Investigations

Why it could be taking years for women to recover after a baby

AUSTIN (KXAN) - The whole house is silent. Finally, after a long day of cleaning up messes, re-building Legos and puzzles, some peace. The stillness is usually short-lived. Around 2 a.m. is when the baby monitor starts blaring.

The baby is either hungry or needs a change. You quickly rush to her room before she wakes up the other two small kids. She finishes her bottle but is still wide awake. You rock her until her eyes become heavy and then rush back to bed for another few hours of sleep.

By 4:30 a.m. another cry for another feeding. You feed and rock again and back to bed before the entire family is up in a few hours.

The whole day starts over again. This is motherhood, right? It's supposed to be exhausting and overwhelming.

That's what Katie Welch thought. The Austin mother recently had her third child. She's still recovering from a c-section. “I'm emotionally exhausted... kind of numb and just trying to stay focused,” Welch said.

She admits she's in survival mode taking care of the baby and her other two children. “I just don't feel like changing my clothes ... put on the same thing day after day,” Welch described. “Kids want something to eat and I'm doing something and I totally forget and they are like 'mom is it ready yet?' And I totally forgot.”

I'm emotionally exhausted... kind of numb and just trying to stay focused.

Welch's OB-GYN, Dr. Robert Cowan with Austin area Obstetrics, Gynecology and Fertility says he immediately recognized her symptoms during a recent check-up. “It’s quite normal to feel this way. Sometimes if the symptoms are severe we'll bring them in and do blood work and maybe discuss perhaps seeing a mental health expert.”

He says what he's seeing is postnatal depletion. “It's real and we see it almost every day in the office in our postpartum mothers."

What is Postnatal Depletion?

To better understand what postnatal depletion is, KXAN turned Dr. Oscar Serrallach in Australia. He's the author of “The Postnatal Depletion Cure,” which will be released in June. He says postnatal depletion is when a mother's body is so depleted of key nutrients after pregnancy that it makes it harder for her to recover physically, hormonally and emotionally.

"One to two mothers will have some degree of postnatal depletion,” the family doctor who coined the term postnatal depletion said. He says it's something his wife went through after having their three kids.

 
Postnatal Depletion Symptoms
  • Exhaustion, even after waking up from a good sleep
  • Anxiety
  • Foggy brain (trouble concentrating, remembering things)
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Mood swings

 

“What I typically see with my postnatal clients is that they will get much more deeply affected by each child and that happened in my own case. After our first child, I could definitely see my partner Caroline ... fatigued and was having some issues, but was recovering.” Dr. Serrallach goes on to say after their second child, Caroline's issues "became deeper, they lasted longer. After the third child, they were very exaggerated and she wasn’t recovering.”

Dr. Serrallach says a mother's brain shrinks 5 percent during pregnancy and the placenta drains her of essential nutrients that she needs to be healthy. He says part of the problem is that postnatal care ends after six weeks, so women never learn how to rebuild those lost nutrients. He believes some moms can suffer up to seven years, if not longer, from the effects of depletion.

“A lot of mothers are very low on iron, zinc and magnesium. They are very low on specific fatty acids like Omega-3 (DHA) and then there's a huge change in hormones and organ function, digestive function and mental function,” Serrallach said. He believes all those things make it more difficult for the body to recover from those sleepless nights and even a cold.

“A mother knows something is going on and they know with each child things have gotten worse and more exaggerated, and this is not just sleep deprivation, or it's not just me getting older — this is not what being a mother should be like,” explained Dr. Serrallach.

The father also believes women are waiting later in life to have babies, which could be contributing to why they are feeling depleted. He says this can make pregnancy and motherhood physically harder, especially if you have several kids back to back.

Not Enough Research

While some doctors recognize the symptoms, they say postnatal depletion is not medically acknowledged.

“There's not enough research,” Dr. Cowan said. “For a condition to become recognized as a medical diagnosis, we really need to have a better understanding of it.” There's very little research on postnatal depletion and what KXAN discovered is dated.

Dr. Serrallach is hoping to contribute to the research in the next several years. He also points out that while postnatal depletion is different from postpartum depression, it could lead to the more serious symptoms. Celebrities have put a spotlight on postpartum depression and that dialogue has helped many women not only talk about it but also get the help they need. Dr. Serrallach thinks in the next several years the same thing could happen with postnatal depletion.

Carly Pollack, a holistic nutritionist and the owner of Nutritional Wisdom in Austin, tells KXAN the number of women with postnatal depletion may be much higher than what she's seeing. Part of the problem: mothers are not talking about it. “I think there’s shame attached to it,” Pollack explained. “I've had this child and I'm supposed to feel really happy and instead I feel resentful, tired and anxious all the time. 

Recovering from Postnatal Depletion

Recovering from postnatal depletion is possible. Dr. Serrallach says treatment starts by first acknowledging what's happening and then looking at the patients' nutrients. He recommends mothers eat higher amounts of good fats and cut back on protein and carbohydrates. 

He also thinks it's essential to see which vitamins may be lacking. “Does she have enough iron in her system, does she have enough zinc, does she have too much copper, does she need more magnesium,” Dr. Serrallach said. “I see postnatally very low levels of specific omega-3 (DHA).”

He markets a combination of vitamins called, “The Mother Load,” on Goop, actress Gwyneth Paltrow's popular wellness website.

So could this be a way for the doctor to sell more vitamins?

“I don’t prescribe things long term so I don’t see it as a sell like that,” explained Dr. Serrallach. “I see so many mothers recovering from their issues that I’m certain it’s not just placebo, but I also see that it has to be the right types of nutrients and hormonal supplements to cause a full recovery.”

Pollack echoes Serralach's emphasis on nutrition. Pollack recommends moms keep taking a prenatal vitamin even after giving birth. “I always focus on making sure these mamas have high-quality proteins ... fats," said Pollack. “I’m also removing foods from the diet that I know mess with mood such as caffeine, sugar, processed carbohydrates. I put emphasis on a lot of herb things like vitex, chamomile, there are lots of herbal teas that you can drink ... red raspberry and other combination of herbs for balancing hormones.”

Dr. Serralach also believes herbs can be very helpful in healing with hormone recovery, but he emphasized that sleep is the one thing that's non-negotiable. He says this means resting and going to bed earlier to make up for the interruptions.

For Dr. Cowan, sleep is key too, but he also wants to remind mothers that not everything will be perfect. “We always tell our patients to give themselves a break. Don’t be hard on yourself. None of us are perfect parents even though we try so hard to be."

“All moms are depleted after they give birth. It’s tremendous work to be in labor and to give birth. You have a deep internal injury after you give birth. You need healing,” Pollack explained. “How many moms are really taking that time to stay in bed and connect with themselves, how many moms have the community and the support versus how many of us feel like we have to have our kid and get back to your routine and lose weight and manage our house even get back to work." 

Pollack, along with Dr. Serrallach and Dr. Cowan, said the key to a mother's recovery besides eating well is getting support.

  • Ask for help: delegate cooking, cleaning and laundry
  • Make time for yourself
  • Don't push yourself to start high-intensity exercise: Ease into it with yoga. Meditation is also recommended.

Meanwhile, Katie Welch is leaning on her family and friends more. She says just knowing there's a name for what she's going through is a relief. She's focusing on her nutrition and hoping soon she'll be feeling like herself again.

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