When new mothers (and fathers) have more than just the “baby blues”

When it comes to childbirth and new parents, society has been conditioned to expect images of joy, love and family bliss.

However, the fact is that a large percentage of new mothers can feel overwhelmed or even afraid– the prospect of caring for a helpless baby can seem daunting. But in most cases, these feelings of being overwhelmed or even afraid are offset by a powerful sense of love, joy and connectedness that mothers have for their babies.

Unfortunately, sometimes the change in a mother’s biochemistry that accompanies a delivery can precipitate a severe change in mood. Twenty percent of new mothers can experience something more drastic — a feeling of disconnectedness and even revulsion for the new baby. In a society where the birth of a child is universally viewed as a joyous and happy occasion, mothers who do not share these feelings about the birth of their new child often feel ashamed and attempt to keep their feelings secret.

This phenomenon is being recognized in medical and psychiatric circles as a condition known as a peripartum mood disorders, which could include problems with mood, anxiety or even, most concerning, postpartum psychosis. Instead of being a mark of shame, new mothers are increasingly recognizing that these feelings are symptoms of a change in their biochemistry and psychology that can be treated.

The Institute of Living, in partnership with the Hartford Hospital Woman’s Health program, last year created one of the few Peripartum Mood Disorders programs in the country, offering a wide range of services designed to help new mothers identify their condition and provide them with the care they need to reconnect with their newborns, as well as the rest of their families.

The goal of the program is to provide evaluation and treatment to women experiencing mood, thought or anxiety problems before, during and after pregnancy, as well as to their family members. In fact, research shows that postpartum mood or anxiety problems not only have a profound impact on new mothers, but on fathers, spouses and partners as well as sibling children. Counseling and other behavioral health services are increasingly being made available to fathers and partners who experience depression as a result of their spouse’s postpartum disorders, including services available at the Institute of Living.

Symptoms of peripartum mood disorders can range from mild depression to extreme symptoms of psychosis such as delusions and hallucinations. Left untreated, these disorders are shown to lead to higher incidences of suicidal thoughts, as well as higher rates of infanticide. Symptoms include:

  • Trouble sleeping or being exhausted but being unable to sleep
  • Frequent crying
  • Feelings of loneliness, sadness, helplessness
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Anxiety, panic, excessive worry
  • Lack of interest in life, feeling sluggish, fatigued, exhausted
  • Having too much energy
  • Fidgety or restless; cannot sit still
  • Repetitive or suspicious thoughts that won’t go away
  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby
  • Difficulty bonding with or lack of feeling towards the baby
  • Fear of being left alone with baby
  • Hearing voices or sounds that other people don’t hear

The team of caregivers within the Peripartum Mood Disorders Program includes both adult and child psychiatrists with training and experience in assessment and treatment of perinatal mood disorders, as well as a social worker on staff.

The program team includes a social worker who does group, individual and family therapy as well as case management. In cases where parents need help bonding with their children, there are openings in the IOL’s Child Guidance Clinic for parent-infant dyad therapy, which is provided by IOL child and adolescent psychiatrist Mary Gratton, PhD.

Art Guerra, APRN, the program director, said treatment ranges from medication to individualized and family therapy, which can make an enormous difference in restoring the relationship between new mothers and their babies, as well as the overall health of families.

“We want to work as closely and directly with new mothers and their families as possible, so we can help ease their anxieties and fears about what is happening, and let them know there is care available to them,” Guerra said.

The program also works closely with Connecticut obstetricians and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center neonatologists, providing education on peripartum mood disorders and consultation or treatment for expectant mothers or mothers who have recently given birth.

For more information on the Peripartum Mood Disorders Program, call 860.545.7104 .