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'They told me, "babies cry": No doctor would believe I had PTSD from my newborn.'

This article deals with mental health and may be triggering for some readers.  

It’s taken me a long time to accept that I’ve suffered from postnatal PTSD. As a clinical psychologist who’s worked with hundreds of mums who’ve struggled with the early stages of motherhood, I’m well familiar with postnatal depression and anxiety, and knew I was high-risk for that myself, but postnatal PTSD? Nope. I didn’t know to keep an eye out for that one, and it blindsided me.

When I think of PTSD, I think of people who’ve lived through traumas like war, sexual assault, domestic violence. It’s not something I associate with newborns in onesies. And to be honest, I still feel a bit ridiculous admitting it now, but it is what it is – becoming a mum gave me PTSD.

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A lot of women develop PTSD following a traumatic and complicated birth, but for me, the months that followed were probably the most traumatising.  The birth wasn’t great either though. My son, Harrison, arrived early – and quickly – at 33½ weeks.  My partner was in rural Queensland at the time – his last work trip before bub arrived – and couldn’t get to me in time.  Two close friends jumped at the chance to be with me, and while they were both amazing, the person I really wanted there wasn’t, and I don’t think I realised until much later just how much that affected me.

That being said, I’m forever grateful my girlfriend was with me, because mid-labour she asked the midwives to explain to me what would happen after bub arrived.  Everything up until that point had happened so quickly, it hadn’t even occurred to me – stupidly – that bub would be whisked away, and I’m not sure it would have been flagged for me had my girlfriend not brought it up.  But he was on my chest for two minutes, and then he was gone. I didn’t feel joy. I didn’t feel love. I just felt numb – I was in shock.

Harrison spent the first three weeks in the special care nursery. Going home without him felt wrong and surreal in equal measure, but he did brilliantly and was discharged slightly ahead of schedule.  Everything seemed fine, I was slowly finding my feet, but about a week after he came home, things unraveled.

Out of nowhere, he started screaming. Relentlessly. He would scream all day, every day, and sleep only in bursts of 45-60 minutes, never for more than 7-8 hours in a 24-hour period.  I felt completely inadequate and powerless. I wasn’t sleeping, I couldn’t eat, and my nerves were so on edge, any time he made even the slightest whimper or gurgle, my heart would race, I’d break out in a cold sweat, and my chest would constrict so tightly, it felt like I couldn’t breathe.

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I was completely out of my depth and had no issue asking for help, but it wasn’t as easy to access as I’d thought it would be. A community nurse told me Harrison was fine, and it was normal to feel overwhelmed.

Image: Getty.
"I was completely out of my depth." Image: Getty.

My next point of contact, a GP, told me that motherhood is always harder than you think it’s going to be, and patted my arm as she saw me on my way. A second GP told me not to worry, he seemed to be gaining weight nicely so there was no cause for concern. The third GP I saw told me that babies cry, sleeplessness is par for the course for all new parents, and suggested I try to get more sleep.

None of the health professionals I spoke to seemed to think there was anything wrong. I’m not sure if they thought I was exaggerating – FYI, I wasn’t – or whether because I wasn’t presenting in a hysterical mess they mistakenly thought things weren’t as bad as I said they were, but I can’t put into words how tough it was to feel like no one was there to help.  Family and friends were brilliant, and as cliché as it sounds, my partner really was my rock, but what I really needed was help from medical professionals and it wasn’t forthcoming.

Two things happened that I’m forever grateful for. One of my girlfriends stepped in after a particularly horrific day and said - ‘I don’t care how many doctors you’ve seen and what they’ve told you. I have three children, and this isn’t normal. Go back and don’t leave until they listen’. But I’d lost faith in GP’s by then.

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I asked for a referral to the neonatal paediatrician who’d worked with us at the special care nursery. When we got to see him, he said the words I’d been desperate to hear – ‘I believe you.  There’s something wrong and I’m going to help you’.

And he did. It didn’t get better immediately, but after two medications for reflux, a prescription formula to treat a cow’s milk allergy, and surgery for a double hernia, things did get better. But Harrison’s health improved far more quickly than my mental health did. I was so hypervigilant for any signs that he wasn’t OK, yes because I’m his mum and I wanted him to be ok, but also because I was exhausted and I knew if we went back to the cycle of relentless screaming we’d been trapped in before, it would break me.

At home, I couldn’t switch off from memories of nights where I’d had to stand under the shower with my hands over my ears, to have a break – just for a little while – from the screaming. I’d hear birds sing, and my heart would start racing, because the noise triggered memories of Harrison crying. And even though it was completely irrational, it took a long time for me to feel ok being alone with him, because I was terrified he’d start crying, and I wouldn’t be able to get him to stop.

I love that postnatal anxiety and depression are talked about so much more openly now, but I’ve struggled to find much on postnatal-PTSD. I don’t know if that’s because women feel uncomfortable talking about it for fear of being seen as a failure or a bad mum – I’ve felt both writing this piece – or maybe it’s because not enough people (healthcare professionals included) know about it, but I hope that changes.

If you’re a mum in the newborn trenches right now, hang in there, it will get better and there are people who can help.  If you’re a family member or friend of someone who’s just had a baby, don’t wait to be asked. It really does take a village – we would have been lost without ours – so jump in and help.  And if you’re a health professional, please, if you have a new mum in your office asking for help – take action.

Yes, being a new mum is hard, but it’s harder for some of us than others.

Dr. Sarah Hughes is a respected clinical psychologist, author, and media commentator. With over a decade of clinical experience, she’s an authority on everything from toddler tantrums and teenage drama, to body image and relationships – parenting, personal and professional.  She's the author of two books, Skip The Drama and soon to be released Parenting Made Simple. You can follow her on InstagramFacebook and Twitter.

The image used is a stock photo.

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