27 May On “Postnatal Depletion”
How often do you hear a mother with a child (or more than one) under the age of two say, “I feel great every day! My energy is fabulous, I love my partner, I get to eat, sleep, exercise, and have intimate time with my mate like I did before kids!”
Yep, me neither.
While there are occasional women who actually *do* feel this way, it isn’t a new mom’s typicalexperience. Many more women with young children feel “fine,” but drained. For many, these experiences are an expected part of the first years of parenting, and are chalked up to interrupted sleep, changing hormones, breastfeeding, mom’s age, parenting fatigue, and not enough coffee. Never enough coffee.
My observation as a midwife, mother, auntie, sister and friend is for one and a half to two years after giving birth, many women experienced fatigue, foggy memory and slow mental processing (mommy brain, or Mamnesia as I enjoy calling it), low sex drive, body aches and pains… the list is longer, but you get the picture. Some women also experience mood swings, hopelessness, anxiety, loneliness and isolation, low self-esteem that persist well past the first weeks postpartum. For many years, I have strongly suspected that a new mother’s well-being is directly linked to her nutrition and post birth recovery time, and that stronger experiences of poor physical and emotional recovery can be linked with low nutrition, low social support, and the common desire or requirement to get life “back to normal” as soon as possible after giving birth.
Recently, I read an article that illustrated this link – and to my surprise, the effects were noted to last much longer than I had thought. Dr. Oscar Serrallach, a GP in rural Australia, has been observing and researching patterns in maternal well-being and recovery. He refers to these clustered experiences of lethargy, memory disturbances, and low energy as “Postnatal Depletion,” and claims that this conglomeration of symptoms is not healthy, can be better understood, and even effectively prevented or treated. Within his experience, the effects on a woman’s brain and body are not resolving after 1 or 2 years, but actually lasting 7 years or longer. He also proposes that 50% or more of childbearing women experience debilitating effects from a combination of these biological changes, poor nutrition, and social isolation. The very process of growing and birthing a baby leads to physical changes in a woman’s body, and in her brain. These biological changes help to ensure the survival and loving of our children.
Looking through an interview on this work, and reviewing his website, I can see the patterns and logic behind his conclusion. Developmental changes in a pregnant woman’s body and brain are actually helpful in creating a strong bond between a mother and her children, and were even more helpful when parental vigilance was essential to protect children from harm (accident, predators, etc). Not that we do not have dangers to our children in this day and age, but modern-day dangers are quite different than those our maternal ancestors had to consider. Additionally, children used to be raised in community – the rise of the single family unit has possibly enhanced a mother’s innate response toward vigilance and serving the needs of her child first, as there are not many others immediately available who can be relied upon to support her in her parenting. In an age where food is plentiful, but not so nutritious; where postpartum care and maternal recovery is not emphasized, and much more care is focused on the prenatal period; where families are raising their kids largely in isolation; where women are having babies later in life and may enter pregnancy with lower preexisting nutrition, it is not surprising that women struggle to be healthy and feel good after having a child. For those who have multiple children, the effects can compound. In the U.S, child spacing is commonly short – nearly 30% of siblings are 18 months apart or less, nationally, with the average spacing landing at 25 months. Remember that 9 months is spent growing another baby, and maternal time for recovery and increasing her own health is 16 months, on average. Also keep in mind that that recovery is happening while breastfeeding, working both in and out of the home, sleeping on an altered schedule, and largely eating a diet low in nutrition. Again, it is no surprise that women are depleted. But not everyone is impacted in the same way…
Is there a difference between the half that struggle with “Postnatal Depletion,” and the half that might have some changes but does not struggle with it? Is there a reason why it seems more common now than ever? What can prevent this common and biologically based phenomenon from having a negative long term health impact?
Next blog – Postnatal Depletion: Part 2
AnnMarie Rian LM/CPM