From then on, I was hesitant to feed her anything but purees. I would start to mash a banana but stopped when the cackling jack-in-the-box in my brain sprung open and flashed a memory of her choking. I convinced myself it was fine — she would learn to eat solids eventually, right? — until a chat with other parents and her pediatrician made me realize that my anxiety was putting her at risk of delayed development.
I was prepared to handle most of the tasks of raising a child. Decorate the nursery — check; childproof the house — check; buy cute baby clothes — double check. If anything, I had been worried that I would be too anxious to drive my baby home through Atlanta traffic, but that wasn’t the case. So it took me completely by surprise when the idea of feeding her solids, something that I was so looking forward to, made my palms get sweaty.
It turns out, our brains are wired to respond to danger in the form of anxiety. “Anxiety definitely has a place,” says Marissa Zwetow, a family therapist in California. "It protects us, or allows us to trust our intuition and take action. And, obviously, as a new parent, these infants are so vulnerable and so dependent upon us.” Anxiety in new parents is often thought to be evolutionary, encouraging us to protect our young in an animalistic way. But it also falls on a spectrum, from common and fleeting worries to unhealthy, generalized anxiety that pervades a new parent’s whole life.
My case fell somewhere in between. Not feeding my baby solids because of my anxiety wasn’t healthy, but I was for the most part able to carry on with my life as usual. “If there’s a health scare,it can ... take what would be considered routine levels of vigilance around an issue and then make someone hypervigilant,” says Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of the psychiatric department at the University of North Carolina and director of UNC’s Center for Women’s Mood Disorders.
For some parents, anxiety can become “global” and develop into perinatal anxiety, which is all-consuming. “It’s one thing to worry, but it’s another thing to worry to the extent that you’re actually just not enjoying the baby at all,” says Meltzer-Brody.
Having a baby is an enormous change, but one thing she asks parents is whether they’re able to look at the life they had before the baby arrived and continue to do some of the things they still enjoy. She doesn’t mean to look at changes you might have made to accommodate the baby’s schedule. Rather, are you coping with your life’s changes in ways that are detrimental to your physical and mental health? For example, if a fear of SIDS causes a parent to stay up all night to watch the baby breathe, or if a parent never leaves the house, this prevents them from maintaining their mental health.
A symptom of both local and global anxiety prevalent among new mothers is "intrusive thoughts.” According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, an intrusive thought is a sudden, disturbing thought that arrives out of nowhere. These thoughts can be both a symptom and cause of anxiety for new parents. Mothers I spoke with shared examples that included dreams of forgetting a baby at home, constantly pulling over the car out of fear of SIDS, and checking on a baby multiple times a night when she started rolling in her crib. “They can be horrifying, and they can cause guilt and shame because they’re typically about harm coming to the baby,” explains Ashurina Ream, a clinical psychologist in Arizona. Studies have shown that intrusive thoughts are common. However, intrusive thoughts can cause or exacerbate parental anxiety when parents start developing unhealthy behaviors that they feel are protecting their child.
But where is the line between a healthy fear and unhealthy anxiety?
Parents should consider a number of factors in determining whether their anxiety is creeping up the spectrum toward unhealthy. One is sleep deprivation. Zwetow says: “When the baby is sound asleep but the mother’s still not able to sleep, I would say sleep deprivation, beyond what’s expected, is unhealthy."
Another factor to look out for is the joy or happiness you feel about your baby. Not every moment is going to be joyful, but, Zwetow says, it’s a warning sign if a mother is "experiencing the anxiety more than the joy and happiness.” A mother’s lack of desire to leave the home, or fear that leaving her house may have disastrous results, is another sign that anxiety is becoming unhealthy. “If a mom can’t or won’t leave the house to do things that might bring her joy, like a Mommy and Me group or a normal activity [where] the baby could accompany her, but she’s not willing to do that because of anxiety, then it becomes unhealthy.” It’s also important to be aware of physical symptoms like sweating and heart palpitations.
Depending on where your anxiety level falls on the spectrum, Ream and Meltzer-Brody recommended a range of actions, from self-help to more formal therapy:
• Ream suggests taking classic actions that have been shown to lower all types of anxiety, including slow and dramatic breathing, meditation, and mindfulness exercises to quiet the mind and teach the body to relax. She likes Expectful, a meditation app tailored to women who are trying to conceive, currently pregnant or in motherhood.
• Another technique Ream suggests is challenging the way you think and reminding yourself that your thought is just that, a thought and not a fact. “What I teach my clients to do is identify the thought that you’re having. Let’s challenge it a little bit and see if there’s really validity to that thought that you’re having," she says.
• Meltzer-Brody recommends blocking time for self-care. Whether it’s yoga, going for a walk or getting more sleep, self-care helps restore equilibrium. A parent can also rely on any activity that calmed them before the baby was born, because, in many cases, parental anxiety is similar to nonparental anxiety; the baby just brought a whole new world of issues to worry about.
• Meltzer-Brody is a proponent of talking to experienced parents. Similarly, support and new-parent groups can offer a valuable environment for parents to raise these issues and relate. It can be hard to confess seemingly irrational fears to a family member, but it can sometimes be easier to discuss concerns in a parenting group that has a dedicated safe space to raise these issues.
• Meltzer-Brody also suggests that if your anxiety is rooted in a health concern, speaking with your child’s pediatrician can inform you as to when to worry. For me, speaking with my child’s pediatrician was a significant factor in getting over my fears. The pediatrician helped talk me through the feeding process, the real risks of feeding and choking, and better strategies for avoiding negative outcomes. A lot of my parental fear resulted from the fact that I didn’t know how the process was supposed to go, and I didn’t understand the real risks. Becoming better informed by an expert allowed me to lean on their advice even as I had uncertainty.
• Ream cautions that it’s never too soon to get help from a mental health professional. Even if you don’t have all of the warning signs mentioned earlier, if you have distress that is impacting your life, reaching out for help is a good idea.
Lia Picard lives in Atlanta, where she’s learning the ropes of motherhood with her daughter and best baby friend, Abigail. She also writes about food, interior design and travel. Keep up with her work and the snapshots in between on Instagram at @liapicard.