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Study Confirms What Parents Already Know: Fussy Babies Are Harder

In what may be the most obvious study ever, researchers at the University of Michigan determined that moms of fussy babies are almost twice as likely to experience moderate to severe symptoms of depression.

I could have told them that for free.

I was the mother of a fussy baby. I was 4 weeks postpartum when I lay sobbing in my husband’s arms: “I can’t stand the sound of his cry.” I was completely exhausted, emotionally and physically. My bundle of joy was less about joy and more about screaming bloody murder. He had a high-pitched, blood-curdling wail that I swear would reach its tentacles deep into the very core of me. My brain would fire off every pain receptor, screaming, “Make it stop!” To this day, I can’t think about his cry without wincing.

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Yes, all babies can be challenging. It can sometimes feel like you are navigating without a compass. But life with a fussy baby? Is like constantly sailing stormy, fog-ridden seas with 40-foot angry waves tossing you about and you have no control. None. Nothing makes you feel more incompetent, stressed, bone-wearingly exhausted, or guilty than a baby, YOUR BABY, that you cannot soothe. And this constant sense of failure takes a heavy toll. And in some cases? Leads to postpartum depression.

The study, published in Academic Pediatrics, reviewed data from more than 8,200 women and their children at 9 months postpartum. The results? Mothers of fussy babies born between 32 and 41 weeks had twice the odds of experiencing moderate to severe maternal depression as moms of “easy” babies of the same age.

As well, mothers of very preterm, fussy infants (born at 24-31 weeks) were about twice as likely to experience mild depressive symptoms compared to moms of very preterm non-fussy infants.

The study concluded that:

Early screening for infant fussiness in preterm and full-term infants may help identify mothers with depressive symptoms in need of support.

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Senior author, Dr. Prachi Shah, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, had this to say about the findings:

These findings reinforce that all mothers caring for babies with more difficult temperaments may need extra help managing the emotional toll. Pediatricians and providers should pay close attention to mothers who describe difficulty soothing their babies. Early interventions may help reduce the risk of maternal depression that negatively impacts a child-parent relationship and that may be harmful to both the health of a mother and child.

Shah believes that the reason mothers of very premature babies don’t experience the same level of depression as those with babies born later is the level of care and support they receive in the NICU and beyond.

The additional support and services provided to families of very premature children help prepare parents for the potential challenges associated with caring for a preterm infant and may help mitigate the risk for maternal depressive symptoms.

Support which, unfortunately, is missing in our current postnatal care for those babies born at, or near, full-term.

As much as we may joke that the results of this study are as obvious as water is wet and the sky is blue, postpartum depression is no joke. An estimated 1 in 7 women experiences postpartum depression and most suffer in silence. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for new moms.

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Unlike the “baby blues” – which include mood swings, crying spells, anxiety and difficulty sleeping – PPD doesn’t go away on its own. According to the American Psychological Association, symptoms of PPD may include:

    • A loss of pleasure or interest in things you used to enjoy, including sex
    • Eating much more, or much less, than you usually do
    • Anxiety—all or most of the time—or panic attacks
    • Racing, scary thoughts
    • Feeling guilty or worthless—blaming yourself
    • Excessive irritability, anger or agitation—mood swings
    • Sadness, crying uncontrollably for very long periods of time
    • Fear of not being a good mother
    • Fear of being left alone with the baby
    • Misery
    • Inability to sleep, sleeping too much, difficulty falling or staying asleep
    • Disinterest in the baby, family, and friends
    • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details, or making decisions
    • Thoughts of hurting yourself or the baby

The good news is that postpartum depression can be treated with psychotherapy and anti-depressants. In addition, the FDA just approved the first drug to specifically treat PPD, and it is expected to hit the market by late June. Zulresso is said to work within hours, via a 60 hour IV drip, with very little side effects, except for a hefty price tag of $20,000 to $34,000 (which will hopefully be covered by insurance). This could literally save lives.

The reality is that we need better postpartum mental health care in this country. We need to continue to work to destigmatize and shed light on PPD in order to give women the support they need to seek help. Hopefully this study will help to do just that.

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If you or someone you know is suffering from postpartum depression, please seek help from a psychologist or other licensed mental health provider or contact your doctor or other primary health care provider. You can also call Postpartum Support International at 1-800-944-4773 (4PPD) or text them at 503-894-9453. In case of emergency, contact the National Strategy For Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).