Every now and then we hear on the news of mothers who kill their newborn children. This is a tragedy that most people find especially abhorrent. How can a mother kill her own baby? This counters our assumptions of maternal instincts. So how do things turn so horribly wrong?
Postpartum depression is a type of clinical depression which can affect women after childbirth. Symptoms include sadness, fatigue, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, reduced desire for sex, crying episodes, anxiety, and irritability. Severe postpartum depression can lead to suicide. Although this is primarily a disorder among women, men can also experience postpartum depression. It usually begins in the first few months after childbirth.
A postpartum psychosis is a separate disorder. It is less common than postpartum depression, and it involves the onset of psychotic symptoms that may include thought disturbances, hallucinations, and delusions. Bipolar disorders and, to a lesser extent, schizophrenia, have elevated prevalence in a postpartum psychosis.
Brooks Baer, LCPC, wrote “A Clinician’s Guide to Mental Health Emergencies.” In this book, he helps mental health clinicians determine level of risk in emergency psychiatric situations. Baer suggests we ask new moms a question. “What do you see in your baby’s eyes?” Most moms are going to smile. But a mom who is suffering from postpartum depression will often have a flat response. Her eyes don’t light up.
Postpartum psychotic mom, on the other hand, may get nervous. She thinks that her baby wants to do harm. If you get a nervous response from mom when asked “What do you see your baby’s eyes?” Follow it up with this next question: “What do you think your baby is thinking?” Postpartum psychotic mom may become even more nervous and may, in fact, say “I really don’t want to talk to you. You need to leave” because postpartum psychotic mom will often think that her baby is thinking and planning bad things. She may think the baby is going to kill her, the other children, or perhaps her husband.” If this is the case, she may be experiencing a postpartum psychosis and needs immediate help.
The goal is to assist a seriously depressed mother to provide a safe-enough caregiving environment that can support the healthy development of her baby and her relationship with that baby. One hopes that such a mother will have social supports and an ability to accept help. If you suspect a new mother is in trouble with either postpartum depression, or postpartum psychosis, get them help.