Research has shown that the first year is critical to a baby’s emotional, psychological and cognitive development. Studies have also shown that if a mother is depressed for as much as the first six months after childbirth, her baby will likely experience and show signs of motor development delays, emotional difficulties, social problems and depression by their first birthdays. Your pediatrician typically asks a slew of questions at each check-up to ascertain if your child is reaching his/her developmental milestones and to see if there are any emotional, psychological, cognitive and physical delays or issues to be wary of, like a lack of positive facial expressions and less interest in activities and/or other people.
A great fear I had was that my depression would negatively impact my daughter’s development. I had read in baby books and magazines that interaction such as talking, laughing and singing are important and positive contributors to a baby’s emotional and psychological development. So I willed myself to stay as strong as I could in her presence, trying as hard as I could to not show any signs of sadness or worry, and playing with and talking and singing to her as much as I could.
The amount of information in books, magazines and the Internet simply cannot be compared with what was available to the previous generation. Floor time, attachment parenting, and infant massage were not terms used in the 1960s and 1970s. As far as I can remember, there were no mommy and me classes back then either. With the 1990s came the birth of such terms and a curious focus on, and subsequently societal peer pressure for, ways to enhance children’s social and cognitive development.
I know what it’s like to have no energy at all, to be weak with exhaustion, to feel as if trapped in a thick fog, and how hard it is while depressed to summon up the energy to even smile, let alone play. But I realized I have a baby who is completely helpless and dependent on me. I recalled all the years of trying to conceive and the difficulty getting through the IVF cycles only to succeed (thank God) in having a healthy baby. I wasn’t about to let depression ruin my chances to love and care for her. Despite the physical exhaustion and lack of sleep that all new parents experience upon returning from the hospital (but my husband and I were already worse off than the average parents from our week of hell in the hospital), I did do the following (before my PPD started 6 weeks postpartum and once my Paxil kicked in) with my daughter:
- I kissed her a lot. As she grew a bit older, starting at, say, 8 months or so, I hugged her a lot as well.
- I talked to her a lot….or at least I tried to (I’m not, after all, the most talkative person as my friends and family know). Per “Postpartum Depression Demystified” by Joyce Venis, RNC and Suzanne McCloskey: “One of the best ways you can interact with your baby and keep her stimulated is to talk to her. It doesn’t really matter what you say, just as long as you’re making an effort to connect with her.” In short, simple sentences, referring to her by name as much as possible, I’d tell her what I was feeling or I’d describe to her what I was in the process of doing, from changing diapers to feeding to giving her a bath. For example: “Time to change your diap-ee cuz it’s wet and I know it’s uncomfortable. Okay, you have a new diap-ee and all is better now.” I didn’t know this until I read Postpartum Depression Demystified—which is based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Healthy Start, Grow Smart, Your Two-Month-Old, Washington, D.C., 2002—that you should refer to yourself as “Mommy” when you’re talking about yourself, like “Mommy’s going to change your diap-ee now.”
- I sang to her a lot. Her favorite tunes, even at 1-1/2 yrs, is the alphabet song and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star—both of which incidentally are the same tune, which I hadn’t realized until I did them one after another each and every day. Sometimes I made up tunes. Don’t forget the tried and true Mary Had a Little Lamb, as well as Itsy Bitsy Spider. I also liked to sing some songs from Sound of Music, since I knew practically every word to every song. This was to ensure she wouldn’t be tone deaf and will develop an early appreciation for music. I sang the alphabet song so frequently, she was humming it by the time she was two and singing the whole thing herself by the time she turned three.
- I read to her a lot. Again per “Postpartum Depression Demystified” by Joyce Venis, RNC and Suzanne McCloskey: “It’s never too early to start reading to your baby…..[Babies] like the sound of your voice and having you close…..Babies enjoy looking at the pictures and listening to the rhythm of your voice long before they can understand the words. Reading to your baby encourages the development of a range of important skills, such as talking and understanding language, imagination, concentration, creativity, listening, and problem solving. Children whose parents read books to them when they are young often learn to speak, read, and write more easily…..Reading to your baby….will…instill in her a love of books that will last a lifetime.” Even before I read about this, I started a collection of baby board books early on. My daughter’s first collection of books was a collection of little (3×3) nursery rhyme board books. Babies cannot tear the pages and can even chew and drool on them. When you read, try not to read in a dull, flat, two dimensional way—or quite literally (and quite boringly) as mere words on pages. Rather, try to read in what I refer to as 3-D. In other words, try to bring the story to life and make it interesting. Vary your intonation, pitch and volume. Facial expressions are a plus. I distinctly remember my pediatrician recommending reading nursery rhymes to my daughter. She explained that babies are drawn to sing-song-y phrases that rhyme. When your baby becomes a toddler, a great way to boost imagination and interest in the stories you read to them is to pick ones that will allow them to fill in the blanks or tell you what happens next. A great example is the When You Give A Mouse A Cookie series of stories. Today, she loves her books. She asks us to read to her at bedtime every night.
- I played with her a lot. Play is an essential part in the development of motor/visual and cognitive skills, learning how to accomplish tasks and learning about cause and effect. Play is also an important means for bonding with your baby. Getting down on the floor so you can be at the “same level” as her – for example, having tummy time together and looking at each other eye-to-eye – is important in bonding. Peek-a-boo is the ever reliable way to amuse and make your baby smile. It’s always fun and rewarding to get your baby to smile.
- I danced with her in my arms a lot to music from the television, radio or CDs. This was to ensure that she grows up with rhythm. Today, at nearly 5 years of age, she loves to dance and enjoys her dance class in school (just awaiting the time she’s ready for real ballet class). You can see the joy when she moves to music she likes. Fortunately, she has my taste in music (not her dad’s taste in death/heavy metal). 🙂 More on dance as a means of PPD therapy and bonding with baby over at a recent Postpartum Progress post. Check it out.
- I did a little bit of infant massaging but not a whole lot. I didn’t go as far as applying oil on her skin or anything. Now that I think about it, I probably should’ve done more. I was surprised by the amount of literature in childcare class, websites, flyers and brochures on infant massage. Other than a friend of mine who years ago told me she had heard it was very beneficial to the baby, I’d never heard anyone else talk about it until I became pregnant. Now I can understand how it benefits both the mother and baby. For the baby, not only does it help with bonding, it can help reduce a colicky/fussy/irritable baby’s stress level, reduce teething pain, move gas along, and promote relaxation and drowsiness. For the mother, especially a depressed mother, knowing that touch and massage feels good and can provide such benefits to the baby is a good, rewarding feeling indeed.
Then, when the PPD kicked in at around 6 weeks after our return from the hospital, I was barely able to keep the same level of interaction going. During that time, I was aware that I had to keep up the interaction but I felt like a robot just going through the motions. I no longer felt the joy I thought I should feel as a new mother. I knew I had to keep it up so down the road I wouldn’t look back with any regret that I didn’t do my best. I didn’t want to ruin my one shot at being a mother.
It’s bad enough I can’t remember the sound of the baby’s cry during those first few months…everything was a blur to me. It wasn’t until my head poked through the PPD fog about 4 weeks after I started taking the Paxil that I was able to continue where I had left off in terms of consistent and meaningful interactions with my daughter.
BOTTOM LINE: A happy mom means a happy baby. Bonding and interaction is very important to baby’s development. PPD in the first year can get in the way of proper bonding and interaction, and hence have a negative impact on baby’s emotional, psychological and cognitive development. It’s important for the mom with PPD to seek help to try to recover as quickly as possible so she can enjoy baby and motherhood.