Anxious All the Time

Moms worry -- it's in our job description. But when normal caution crosses the line it can have serious consequences for our kids.
mother and toddler

When Tammy Revia's daughter, Celie, was 9 months old, she had yet to get a cold or a fever, but Revia made a point of keeping her off public playgrounds anyway. She also avoided exposing her baby to children with even the slightest sign of illness and used antibacterial wipes or hand sanitizers before and after touching everything from her cell phone to a supermarket cart to door handles. "Whenever I heard Celie sniffle or sneeze, it took my breath away," says Revia, a nurse from League City, Texas.

Celie isn't immunocompromised or sick. But Revia's first child, Devin, had been born prematurely, and after struggling in the NICU for more than nine months and then finally coming home, he died just before his first birthday. Now she sees danger everywhere: A disinfectant commercial discussing hidden germs makes her heart race, mosquitoes seem like germ-carrying mini missiles, and a bump on Celie's head makes her think subdural hematoma. "When you've been through so much, you're just waiting for the next bad thing to happen," she says.

Many mothers like Revia are struggling with severe anxiety, often triggered by a real health scare that is long gone but has left an imprint on their psyche. For some, it can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traditionally associated with surviving war. But even when it's not that severe, this anxiety can add layers of stress to daily family life and put your child at risk for behavioral problems later.

Deep-Seated Stress

Maternal anxiety isn't necessarily on the rise, but it is getting more attention. "There's a growing recognition that anxiety levels and depression are both high among mothers of young children," says Diane Langkamp, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Akron Children's Hospital, in Ohio. Experts point to rising rates of premature babies who survive the NICU and medical advances that allow children to fully recover from a variety of traumatic illnesses. Parents of preemies, who have lived through the trauma of seeing their tiny infant hooked up to machines and surrounded by extremely sick babies, may have a particularly difficult time shaking their experience. This can lead to nightmares, depression, feeling agitated, and being hypervigilant about their child's health long after he leaves the NICU.

Jamie Klavans went into labor during her 35th week of pregnancy and gave birth to her son, Matthew, who needed emergency surgery on his colon. Over the next 15 months, he had four more surgeries. Though Matthew, now 5, is completely healthy, Klavans fears that he'll end up back in the hospital. "When he was sick as a baby, we were always on the go, and I didn't have time to process anything," says Klavans, of Brookfield, Connecticut. But a late-night trip to the E.R. for croup when Matthew was 22 months old brought back terrible memories and caused Klavans to have bouts of diarrhea. For about six months, she'd wake up in the middle of the night hyperventilating, and she felt anxious when she was alone with her two children. After these scary symptoms, her pediatrician suggested that she might have PTSD; she's been getting help for it ever since.

Sometimes a woman's experience even before having children -- such as a miscarriage, failed IVF treatments, a difficult pregnancy, or the unexpected death of a family member -- can set off anxiety. Moms who have been anxious or depressed in the past or suffered from postpartum depression have a greater risk of being anxious about their children's health, explains Faye Kokotos, M.D., assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, in New York City.

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