8 ways being a new mum affects mental health
Becoming a parent isn’t easy. No matter which pathway you’ve taken to become a new parent, there are a whole plethora of unexpected issues that can affect your mental health.
Research shows that an overwhelming 70% of new and expectant mums have experienced ill mental health during or after pregnancy. Anxiety, depression, decreasing self-esteem – fewer than one in 10 (9%) of new mums say they feel more confident after the birth of their child. With over half (51%) of us turning to friends and family rather than professionals, many of us recognise that we need support but aren’t always sure where or how to find it.
Worries around being judged, not feeling ‘good enough’, and fears around how our mental health may be seen as somehow lessening our abilities to be parents are all reasons why some of us can be reluctant to seek help. But when our mental health takes a turn for the worse, it can feel impossibly tough to pinpoint exactly why we aren’t feeling like ourselves – or what, exactly, is causing us to feel so low or negative.
We share some of the common reasons how being a new mum might be affecting your mental health – and what you can do to combat them.
1. Safety. Judgement. ‘Good enough’
Feelings of anxiety and overwhelm can get out of control as your hormones are raging, sleep deprivation is starting to take its toll, and everyone has an opinion about what you’re doing (and if you’re doing it ‘right’).
Swaddling, co-sleeping, breastfeeding, formula, cry it out, sleeping bags or blankets – it can feel like no matter what choice you’re making, someone is telling you you’re doing it wrong. When you’re already in a vulnerable place, this can feel overwhelming, and you aren’t always in a position to take a step back and think things through logically. Those first few weeks are so intense, it can feel like there’s nothing to really prepare you for it.
Now is the time to find a routine that works for you and your baby. Outside voices may be persistent, but only you can know what works best for you and your family. Each individual person’s experiences are just that – their own experiences. There isn’t a single ‘best’ way to do things.
What can I do if I’m feeling judged or worried about my baby’s safety?
If you’re worried about safe sleep, The Lullaby Trust offers free advice and guidelines on the safest ways for a baby to sleep at home to reduce the risk of SIDs (sudden infant death syndrome). While co-sleeping isn’t recommended, 76% of parents end up doing so at some point, with 40% doing so in an unsafe way. It’s important to learn more about the safest ways you can co-sleep ahead of time to reduce the risks where possible.
If you’re feeling judged about the way in which you are feeding your baby, the Fed is Best Foundation is a great place to read more from other parents. Finding supportive groups on platforms such as Facebook, Peanut (an app that helps women connect with others at similar stages in pregnancy, motherhood, and beyond) or Mush (an app for connecting with local mums) can help you to feel less alone and more empowered in your decisions.
While research shows that breastfeeding does offer numerous benefits for children, pushing the single narrative that ‘breast is (always) best’ is harmful for women who cannot breastfeed due to medication, physical factors, mental health, or any other plethora of reasons. Ensuring we are looking after ourselves and our well-being enough to be there for our babies is key. No one should feel shamed for taking an approach that works best for their family.
2. Worrying: “Am I being selfish?”
“Am I being selfish?” is a much-asked question not only in life but in therapy too. Many of us worry that by putting our own needs, wants or desires onto our to-do list, we’re somehow being selfish. How dare we find small ways to nourish ourselves and our well-being!
As counsellor Mandy Lucas explains, “Self-care is one of the most influential factors in our ability to stay emotionally well and to promote resilience. When we experience challenging life events, being resilient is one of the factors that can determine how well we get through those events. Without it, we can quickly cave to pernicious stress and anxiety. Hence, self-care becomes paramount.”
Even the most straightforward of births can be a challenging life event – let alone when things don’t go as planned. No matter how much we love our little ones, adjusting to life as a new parent is stressful and often anxiety-inducing. By taking time for self-care, we are ensuring we are aware of our own health and needs, whilst taking steps to meet them.
Looking after yourself isn’t selfish – it’s a vital part of ensuring you can be there for your little one. Think of it like those flight safety instructions: we need to put on our own mask before helping someone else. So, too, we need to look after our own well-being, in order to best help those we love.
How can I fit in self-care as a new mum?
Re-familiarise yourself with basic self-care techniques. While not everything may be possible, picking just one or two small, simple ways you can build some you-time into your routine can make the world of difference. For parent-specific tips, try these 10 self-care tips for new mums as shared by the NCT, or find out more from the BBC about how you can take care of yourself whilst caring for a newborn.
If you find yourself struggling with the idea of self-care, this article on reasons why you may find self-care difficult could help you put things into perspective.
3. Sleep and well-being: Coping with sleep deprivation
Just when you thought you couldn’t get any more exhausted after those tiny feet kicking your bladder throughout the last weeks (and months) of your pregnancy, you’re faced with the reality of a tiny person who doesn’t understand the concepts of day and night.
Lack of sleep can affect you both physically and mentally. Dark bags under your eyes, sallow skin, higher blood pressure; lack of sleep may even lead to poorer food choices, slower metabolisms, fluctuating blood sugar levels, dizziness, and increased pain. Your immune system can become suppressed, your abilities to problem solve can decrease, and the impact on your mental health can be significant.
According to The Sleep Charity, loss of sleep can not only lead to mood changes but can also put new mums at risk of postnatal depression. Tweaking your sleep habits could help you to lessen the impact, and stay more awake and alert throughout the day.
How can I cope with sleep deprivation as a new mum?
Sleeping when your little one sleeps is an old but effective way to increase your sleep. By keeping your nap to 30 minutes or less, you can reduce your chance of entering a deep sleep cycle and waking up groggy.
Ensuring you are getting outside for a breath of fresh air isn’t just good for baby. Getting some physical exercise can help to boost your mood, expose you to natural daylight (helping your internal clock think you should be awake even whilst tired) all whilst physically tiring you out. This can help you to get to sleep more quickly later, as your physical tiredness can help you to avoid lying awake at night (or whilst the baby is napping in the day).
Taking shifts with your partner can prove to be a huge help for both parents, as taking turns can allow for you each to get a longer, uninterrupted period of rest without listening out for your baby’s cry. Try these baby sleep tips for exhausted new parents, as recommended by sleep experts.
4. Coping with stress
Having been there and done that, I think I can safely say: nothing prepares you for the increased stress after you’ve had a baby. In the months leading up to having my little one, I did every class out there, from one-to-one sessions with private midwives to hypnobirthing, NCT classes to online short courses. Yet, once that tiny, screaming little bundle of joy was finally here, I couldn’t have felt less prepared – and I’m not the only one.
Research shows two-thirds of mums believe that stress affects their ability to be a good parent. Eight in 10 of us believe that we’re facing more pressure today than our mothers’ generation did. We’re expected to be carers, housekeepers, and providers. We feel the pressure to keep things running at home, to push to return to work, to juggle so many responsibilities all at once. It’s no wonder that a third of mums feel this leads to their career suffering, and half struggling to maintain a good work/life balance.
Suddenly, making the shift from just needing to look after yourself to having a dependent, helpless little human looking to you for everything can feel impossibly stressful. But it’s important to know that you aren’t alone.
What can I do to cope with stress after having a baby?
The NHS have a great guide to help you get started. Ensuring you have time to unwind, spending time with your partner, or making time to see other people can all act as huge stress relievers. Asking for and accepting help can feel tough, but can help.
The relationship charity Relate emphasises the importance of making time for yourselves outside of being new parents – as individuals, as well as a couple.
Perinatal Cognitive Behavioural Therapist (CBT) and Coach Sophie shares some great tips on how you can look after yourself and boost your emotional well-being as a new mum.
5. No time for ‘us’
The evolution of your relationship from a couple to becoming parents can have unforeseen impacts on your relationship. Lack of sleep, lower sex drives, conflict over different parenting methods, not to mention a lack of dedicated time for just the two of you can all take their toll. Becoming parents can put a strain on your relationship, no matter how much you love each other.
During these first few months, babies require so much physical and emotional energy, it can be hard to have the time for anything else. But making time for each other – even for little things to show that you care – can have a significant impact.
How to invest in your relationship after having a baby
Taking time to talk with and listen to your partner is key. No matter how close you are, you aren’t mind readers. Aspects you may be struggling with may not be obvious to your partner – and vice versa. Communication is key. Ask each other: what do you need right now? Is there anything such as a specific chore you could share to help ease the strain?
If possible, taking time together – even if that’s just for a walk or a coffee – without the baby can help. Asking a friend or relative to babysit can help to give you both the breathing room to enjoy each other’s company without splitting your attention.
Ensuring you can both continue to foster friendships outside of your relationship is another healthy way of making sure you aren’t bottling everything up – or putting it all onto your partner.
6. Social media strain
When was the last time you saw someone post an ugly photo on Instagram or a frustrating day on Facebook? There’s this inexplicable pressure to share an unrealistic, perfect side of motherhood on social media. Every shot has to highlight how beautiful your child is. Every post has to sing their praises and proclaim them to be a tiny genius.
Yet no one wants to share the other side of things: the sleep-deprived nights, cracked nipples, the tears at 3am (from both mum and baby). The late-night walks and early morning drives, the mountain of unwashed laundry, and that overwhelming feeling that you are failing because your experience doesn’t match the picture-perfect paragon of motherhood everyone else seems to be having.
Social media affects us more than we realise. It’s shaping the way we eat, the way we form and maintain relationships, it’s even become a way to avoid our emotions. While social media can provide access to online communities and support we may otherwise not know about, it can also lead to mindless scrolling, fear of missing out (FOMO), and even set unrealistic expectations.
How can I have a healthier relationship with social media?
Taking a break from social media can help you to reset your habits and expectations. As explained by Happiful writer Kat, sharing online becomes an ingrained habit. We stop living in and enjoying the moment, instead automatically reaching for our phones to document and share. Exposing ourselves to a little boredom by putting down the phone, addressing our underlying anxiety that we may be trying to numb with mindless scrolling, and ensuring that the connections we are making are for the right reasons can all help.
While some people can go cold turkey and give up social media altogether, that isn’t the right method for everyone. Discover more about how you can take care of yourself online, and try redefining your relationship with social media and what you actually want to share and consume.
7. Self-doubt: Can I really do this?
There are so many new pressures you experience as a mum, it just doesn’t feel fair that self-doubt can come in and make you second-guess yourself. From feeling the pressure to fit in with other parents at mum and baby groups, to worrying whether you’ve chosen the ‘right’ parenting approach, low self-confidence can leave you feeling uncomfortable, unsure, and struggling to move forward with your decisions.
How can I be a more confident mum?
Trust in yourself and your decisions. Not giving in to bad advice can be a good first step. Well-meaning relatives can often push outdated ideas without realising that the ‘normal’ way of doing things may have changed thanks to continued research, updated guidelines, and new developments.
Be honest with yourself, and your loved ones. Being open about how you are feeling and coping can not only help to relieve the pressure on you but can also help you to connect with those around you. Reaching out can provide help and reassurance that you’re doing your best, and you’ve got your little one’s best interests at heart.
If you’re worried you may be beginning to feel overwhelmed, share the load. Ask your partner, family, or close friends to help with boring or simple tasks. Recognising that your ‘old normal’ may need to be put on hold for now, be kind to yourself. Does that mountain of washing really need to be tackled right now, or can it wait a little bit longer? Giving yourself breathing room to get things done can help you to feel better able to tackle things, helping you to slowly boost your confidence and battle self-doubt.
8. Obsessing about the future: Am I a bad mum for thinking about my career?
Many parents feel guilt when it comes to their careers. According to statistics, 41% of working mothers feel that being a parent is holding them back in their career, compared to just one in seven fathers. While some women embrace motherhood with open arms and feel comfortable leaving the workforce, going back to work – whether due to financial pressure or personal preference – doesn’t make you any less of a mother.
Creating a sustainable work/life balance is hard enough without kids. Many working mothers express feelings of guilt for returning to work, as they worry about their little ones at nursery, missing milestones, or losing the chance to foster bonds with their child throughout the working day. It’s important to remember that what works for you and your family doesn’t have to match up with what works for others. Supporting your family financially doesn’t mean you’ve stopped supporting them emotionally.
How to let go of working mum guilt
Our careers can be a huge part of our identities. Often we have chosen a specific path due to enjoyment, personal development, progression opportunities, money, or a combination of these. Becoming a parent doesn’t mean you have to give up all other aspects of yourself. Being a stay-at-home mum isn’t for everyone – and that’s OK.
If you find yourself falling into a cycle of negative self-talk, this can lead to you listening to these toxic feelings and words, rather than giving yourself the space to take a step back and consider things from a more objective perspective. Learn from any small mistakes or missteps, make positive changes, and move forward.
How to look after your mental health as a new parent
Perinatal mood disorder (PMD) and postnatal depression (PND, often called ‘baby blues’) can happen anytime in the first year following the birth of your little one. Affecting more than one in 10 women, it’s more common than you may think. It’s important to reach out and seek help if you have any worries or concerns, as this can help avoid symptoms worsening, as well as minimising the impact it may have on you and your loved ones.
Signs that you might need a little extra help and support include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness or a low mood.
- A lack of enjoyment or interest in the wider world.
- Feeling tired all of the time.
- Trouble sleeping at night.
- Difficulty bonding with your baby.
- Withdrawing from other people or avoiding contact.
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions.
- Frightening or distressing thoughts.
If you are worried about how you are feeling, speak with your GP, health visitor, or midwife. Many different types of help and support are available. These feelings are natural and are not your fault. Feeling this way doesn’t make you a bad mother or a bad person. Speaking up and seeking help will not result in your baby being taken away (this only happens in very exceptional circumstances).
Once you speak with your GP, they will be able to help guide you towards the right path of help and support for you. This could include self-help options, such as working on eating a healthier diet, improving your sleep, and exercising regularly. It may include being referred for talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or they may recommend antidepressants.
While no one knows exactly why some people experience PND and others do not, previous mental health problems, not having a local support system (friends and family nearby), relationship problems or stressful life events can all make you more likely to experience PND.
For advice and support on pre and postnatal depression and to access online and local support groups, visit PANDAS (the PND awareness and support charity). Or to find out more about postpartum psychosis, help and support available, visit the APP (Action on Postpartum Psychosis) charity. For more advice on getting support for your mental health and well-being, visit Mind.
For more information on postnatal depression, diagnosis, and how counselling may be able to help you, visit our postnatal depression page.