As a new parent and food enthusiast, I couldn’t wait to share food with my baby. I waited until she was 6 months old and could sit up unassisted, and excitedly strapped her into the high chair. Soft purées? OK! Mushy rice cereal? We got this. It seemed easy. Then, I gave her some soft scrambled eggs — and she choked. Her face turned red, her eyes welled up, and my heart raced as I ripped her from the high chair, pounded on her little back and flicked the eggs out of her mouth. The moment was over in a matter of seconds, but when it came time to feed her solids again, I was scared.
From then on, I was hesitant to feed her anything but purées. I would start to mash a banana but stopped when the cackling jack-in-the-box in my brain sprang 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 paediatrician made me realise 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.
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.
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, generalised 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 Centre for Women’s Mood Disorders.
All-consuming perinatal anxiety
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 [Sudden Infant Death Syndrome] 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 behaviours 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 mum 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.
■ Take 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. Expectful is a meditation app tailored to women who are trying to conceive, currently pregnant or in motherhood.
■ Challenge the way you think and remind 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,” says Ashurina Ream, a clinical psychologist in Arizona.
■ Block 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.
■ Talk to experienced parents. 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.
■ If your anxiety is rooted in a health concern, speaking with your child’s paediatrician can inform you as to when to worry. The paediatrician can help talk through the feeding process, the real risks of feeding and choking, and better strategies for avoiding negative outcomes. A lot of parental fear results from the lack of not knowing how the process was supposed to go, and not understanding the real risks. Becoming better informed by an expert allowed you to lean on their advice.
■ 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 is a writer specialising in food, travel and hotels.