These days, Kate Reicker doesn’t have a lot of time to look in mirrors. But when the Ottawa mom of two does catch a glimpse of herself, she says she barely recognizes the woman with thinning hair and visible areas of scalp staring back at her.
“It’s like, is that me in there somewhere?” Reicker, 34, who has a two-year-old and a five-month-old, told HuffPost Canada in a phone interview about her postpartum hair loss.
“It cements in my mind that I’m no longer a person. I’m just a mom. I cannot look in the mirror without just being reminded constantly that, nope. Your old life is over. You’re not going back to who you used to be. You’re just a shell.”
Postpartum hair loss, also known as postpartum telogen effluvium, is the shedding of hair after giving birth due to changes in hormone levels. For some women, the hair loss is minor. But for others, it can be severe. And it can be extremely distressing, especially given the physical, emotional, and psychological vulnerabilities women already face in the postpartum period.
HuffPost Canada’s new parenting series, “Life After Birth,” is seeking to open up the dialogue on this and other rarely-discussed — and sometimes unwelcome — side effects of new-mom life.
Reicker started noticing her hair falling out in fist-fulls about three months after her second baby was born, leaving her with strands she describes as “limp” and “ugly.” Her hairline has receded, her already-thin hair is even thinner, and her part is wider than it used to be, she said.
“My hair is just see-through now,” Reicker said.
Reicker had never been too concerned with her appearance, she said, and she readily accepted the other physical changes pregnancy bestowed upon her. But her hair loss is something she’s really struggled with, she told HuffPost Canada as her baby napped.
She no longer feels attractive or desirable, and this startling change in her appearance has made it hard to reconnect with who she used to be, Reicker added.
“I just found it to be sort of the icing on the cake on top of all the other challenges associated with being a new mom,” Reicker said.
“I could understand my body got bigger, because there was a human inside of it. My boobs got saggy because milk has been coming in and out of them. Fine. But the hair is totally unrelated. Why? It’s been really hard.”
Hair loss in women is particularly traumatic
Postpartum hair loss usually occurs about three to six months after delivery and can last another six months after that, Dr. Jeff Donovan, a dermatologist and president of the Canadian Hair Loss Foundation, said in an email interview with HuffPost Canada.
While most women experience some hair shedding after giving birth, it’s “particularly noticeable” in about 60 to 70 per cent of women, Donovan said. This can be extremely distressing, he added.
“As humans, the appearance of our hair is closely linked to how we feel about ourselves. Hair loss commonly impacts self-esteem and body image. Women with hair loss feel less attractive and increasingly self-conscious,” Donovan said.
Postpartum hair loss tends to happen at a time when new moms are already stressed, adjusting to life with a baby, recovering physically from childbirth, and at risk for developing a maternal mental illness such as postpartum depression. PPD affects up to 20 per cent of Canadian women during pregnancy and the postpartum period, according to the recently updated Family-Centred Maternity and Newborn Care: National Guidelines from the Government of Canada.
And hair loss in women can be particularly traumatic. Multiple studies have shown that a woman’s hair tends to be more closely linked to how she feels about herself, compared to a man’s relationship with his hair.
Some of Donovan’s postpartum patients are prepared for the possibility of hair loss, he said, and this understanding and preparation can go a long way in alleviating their fears when their hairs do start shedding.
“But some women are extremely worried and upset by their hair loss, especially those that have intensive amounts of shedding and loss. Some women with postpartum shedding can lose significant amounts of hair, even to the point of feeling more comfortable using a wig short term,” Donovan said.
‘I didn’t ever think it would be this bad’
Karley Skoblenick, who lives in Kingston, Ont., never experienced that thick, lustrous pregnancy hair when she was pregnant with her second child. Instead, after her baby was born, she just lost even more hair than she’d already lost after the birth of her first.
“Growing up my hair was extremely thick. I could barely put it up in an elastic. Now I have to loop the elastic four times,” Skoblenick told HuffPost Canada in an email interview.
“I hate when I see scalp showing. I have a lot of anxiety about it, and am pretty embarrassed, especially since I’ve had people (family) ask if I was balding.”
Although Skoblenick says she was aware of postpartum hair loss, she had no idea how severe it could be. Her hair has thinned out all over, and she has two patches — one at the back and one at the front above her forehead — that are so thin, she’s had to change how she parts her hair to try to conceal them, she said.
“I didn’t ever think it would be this bad,” she said.
Having beautiful hair is a ‘huge part of being a woman’ in our society, and it makes you feel feminine, Skoblenick said. It doesn’t help that female baldness is never spoken about, and that postpartum hair loss comes at a time when women are already going through so much change, she added.
“We have given up so much of ourselves, and lost ourselves in our children, that losing hair is losing something that is just ours. And it’s one of the few things we have left that is just ours,” Skoblenick said.
Being honest about hair loss can help
Postpartum shedding is a normal and expected process, Donovon said. Shedding should return to pre-pregnancy rates by the time a woman’s baby turns one, he added. If it doesn’t, a woman should see a dermatologist, he said.
In the meantime, it can help to talk openly about your hair loss with loved ones and close friends, Donovan said.
“With so much focus on the new baby, there is often little attention given to the concerns of the new mom. Talking with others, especially other mothers who experienced hair loss, can be helpful,” he said.
Reicker tries to keep a sense of humour about her hair loss, which isn’t hard with a toddler in the house, she said. Her son often pulls strands of her own hair out of his mouth with a “blech,” Reicker said with a laugh.
Skoblenick urges other new moms to think of themselves as warriors.
“Just like our stretch marks, hair loss is a reminder of how amazing we (not just our bodies but minds, too) have been in bringing life into this world,” she said.