Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mommy Science: The First 72 Hours

By Taryn Barrette, RD 
Last week, Jen B shared her experiences after the birth of her second daughter, Charlotte. During days 2 and 3, she was surprised that she had difficulty sleeping even though she was exhausted. She also shared how she began to “project” motivations more common to older children on her newborn (despite all her education and knowledge) and how exhausting it was to orchestrate all of the visitors (including her 2-year-old daughter). In this post, we’ll describe the science behind her very common experiences. Next time, we’ll share the behind-the-scenes “baby science."

Giving Birth is Stressful (No! Really?!)

Whether you had a vaginal delivery or a cesarean section, the act of delivering a baby causes a cascade of shifting hormones that puts your body into a state of “stress.” It is important to remember that a C-section is a serious surgery – a stress (both surgical and emotional) that affects the body’s hormonal cascade in a similar way to other stressors but with the added burden of physical recovery.

You may have heard of the “fight or flight” phenomenon where in the presence of a stressor (which could be anything from running from a hungry tiger, barely missing a fender-bender, or taking a challenging test) your body adapts to ready your muscles and your mind to either fight or flee. This process involves ramping up certain hormones and decreasing others (for you science nerds out there, stress causes a dramatic surge in endorphins, catecholamines, cortisol and adrenocorticotrophic hormones). These hormones cause an increase in heart rate and faster breathing. Blood is diverted to the muscles that may be needed and away from organs like the stomach and intestines. The surge of these hormones makes you incredibly alert and aware of your surroundings - a huge benefit if there really were a lurking tiger but pretty annoying if you were trying to get some much-needed sleep!

Days 2& 3 Continue to be Stressful!

For many mothers recovering from C-sections, stress hormones remain high – and when combined with the mental stress of “how do I feed my baby?,” “how do I deal with so many visitors?” and “how can I entertain my 2-year-old?” it is no wonder that Jen B would have difficulty relaxing and sleeping.

The stressful feedback loop that occurs during those first 72 hours make for a few exhausting days. Not only is your body attempting to heal from a serious abdominal surgery, but worrying about your baby, your family, and your continued lack of sleep is going to keep the stress hormones around. You may feel irritable and find it difficult to be a gracious hostess to the continued influx of visitors. In such a stressful situation, it is easy for a new mom to forget the preparation, education, and planning she had done before and during her pregnancy. All of Jen B’s feelings and experiences were perfectly normal!

As these stress hormones begin to subside, others such as oxytocin (the companionship/ love hormone) and prolactin (the milk production hormone) will become more dominant. Initial stress can sometimes result in moms who have had C-sections to take a little longer to “feel” their milk coming in. It is important to discuss any concerns about milk supply with your doctor.

Some Quick Tips

It is hard to prepare for every little detail that will come up during those first few days, but as usual, working to have a game plan before going to the hospital will lessen the stress.

Visitors – Remember that you will be tired, stressed, and sleep-deprived during your first few days postpartum. Arrange for a few close friends and family members to stop by and ask your other friends to wait until you let them know you are ready before they visit.

Other Kids – If you have other young children, it will be important to find someone to occupy them while you are recovering. Hospital rooms are small and 2-year-olds are curious and rambunctious. Plan on having a family member or friend watch and play with siblings during their visits to the hospital.

You – Recognize and accept that you may not be your usual self during those first days and weeks. Arrange a support team that understands your situation and can help you keep things in perspective.

Next Time: Baby Science: The First 72 Hours

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