Infant Illness and Postpartum Anxiety

Ashlee shares her story of postpartum anxiety triggered by the traumatic experience of having a sick infant. Trauma during or after birth are highly correlated to postpartum depression and anxiety in the months that follow. See the link at the bottom of the article for more information about the signs and symptoms of postpartum anxiety and how it differs from depression.

Article by Ashlee Turner

The much anticipated arrival of my second son was an empowering natural birth, but the moment that will be burned into my mind forever is pulling my son up, looking at his sweet newborn face, and the absolute silence of a room full of doctors, nurses and my husband- the complete silence as everyone held their breath waiting for my son to take his first. And then the whirlwind of activity as he was grabbed, wet, new and purple off my chest and resuscitated. Straining, trying to watch what was happening from across the room as a separate team of doctors worked on stopping a postpartum hemorrhage. But he breathed, and he screamed, and he was laid on my chest and I nursed him, and kissed his bruised, beautiful head and pushed the thoughts of almost losing my baby boy out of mine. I thought that would be be the story I would tell about his harrowing entrance into the world. A healthy beautiful boy, and the longest moment of my life, waiting to hear his little voice for the first time.

What I didn’t know was three and a half weeks later I’d be back in that same hospital, holding my breath in room in a filled with doctors and nurses, this time not waiting desperate to hear his cry but instead wishing with everything in my body that I never had to hear the screams of pain coming from his tiny body. Sepsis is not something most parents of healthy, term babies think much about. A systemic infection of that level in an otherwise healthy infant is rare. But there we were, watching failed blood draws, tourniquets bruising arms and and legs, head shaved, IV lines in his scalp, spinal fluid dripping into vials from his back. It is a horrifying image and I one I was not prepared for. I’d taken home a healthy baby. But for 11 days I waited. It seemed with every piece of good news, came bad. A clear spinal culture, followed by the discovery of a heart murmur. A good day followed by a night he could not be woken. It was terrifying. The survival rate for a baby so young with sepsis, I was told can be as low as 60%. Much of my life became a mental numbers game. The almost incalculably slim odds of having a baby contract sepsis from a blocked tear duct were minuscule. The odds of survival in comparison were dismal. I was completely focused on sitting in a chair all day, rocking and feeding my child. Studies showed babies who were held skin to skin the most had a higher chance of recovery. I obsessed over tiny details, like the battery left on his pump, a bend in his tubing or the tape on his bandages. I dutifully dripped sucrose drops into his mouth during his PICC line placement and many painful tests. I desperately missed my two year old son who was at home with my husband most days. I felt like I was abandoning him. I felt like I was a terrible mother. Was there something I could have done differently to have prevented this? What could I be doing to make him get better faster? How could I be abandoning my older son like this when he needed me too?

When my new baby got his clean bill of heath and headed home, I thought things would be better. Still, a dark cloud of panic stayed over me. I obsessed over watching his breathing. I was terrified the chemicals in soap and the environment might poison him. Every time my cheek rested against the prickly stubble of my baby’s shaved head I would burst into uncontrollable tears. I was completely focused on my two boys, constantly terrified something would happen. At the same time, I felt incompetent. Helpless. Like there was nothing I could do to protect them from the world. I loved them, I wanted to protect them but I constantly believed I would fail them. Constantly calculating the odds. I wondered if I had postpartum depression, but this was different from what I’d been told to watch out for. I knew that  sadness that seemed to last and worsen, and feeling distanced from my baby would be reason to see my doctor. I knew that from every prenatal checkup and brochure from the hospital. That was the thing though, I felt connected to my baby. I loved him, I felt an intense need to protect him… but everything made me scared. Everything made me panic. I was anxious. I was terrified of everything. I ended up reading about postpartum anxiety  when I saw it mentioned on a forum, and I realized what I was feeling wasn’t normal. It was affecting me, my husband, and my children. I’d never heard of postpartum anxiety before, but soon I started to wonder if this thing I’d never heard of was happening to me. I spoke to a public health nurse. She told me that anxiety in parents of children who have been seriously ill is not uncommon. I talked to my family. I tried to find ways to cope. Some days went well. Other days I felt too stressed, scared and too incompetent to leave the house.

I chose to pursue healing without medication. It was not easy. Sometimes dealing with everyday things filled me with crippling fear and it seemed too difficult to even think about. But I have a loving husband, and two gorgeous boys- something I reminded myself of everyday. I started exercising, focusing on the good days- the “wins “, and eventually those good days became far more prevalent than the bad ones. My son is now five months old, and it has been about four months since he became ill. I would love to say that my anxiety is gone, and that I don’t still wake up in the middle of the night and panic, or have days when I feel helpless. The truth is I know I still suffer from anxiety. It isn’t something that gets cured overnight, there is no quick fix. I can say though, that those bad days are few and far between. These days I am able to enjoy my two sons without feeling paralyzed with guilt, fear and uncertainty. I can take them to the park without being afraid something will happen to them, or feeling like I can’t do it alone. Postpartum anxiety is a part of my parenting journey, but it’s just one part. It doesn’t define me as a mother. We are surviving this part of our journey, like we have survived all the other parts before it. One step at a time. When I am with my sons, the only thing I can guarantee is that no matter how difficult those steps are, they are worth it.

Ashlee Turner lives on the east coast of Canada with her husband and two sons. She is a full time mother, part time library tech who is passionate about attachment parenting, and is a breastfeeding, bed-sharing and baby-wearing advocate.

One of the many reasons for delaying treatment of postpartum depression and anxiety is a sense that you don’t fit the definition of a perinatal mood disorder. It’s important to remember that postpartum illness can involve symptoms other than depression. Anxiety is one of the most common. Postpartum Progress has an excellent article about the symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Parents (birthing or otherwise) may not feel depressed or disconnected from their children, but they may still be suffering from a postpartum mood disorder. Education is key. The faster symptoms are recognized and addressed the better the outcome is for recovery.

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