Ivy Shih-Leung: A Letter to New Moms

Let me first of all congratulate you on being a new mom and wish you a very Happy Mother's Day! If this is your first baby, you are no doubt excited and scared all at once. I would like to share with you some of what I learned from my own experience. I have a lot of advice and I could go on and on and on, but after much thought, I've whittled my thoughts down to the three following areas: sleep, support and breastfeeding. These are topics I wish I had known more about before I had my baby.

My road to motherhood was paved with issues from a dermoid cyst that had to be removed in order to conceive, to an ectopic pregnancy that had to be terminated, to a discovery that we were then faced with infertility issues, to one failed IVF cycle and then a successful IVF cycle, to a partial hysterectomy only three days after childbirth. My journey then ended with a bout of postpartum depression. As a consequence of this journey, Mother's Day has a particularly meaningful significance for both me and my husband. We never for one moment take motherhood for granted.

Mother's Day should be about celebrating our mothers, not just some mere Hallmark occasion. Somehow, it seems that our society has developed this attitude that it's no big deal to give birth because after all, women have been giving birth for thousands of years. Many societies today still observe social support rituals to helpa woman transition into her role as a mother. In this country, however, we seem to expect women to instinctively handle that transition with very little to no support at all. Mother's Day should serve as a reminder of how mothers should be honored. One day out of the year to celebrate mothers is all good and fine, but it would be much more meaningful to mothers in general if we could see a trend toward a society that gathers around and supports the new mother in the first one to two months after childbirth.

Motherhood is a tremendously rewarding, and at the same time challenging experience. How disappointing it would be if you spent the first critical months in a fog from PPD, being miserable and not being able to appreciate, play with and talk to your baby. If you're not feeling yourself, even after the first three weeks postpartum, see a doctor right away. Don't wait! PPD occurs more often than you think and is, in fact, the #1 complication of childbirth. And we're not talking about the baby blues, either, which is what approximately 80% of new mothers experience. It is important that you are healthy and happy enough to appreciate each day that goes by, not just in taking care of your baby, but participating with joy in your baby's early development, including your baby's first smile, first words, first laugh, etc. — all of which are priceless experiences that can never be repeated.

Anyway, here is my advice to you broken down into the three categories of sleep, support and breastfeeding.

SLEEP

Just sleep when the baby sleeps. That's one of the most cliched bits of advice you will receive before and after the baby's arrival. But it is actually good advice. Getting enough sleep is the most important thing you can do for yourself in the first three months postpartum. Announcements, thank you notes, phone calls, and even housecleaning can wait. Your health and mental well-being are more important. Your body has just gone through extreme changes. in your first six to eight weeks of motherhood, you need a minimum of five hours of uninterrupted sleep a night to achieve the kind of deep — where REM, or rapid eye movement, occurs — sleep your body needs to recover from childbirth. Though sleep deprivation is expected and considered a normal initiation into parenthood, particularly in the first three months, if a new mother who is at her most vulnerable fails to reach REM sleep over the course of several weeks to months, she is increasing the likelihood of PPD onset. I'm not saying that sleep deprivation alone triggers PPD. But if you add sleep deprivation to the anxieties that come with a first-time transition to motherhood and perhaps even lack of adequate support — and perhaps even a past history of or genetic predisposition to depression or other mood disorders — you're looking at an increase in risk of PPD.

The first three monthswill probably be the most exhausting, sleep-deprivedexperience we as mothers will ever have. The one warningmy husband and Ireceived from practically everyone who has had a baby is not to expect to get much sleep for the first three months, after which it will get much better.It's no wonder, then, thatwhen I told people I had insomnia they didn't really understand that what Iwas experiencing was not the kind of sleep deprivation that serves as an initiation into parenthoodthat all new parents go through. This is probably why, when I told my OB-GYN Ineeded help, heprescribed me Ambien without thinking of asking if I had any other symptoms of PPD.He should have realizedthat insomnia beyond four weeks postpartum was awarning sign of PPD.

If all new parents are sleep-deprived in the first three months, then you're probably wondering how a mother can get five hours ofuninterrupted sleep a night.There is nothing wrong with having your partner take on some night feedings with pumped breast milk or formula. You can work out a routine with your partner so that both of you can get the rest you need (e.g.,take turns sleeping in on the weekends). If your mother and mother-in-law are not options and you can afford to hire someone to help with the baby, hire a doula, a baby nurse, nanny or au pair just to get you through these first three months. A truly useful gift for a baby shower or Mother's Day is to have relatives, friends and neighbors chip in funds for a postpartum doula for the first couple of months.

SUPPORT

Forget the Supermom myth. Because the U.S. society is not based on the same social support system that existed in earlier days and still exists in other societies, mothers in this country are faced with having to gather our own support. It's hard enough for you to meet the demands of a newborn for the first time in your life without having also to figure out how to give your body the opportunity to recover from the physical changes your body has gone through. Before the baby's arrival, the new mom should think about options among relatives and friends who can provide emotional and practical support in the first three months postpartum. The more emotional support (having a shoulder to lean on, someone to provide a non-judgmental listening ear and advice if asked for when you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated) and practical support (help with tasks and errands, like helping with the baby, cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, driving you to a doctor's appointment if you aren't feeling up to doing it alone) you get, the more well-rested and the less anxious you are, and the better off you and your baby will be.

The transition to motherhood is truly a life-changing even that's handled with help from others. Since the postpartum period leaves a new mother vulnerable to stressors that at other points in her life may not affect her to quite the same extent, your priorities as a new mother should be to care for your baby and make sure you get as much rest and help as possible. Now's not the time to be an overachiever. Pretending you don't need help is not going to help you or your baby. You are not flawed, weak, inferior or a wimp if you allow others to help you.

You may be accustomed to being very independent and self-reliant, capable of handling any task given to you at work. But being a mother for the first time is not like any other task you've ever been given to do. It is unrealistic to expect that you can do all that you used to do, plus take care of a baby that needs all of your attention, all by yourself. You may have envisioned yourself doing it all and being a supermom who is the envy of your friends, co-workers and neighborhood, but at this time you are making a huge adjustment to motherhood for the first time, and cannot know the true extent that care of a newborn entails. And this is on top of your body's needing to recover from childbirth and having to cope with dramatic hormonal fluctuations.

No matter how much your prefer to — or think you can — handle it all, you really need to let others help you during these exhausting first few months of motherhood. Do ask for help or accept offers of help so you can focus your energy on your two priorities. Yes, two. Taking caring of the baby AND taking care of yourself. Just because you're now a mother doesn't mean you no longer have the right or need to take care of yourself. If you don't care of yourself, how are you going to be able to take care of your baby?

BREASTFEEDING

When I hear about successful breastfeeding stories, like my girlfriend and one other mother who breastfed through their children's second, yes second, birthday, I am truly amazed and think "Wow, more power to you." I am always amazed to hear accounts of women breastfeeding every two hours, with the baby taking an hour to feed. Breastfeeding is a huge commitment, which requires at least in the beginning a lot of patience, persistence and energy, because women rarely succeed on the first try. Many don't succeed until several days later. Some never succeed at all. Not succeeding at breastfeeding does not make you a failure at being a mom. Breastfeeding is NOT for everyone. It's a very personal decision and the health of the mother must be taken into consideration in the days following childbirth. If you're like me, you're probably thinking something along the lines of "Isn't it as easy as putting a baby's mouth to your breast and having it suck?" How difficult could breastfeeding be?

They talk about how Breast is Best, but no one ever talks about how non-instinctive breastfeeding really is and how painful it can be. Breastfeeding is no more instinctive than all other aspects of baby care that are learnedfrom doing or via the in-person guidance of experienced individuals. If breastfeeding we instinctive, why would so many women have so much difficulty doing it? Why would thereeven be the need for lactation consultants and organizations likeLa Leche League? The mere presence of breasts does NOT mean that the person bearing them instinctively knows how to use them. Hospitals mean well to offer to all new parents-to-be the option of taking a breastfeeding class. However, in most casesa class or a book on breastfeeding is rather useless.It's like telling a person who has never tuned an engine to read a manual and be expected to do itcorrectly from thevery firstattempt. As with everything else, nothing beats live demonstrations and hands-on practice. After all practice makes perfect and continuous practiceand positive reinforcement willgo a longway. You canonly get so much out of reading.

To breastfeed or not to breastfeed, that is the question. By breastfeeding your baby, you can boost the baby's chance of developing a higher IQ, doing well in school and being healthier overall. But how would you explain the instances of non-breastfed children being justas healthy and having equally high IQs? Despite social pressure to breastfeed, you must remember thatregardless of what you seeand hear, breastfeeding is a matter of personalpreference.It's not a prerequisite to being a good mother.

I hope this information helps you. I wish you and your family all the best on Mother's Day. You deserve it!

Ivy Shih Leung is a survivor of postpartum depression. Her goal is to help as many new moms as possible through her blog, Ivy's PPD blog, and a book that she is working on.

About Katherine Stone

is the creator of this blog, and the founder and executive director of Postpartum Progress. She has been named a WebMD Health Hero, one of the fiercest women in America by More magazine, and one of the 15 most influential patient advocates to follow. She is a survivor of postpartum OCD.

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  1. Lauren Hale says:

    I'm so glad you included breastfeeding.
    I nursed my first daughter for 16 months. My second daughter was physically unable to nurse due to a cleft palate so I pumped for 7 months, and well, my son latched on like a champ but we ended up having to quit at 6 months due to lack of supply because of a family situation that caused some undue stress and killed my supply. The pediatrician wanted me to pump. There was NO way i was going back down that road. I knew all too well where it had led the last time. All THREE of my kids are just fine, thank you very much! They are all bright, happy, insane little monsters who keep me on my toes all day (and sometimes night) long. Wanna hear something even funnier? I didn't bond fully with any of them until AFTER they stopped nursing/getting expressed milk. Odd, huh? Sometimes what's best for your family isn't always what the research says – SO important to keep that in mind and make decisions based on what fits YOUR family.

  2. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    Thank you for sharing what you've learned Ivy. I loved your point about breastfeeding and hands-on demonstrations. I read every book I could get my hands on and they helped me ZERO in this department.