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Life & Style
Jan 26 2012 10:47AM
Mommy nerves
KENDRA WILKINSON: TV personality and married to Hank Baskett has been open about her post-partum depression. AFP Photo
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Jenny Perkel

The first year of motherhood can, for some people, be plagued by highly distressing, deeply disturbing anxiety, and sometimes even full-blown panic attacks.

While some moms may be familiar with anxiety and panic attacks from earlier in their lives, it can also occur for the first time in your life after having a baby. To some extent, a certain amount of a new mother’s anxiety is quite normal, particularly in a first-time mother.

Being afraid is rational and understandable, considering that you are being charged with taking almost full responsibility for a helpless, defenceless, dependent and extremely vulnerable infant.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders tells us that anxiety is often part of the picture of post-natal depression. But anxiety also often sneaks up on you when other features of post-natal depression are not there.

There are some common issues that cause moms’ fears and anxiety, but all of them have one main underlying fear - the fear of losing the baby. Daniel Stern is a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic theorist, specialising in infant development. He is the author of The Interpersonal World of the Infant and has written extensively about the psychological strain of having an infant depending on you for his survival. Here are some of the main triggers for normal anxiety during the first year of motherhood.


Many moms feel scared about leaving their babies. Permanent loss is the extreme form of separation and so the actual fear is that if you leave your baby (even for a short time) you may never see him or her again.

Fears around separation can also be part of your baby’s sleep difficulties. British child psychoanalyst, Dilys Daws, has written an extremely useful book called Through the Night: Helping Parents with Sleepless Infants.

In it she describes how sleep disturbances can be linked to the mother’s fear of being apart from her baby and the baby’s subsequent fear of entering into the state of sleep. Moms who have suffered miscarriages or even the death of a child, the loss of a parent or someone close to them, may have greater difficulty in separating from their babies at night. It is almost as if both mom and her baby stay awake in order to reassure themselves that they still have one another.


Feeding your baby can be a wonderful and gratifying experience, but for some moms it can be extremely challenging. When your baby is not a good feeder for whatever reason, it causes huge conflict and stress in a mom. Nourishing your baby is part of your essential role of keeping your baby alive, and when your baby struggles to feed or to put on weight, it can feel as though you have failed as a mom.

It can also feel as though your baby is going to get sick or perhaps even die and, of course, you will always feel as if it is your fault! Concerns about your baby’s feeding and weight gain can be all-consuming. Feeding difficulties can escalate your anxiety to unprecedented levels.


Some moms are concerned about taking their babies out in public where they will come into contact with people and the inevitable risk of germs. Some are even afraid to let friends and relatives hold the baby. Maybe you are reluctant to let your baby touch dogs, cats or dirt.

Some moms are so afraid of germs that they carry disinfectant around with them, and they disinfect not only their babies’ hands and utensils, but also their toys. The extreme version of this kind of anxiety are those moms who, if they have a cold, wear surgical face masks to protect their babies from getting sick. Again, the real fear behind all of this is actually about the baby’s survival. Fortunately, babies get colds and minor illnesses all the time and these rarely lead to death, unless there are extenuating circumstances or the baby has a weakened immune system.

Getting it right

New moms these days are bombarded with information about how to care for their babies and what to do and what not to do. Partly as a result of this, there are fears of overstimulating or understimulating your baby. You have to watch out that he doesn’t get overtired, or bored.

Too much sun is bad, but too little sun is also a problem. Then there are the dietary concerns about egg, sugar, dairy, wheat, peanuts – the list goes on and on.

The many dangers facing your baby are enough to send any new mother into a panic. For better and for worse, these various kinds of fears have fuelled a massive industry around baby care.

Baby groups and classes, “essential” baby books, and overpriced products by the thousands are out there and if you don’t buy in, you feel like you’re not quite the mother you should be. To be fair, some of what is on offer for new moms probably does help to alleviate maternal anxiety, but it can also make it worse.

For example, those rule books that dictate that your baby needs to operate according to rigid timetables seem to offer a welcome relief from anxiety in some mothers, perhaps even a sanity break at times.

But for others, this approach can be highly destructive and it can escalate your anxiety dramatically, particularly if your baby doesn’t comply so well with a strict schedule.
Am I a bad mother?

British psychoanalyst, parent-infant specialist and author, Joan Raphael Leff, uses the phrase “primary maternal persecution” to describe how so many new moms can feel utterly persecuted by the experience of motherhood. As a new mother, you can feel judged, unsupported, isolated and ill-equipped to handle the demands of taking care of a helpless infant.

You can also feel as though you don’t know what you’re doing and you’re most definitely getting it all wrong! Of course, if your mental health was shaky before you became a mom, you are much more likely to struggle psychologically.

Sometimes as a new mom, you may feel as though there are a thousand fingers pointing at you, accusing you of doing it wrong, Someone else – not you – seems to have all the answers and is somehow getting it right. Your way seems to be not only faulty, but is going to do your baby irreparable damage. This kind of thinking can rob you of your confidence as a mother, leaving you saddled with feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

How and when to seek help

When your anxiety starts to feel overwhelming and when it interferes with your daily functioning or the care of your baby, it’s time to see a mental health practitioner.

Alternatively, if you are having thoughts of dying, suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming your baby, seek help without delay. Have your GP refer you to a trained, experienced psychologist. Or contact the author for assistance. You may also benefit from anxiety medication which should ideally be prescribed by a psychiatrist.

Courtesy Mamas & Papas

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