have never had this kind of stress and we all know that stress doesn’t bring out great things in most people. Ponder this Doc Smo pearl; There is no quicker way to find the cracks in a parent’s personality than to apply stress and stand back and watch.
Effect on the Baby
So how can all this stress effect babies? Why is this fall in parental happiness an important topic for a child health of podcast? Well, it is because of a basic truth about babies; Babies are always looking for security and predictability and if parents begin serious marital discord or one or both parents suffer from a serious depression or a decline in mood, the parents may withdraw emotionally from connecting with their baby. Their baby’s early experiences might not be as secure and predictable and the baby’s ability to form a secure attachment may be in jeopardy. A baby in this situation may have trouble finding security and predictability. Any kind of instability, especially in the first months of life, can be devastating to a new baby’s personality formation. Again, Dr. Medina says that research tells him that babies know what’s going on around them and are very sensitive to the emotions of those around them. If a parent’s stress is chronic and intense, it can become “Toxic” for a baby– the stress literally wires their brains differently. The effects of the stress carry over into their adult personalities and even affects the child’s chances of having serious physical and mental illness as an adult.
How Can Parents Prepare?
So, how can you make things better for both parents and children? How can parents cope with the birth of a new child and the child’s very young years? Here are some suggestions.
- Before the baby is born, understand what is about to happen and prepare for the changes ahead of time. Take a look at this article from the WSJ where they make a number of useful suggestions for expectant parents. http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704099704576288954011675900
2. Don’t be afraid of asking for help from friends, family, or clergy after the baby comes. Lean on them a little.
3. Lower your expectations. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Things are different after the baby comes and that is OK. Embrace the change. Find joy in little things and remember that mood changes happen to most new parent., Even your own mother and father probably had them when you were their new baby. They got through it and so can you. Maybe talking to your parents about their experiences might help.
4. Don’t forget to laugh whenever possible. Taking a few minutes to laugh with your spouse and talk about things other than babies, even if this is very brief. These lighter moments can give you both a lot of strength and more trust in one another.
5. And finally, as parents, help each other and try and understand and empathize with each other. Remember, this is the person that you fell in love with and is still the same wonderful person they were before all the demands of parenting arrived. And if you think your spouse is having serious depression, get them help without judgement or ridicule.
As you would guess, I see the stress of being a new parent in the faces of young parents everyday. That’s why I always try and end every infant office or hospital visit with a word of encouragement. Something like, “You are doing a great job” or “This is a very hard job and you are doing great” or “Your baby is very lucky to have the parents he does”. I truly believe those things and have no trouble saying and meaning them. I still remember to this day when my father-in-law said them to me after the birth of our first child. That vice of encouragement and praise put the wind in my sails and it is still meaningful to me 31 years later. And here is something else that can help– I also try and make these stressed parents laugh a little when i see them because I think they really need it. It’s amazing what the combination of a little humor and empathy can do.
Well, that’s it for this installment of Portable Practical Pediatrics. I hope you find this format of talking about child health convenient and interesting. If you do, take a moment to join the conversation by commenting on my blog www.docsmo.com or on iTunes or social media. Most likely, I will post your comment for others to read. And if you want to get regular updates from me, subscribe at my website or on iTunes, I will notify you of all my new content. this is Doc Smo, recording in studio 1E, giving you a few clues, about the new baby blues. Until next time.
— WSJ Article about the Effect of Children on Marital Satisfaction
—Brain Rules for Babies by John Medina
–Service members rate life stress