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Why Are New Moms So Moody?

For many women, being home with a newborn is a fast ride on an emotional roller coaster. One day, you're euphoric as your child naps in the crook of your arm. The next, you're in tears: Not only do you realize you can't go out for an impromptu lunch with friends, but you're also terrified by your baby's sudden and explosive bowel movement.

Don't worry. "These mood swings are perfectly normal," says Hilda Hutcherson, M.D., an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, in New York City. "After giving birth, women experience dramatic changes in hormone levels, which drastically affect their moods."

In other words, don't be surprised if you feel deliriously high and then completely bummed out -- all in the course of a single afternoon. "Many women aren't prepared for the intense range of emotions they experience," Dr. Hutcherson explains. "They think they will be totally thrilled with their new baby all the time, and they may feel guilty if they have any doubts or negative feelings at all."

Here's a look at common emotions new mothers experience and some suggestions on how best to cope.

What Do You Mean I'm In Charge?

As nervous as you might have been about the physical act of giving birth, that's nothing compared with the anxiety many women experience when they first strap their baby into his car seat and head home. Those feelings of insecurity often continue for the first few weeks. This is a result, in part, of being overwhelmed by the physical demands of motherhood: breast-feeding, changing diapers, and lack of sleep. So accept offers of help that come your way, or actively seek out assistance. Friends and family will understand how valuable this help can be and will provide it gladly.

Experts say new moms need a network of people they can call on to share their concerns. "It's very important to talk to other women who have had babies -- even if their children are older," says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Pregnancy Books (Hungry Minds). Not only can they give you advice on baby care, but they can also reassure you that pretty soon you'll start feeling a lot more confident in your mothering skills.

Home Alone

Regardless of how much you were looking forward to your baby's arrival, being at home with a newborn can make a woman feel isolated. Lisa Kirshenbaum, of Cranston, Rhode Island, recalls the early months with her son, who was born in December. Because of the cold weather, she was reluctant to take him out of the house; as a result, she spent most of the winter feeling cooped up and alone. "Finally, I joined a baby group," she says. "It was a great support system, and I made some really good friends."

As Kirshenbaum learned, a good remedy for isolation is to connect with other new moms as soon as you feel physically up to it. Find -- or form -- a group by calling women from your prenatal class or striking up a conversation when you're in the pediatrician's office.

Baby Blues

Feelings of unexplained sadness and lethargy are quite normal, especially during the early weeks. That's be- cause levels of estrogen and progesterone drop, says Margaret Howard, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical director of the postpartum-disorders day hospital at Women & Infants Hospital, in Providence. "At the same time, there is a rapid increase in the levels of prolactin, which enables milk production. Until these hormones balance out, new moms can expect to feel down from time to time."

You may also experience a case of the postpartum blues. This is especially likely if you are a first-time mom. Quite simply, you are mourning the loss of your former life, and that's to be expected. However, if your feelings veer toward profound sadness, hopelessness, and a sense of detachment from the baby and the rest of the world, you may be suffering from postpartum depression. If these feelings persist, call your obstetrician or nurse-midwife.

The Wonder of It All

Of course, not all postbirth feelings are negative. Many women feel an unexpected sense of amazement during the baby's first months. Take me, for example. At 2:30 a.m. on my daughter's twenty-second day, I felt overcome by the fact that my husband and I had created a family. I was so full of love that, by the glow of a night-light, I wrote in my journal about how I felt. Take advantage of these surges of energy and bursts of joy by recording observations about your child in her baby book. By savoring these positive emotions, you'll be able to draw on them the next time you're feeling down.

Copyright © 2002 Rebecca Banks. Reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Parents magazine.