How to protect your mental health as a new parent
You've been buying baby clothes and making sure you have all the equipment you need but have you thought about how you are going to look after yourself and make the most of these precious moments? Parenting in the very first few months comes with its own set of challenges but being prepared can make the time with your baby more relaxed and protect your mental health.
Think about how you want to parent
In the early days, particularly if this is your first child, you will be bombarded with well-intentioned, unsolicited but rarely helpful advice! You also have access to the internet which is often filled with opinions and it can be hard to find support grounded in evidence-based facts.
So, having a parenting philosophy before your baby is born will provide you with an anchor from which to make your decisions on how you will care for your baby. You might also be concerned about how your own experience of being parented may impact on your own ability to parent and sessions with a counsellor can help with this.
Think about what kind of a parent you want to be, what did you like or not like about being parented? What do you want to give your child - security, connection, comfort, meaningful relationships, love? So much evidence now points to the first 1,000 days of a child’s life from in utero until just after the age of two as being the most critical to their emotional and social development.
Contrary to opinion, you cannot spoil a baby or a child by always attending to them when they cry or when they want your attention. In fact, the opposite is true. The more you respond to a baby or child’s needs, the more secure they feel in relationships, the better they feel about themselves, they grow to be confident and kind, and they are more able to learn, to name but a few benefits.
The early days of parenting are tough but, if you have a philosophy to guide you, then you will have a vision that will inform the choices that you want to make.
For this to work well, it needs to be a shared philosophy with the person you are parenting with.
What do you need to make your style of parenting possible?
Let’s take sleep, for example. One of the most asked questions is “Are they a good baby?” which often translates into “Are they sleeping through the night yet?”
Questions like this can plant seeds of doubt in your head that you are doing something wrong if your month old baby isn’t sleeping through the night. But, if you are prepared that babies and toddlers are not built to sleep through the night - they need milk and comfort as much in the night as they do in the day, and they have sleep regressions - then you can plan for how to manage your days and nights. You can feel confident in what you are doing, and you can bat those questions back with facts!
If you choose to breastfeed, then read as much as you can about it beforehand and make sure your parenting partner does, too. If you feel that you are not being given good advice or being told or encouraged to stop breastfeeding and you don’t want to, then seek out the advice of a breastfeeding support group first. Partners are really important in supporting breastfeeding and one study showed that women were much more likely to keep breastfeeding if they had the support of their partner.
The right tools
If you want to keep your baby close, you might want to look into slings, next to you cots, and parent-facing prams. You might want to think about practical things like having a pram set with a car seat that transfers from car to pram so you don’t have to disturb your baby - definitely something I wish I had with my first child! Make a list of support group contact details and start looking into groups you can attend once baby is on the scene.
Have a birth plan
I’ve met a lot of women who just feel like they will see how it goes on the day. Having a birth plan doesn’t just mean having an idealised vision of how you want your labour to be - it's having a plan A and also knowing what plan B looks like should you have to change course.
Also, think about your non-negotiables, such as keeping the vernix on after the baby is born. From my own observations of listening to and counselling new mums, the level of control they felt in decision making during labour impacted how they perceived their child’s birth and the first few weeks or months of being a parent.
Set realistic expectations
This really starts before baby is born and is an ongoing task throughout parenthood. Having a baby is thrilling, joyful and divine but it's not always a nappy advert and, often, it can feel relentless and days can feel repetitive.
When you are having a hard day, don’t beat yourself up. You are learning and babies can’t help but be demanding.
Everything takes more time with a baby in tow so don’t try to do too much in a day. Set small goals and you are more likely to feel that you have achieved what you set out to do.
Think about how you would like support from family and friends
In a lot of cultures, the women in the birthing woman’s family move into the home for the first 40 days and the woman stays in bed for the first few weeks. That might sound like your idea of bliss or it might fill you with fear so think beforehand about who you want to visit and when. You might want all hands on deck or you might want the first week just to settle in at home by yourselves.
Ask for the kinds of support you would appreciate. People might be able to support you by preparing some meals, bringing across some milk, bread, and biscuits! Ask for help with the laundry, washing the pots or just making you a cup of tea. If you have an older child, maybe they could take them for a walk or to the local park.
Think about what role your partner will play with the baby
Leading bath times, playtimes, taking baby out for a walk, or a contact nap (letting the baby sleep in your arms) can be some of the ways a partner can establish and maintain their connection to your baby.
Rest when you can
Often people say "sleep when baby sleeps" but that’s not always possible! But rest when you can, take a minute to sit down with a coffee, watch a bit of TV or flick through a magazine.
Keep baby close
Keeping baby close means that, often, they sleep better and they are more content. But having the baby close also releases oxytocin in you, which is great for keeping you relaxed. And, if you are breastfeeding, then it helps to bring in and keep up your milk supply, which brings its own peace of mind.
Be nice to each other
It's not a competition on who is the most tired or who has done the most. It can often feel like the other partner has the easier option - being the one who is able to stay at home all day with the baby or going out for coffee with other parents; or being able to pick up your coat and keys and go to work without a baby to attend to all day.
Recognise that you are both working hard. Find ways to support each other and accept that sometimes your partner will be grumpy after a hard day or night.
Self-care doesn’t always have to be done by you
Self-care often looks like taking a nice bath, painting your nails or popping on a face mask; all things you do for yourself. Don't be afraid to ask for a lie-in, a cup of tea or some breakfast in bed.
Find your parent tribe
You might be able to establish this before baby is here if you have made friends at antenatal classes, for example, but reach out to other parents too in either online groups or physical groups. It gives you a chance to be with adults in the day as most of your current friends will be working in the day.
It's a chance to share tips and concerns. It's great if some of the parents have babies a few months older than yours as it can help you think about planning ahead. It's a chance to share your joys and achievements and it breaks up the day and reduces feelings of isolation. It's good for your baby to be out and about as it gives them some different stimulation, too.
Signs of perinatal mood disorder (PMD)
As a woman's body adjusts to not being pregnant any more, changes in hormones can make them very tearful. There is also lots to process after the birth; it's an experience like no other. As a new parent, you have just been born into a new role too so be gentle with yourself.
You might not feel the connection with your baby straight away. Keep baby close and give yourself some time. You haven’t failed. If you are still feeling low or struggling to connect with your baby, reach out to your partner, family members or friends, speak to your HV.
The onset of PMD can happen in the first weeks up until the first year of the arrival of the baby. Keeping these feelings to your self increases the symptoms, so make sure that you get help and you have others to back you up. This message is important for partners too who can also experience birth trauma and PMD. Your GP might prescribe some medication and you might want to access counselling too.
Preparing before the baby is born can make such a big difference to how the first weeks and months go. As the saying goes, "The days are long but the years are short" so try and enjoy this time as much as you can.