Mom working with child on her lap

How perinatal mood & anxiety disorders might affect your return to work

By Sarah Sheppard, Contributing writer for InHerSight

InHerSight, a platform that uses data to help women find and improve companies where they can achieve their goals.

Did you remember to put the milk in the fridge? How are you supposed to get through hundreds and hundreds of emails? Did you forget to switch the laundry? Is the baby sleeping enough? Too much?

Returning to work after having a baby can be stressful, exhausting, and anxiety-inducing. One minute, you’re holding your newborn, and the next, you’re sitting in an open office trying to tackle a dozen overdue projects, listening to your coworkers rant about all of the work you missed.

The days, weeks, and months following birth bring a dozen different emotions, which people may experience in various ranges and frequencies. Because your body is undergoing hormonal changes, it’s normal to feel a little sad or overwhelmed after having a baby, but how do you know if it’s just the “baby blues” or if it’s something more serious?

The early days of the baby blues

For first-time parents whose lives have been upturned, the early days can feel more overwhelming, exhausting, and emotional than expected. The “baby blues” can affect you in the days following birth all the way up to the first few weeks of postpartum.

Postpartum, part of the perinatal stage (the period after one gives birth), is considered an adjustment period, and you are bound to experience a wide range of physical symptoms — perineum soreness, afterbirth pains, post c-section soreness, vaginal discharge or vaginal bleeding, breast pain, swelling. You may experience mental changes as well, which could include symptoms of the “baby blues,” like:

  • Sudden mood swings
  • Loss of appetite
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Sadness
  • Weepiness
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety

It can be frustrating dealing with these symptoms, especially when the world around you is telling you to enjoy those early newborn days, but know that this is normal.

“The ‘baby blues’ are considered normal and do not generally require more than understanding, patience, sleep, and self care,” says Amanda Tinkelman, M.D., psychiatrist at Brooklyn Minds who specializes in perinatal psychiatry.

Only if these symptoms persist after two or three weeks should you be concerned. If that happens, you may need to speak with a mental health professional who can help you determine if the problem is more serious.

Perinatal mood and anxiety disorders

The perinatal period generally occurs from the time of conception to the end of the first year of the baby’s life. Many experience a variety of symptoms during this time, due to stress, fatigue, and hormone fluctuations, and it can be hard to know if you’re simply dealing with exhaustion and “baby blues” or if you’re suffering from a perinatal mood disorder.

Tinkelman explains that if you have been experiencing “baby blues” for more than two weeks, you have an inability to enjoy things, and/or if you have any thoughts of harming yourself or the baby, then you may be experiencing a more serious mental health condition. 

Here are some of the most common perinatal mood and anxiety disorders that can occur during the perinatal period:

Postpartum anxiety disorder

Worry is a natural aspect of parenthood, but constant worry can be a sign of an anxiety disorder. If you’re experiencing dread or fear that something’s going to happen to your baby; or sleep disruption (without being woken up by those newborn cries); or fatigue, sweating, heart palpitations, shakiness, nausea, or hyperventilation, you could be experiencing postpartum anxiety.

Postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

If you suffer from OCD, pregnancy and postpartum can trigger your symptoms. Postpartum OCD, specifically, can involve many obsessive thoughts, like imagining your baby being harmed or injured. This can lead people to obsessively check on the baby during the night or avoid the baby for fear of something happening.

Postpartum panic disorder

This is a more specific disorder, as part of postpartum anxiety disorder, that shares similar symptoms. However, the major difference is that those experiencing postpartum panic disorder may have symptoms of severely anxious thoughts and/or panic attacks. If your thoughts or anxieties prevent you from functioning, you may be experiencing postpartum panic disorder.

Postpartum depression

The most commonly talked about perinatal disorder, postpartum depression can affect you mentally and physically, and it can cause many symptoms, including but not limited to: memory problems, sleep problems, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, loss of interest in everyday activities, feeling disconnected from your baby, having no energy, persistent crying, eating too much or too little, withdrawal from family or friends, having thoughts of injuring yourself, etc.

Postpartum psychosis

This is a very severe disorder that can carry symptoms that resemble symptoms of manic depressive disorder or a bipolar disorder. You may experience erratic, unusual behavior, disorientation, suicidal thoughts, delusional beliefs, auditory hallucinations, or violent thoughts.

If the “baby blues” won’t go away or if you think you’re experiencing one of the perinatal mood disorders listed above, then it’s important to seek help. Postpartum psychosis, though rare, is a life-threatening disorder that requires immediate medical attention.

Returning to work while experiencing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorders

When you’re a new parent, work is likely the last thing on your mind, but parental leave only lasts for so long. Returning to work can be anxiety-inducing. What will you wear? What will your coworkers say? Will you make it through a full day? How will you pump? What if you start crying out of nowhere?

It will take time to adjust to your new normal, so expect some discomfort and some nerves in this transition back to work. Since your “normal” has changed, it’s important to sit down with your manager to discuss your return. Set clear expectations. Make sure you agree on a timeline. Make sure you discuss work breaks. See if you can work from home once a week or half days on occasion, or leave an hour early.

Being a parent isn’t easy, especially in the months following birth, so take proper care of yourself and pay attention to your mental health. If you’re feeling extremely anxious or if you’re experiencing panic attacks at work, you should speak with a mental health professional.

“Baby blues” happen to most postpartum people, and “even with ‘baby blues,’ one can generally still feel happiness or joy,” Tinkelman says. Only if those symptoms continue or if you experience more serious symptoms should you be concerned.

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