Becoming a parent can be one of the most rewarding and challenging things that happens in life. It’s not unusual for a new parent to talk about how much they love their baby one minute, only to be longingly thinking back on how uncomplicated pre-baby life was the next. But can we really blame new parents for feeling slightly confused (and perhaps sceptical) about the ‘joys’ of parenthood? After all, the arrival of a new baby brings with it a series of major adjustments.
There are physical changes to navigate, like new sleep patterns (read: exhaustion). There are psychological adjustments, with many new parents feeling overwhelmed with a sense of responsibility and many new mums transitioning from an established career to learning a whole new set of skills and feeling less competent.
Then there are the everyday challenges of caring for a new baby. And yes, while we all have a natural parenting instinct to nurture, protect and care for our little ones, it doesn’t mean that we will necessarily know what to do as soon as our babies are born. It really is no wonder that the transition to parenthood can be so challenging emotionally, often leading to feelings of self-doubt, guilt, isolation and loneliness. While this can take a toll on all parents, new mums are particularly at risk of experiencing mental health difficulties which makes it even more important for new parents to have lots of social support and good postnatal care during this time.
The ‘Baby Blues’ versus postnatal depression
Even with good support, having a new baby remains stressful and most new mums find themselves experiencing at least some of the symptoms of what is commonly known as The Baby Blues. Symptoms that all fall well within the range of normal include mild sadness, mild anxiety, tearfulness (thanks in part to the cocktail of hormones flowing through a new mum’s body), mild mood swings and irritability. The Baby Blues peak around one week and taper off again after about 14 days post-birth. Postnatal depression, however, is less common, occurring in about 10-20% of mums at any time during the first year following the birth of their baby.
Postnatal depression shares many of the symptoms of major depression, including feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and helplessness. It includes feelings of intense sadness that can affect eating and sleeping patterns. Also feelings of intense guilt and self-blame when you can’t soothe your baby or figure out what their needs are. Postnatal depression can also lead to intense feelings of anxiety and panic, that can then lead to you to feeling overwhelmed. Feelings of isolation from those who care for you, as well as indifference to your baby (or feeling like there is no bond) are also symptoms.
Parenthood is a massive adjustment and new mums are understandably vulnerable during this challenging transition. But how do we help them? And how can new mums best care for themselves?
Many new parents wish their antenatal classes had focused less on pregnancy and birth and more on what life would actually be like with their baby. Generally, parents feel unprepared for the postnatal period or find they had unrealistic expectations. This causes a drive for information, but with so much advice out there, wading through it all can make things even more stressful.
Running the information gauntlet works best when you look to the experts (for example, your midwife or GP, and other health-related agencies); look to people you trust; look to people in the same boat; and look to your own instincts and values.
Just making it out the front door can be a challenge with a new baby, let alone forming a plan to go out somewhere. But all parents need nourishing social contact on a daily basis. Making time for existing relationships or mustering up the courage to form friendships with other new parents can go a long way to provide the emotional and practical support so desperately needed.
Community is so important. Research suggests that joining a parenting group is one of the most effective ways to receive emotional and practical support, as well as helpful information. There is also a thriving parenting community online, not surprisingly, which can be especially helpful during those loneliest of times when the rest of the world is either asleep or very busy.
New mothers are encouraged to lean on friends and family members for support, accepting all offers of help, but that’s often easier said than done. It takes sensitivity on the part of the giver and acceptance on the part of the receiver. When we offer help to a new mum, be that food, hanging out washing or taking baby for a walk, we need to keep in mind that it could be hard for her to allow people into her space, for many different reasons. And when offered help, a new mum could aim to see support as her village coming around her, the way villages have done for generations. That way, helping each other is framed by strength rather than weakness.
And the two golden rules for new mums:
- Prioritise self-care
The better we feel, the more we will enjoy being a parent, so taking care of our mental and physical health, as well as our relationships, is key. Try to stay healthy and active, eating well and getting rest whenever you can. Allow others to take care of you – as challenging as it can be, remind yourself that getting support in this overwhelming season is a gift to you and your baby. And treat yourself – you totally deserve some time for yourself, so prioritise an hour or so to do the things you enjoy, like going for a walk, getting a massage or simply having a bubble bath.
- Give yourself time
Try not to expect too much from yourself during this season. It’s a time of transition and the most important thing is connecting with your new baby. Relax, observe and enjoy what your baby is doing, noticing and enjoying as they develop.