New parents often experience a mixture of emotions, from feelings of complete elation to overwhelm and stress. New mothers and fathers are often anticipating what they hope parenting a new infant will look like, and sometimes their visions don’t line up with reality. There is often so much excitement that goes into the planning and preparation for a little one, that some of the key ingredients for parental self-care are overlooked. Remember the adage, if we don’t first attend to our own needs, how can we help someone else? New mothers and fathers are literally caring for the needs of an infant 24/7. Also to add in factors of sibling adjustment, hormonal changes, sleep deprivation, and attention to other household responsibilities. This can create a perfect storm for fatigue, stress, or anxiety.
Take this scenario of a new mother of a 2 month old infant. When she enters the therapy room, it appears that she has been crying, her eyes are puffy and red. Her hair is stringy and uncombed, and she looks like she hasn’t had proper sleep in days. She looks like a new parent. Sleep deprived, emotional, stressed. What happened to the picture perfect image of the new mother with a rosy complexion, smile beaming on her face, holding a sweet sleeping infant in her arms? What about the side of becoming a parent that isn’t so “picture perfect?”
Client: It’s my second pregnancy, and I’ve been experiencing a lot of stress and anxiety. I was diagnosed with Gestational Diabetes during my pregnancy. I am getting frequent headaches, have low blood sugar, and have to check my glucose levels every few hours. It was so hard to go on a diet in the 3rd trimester, right around Christmas time. I often felt dizzy in an instant, and needed to sit down. I had to eat every 2 hours to keep my sugar levels up.
My son arrived 3 weeks early, he was close to 8 pounds, and was not premature. It was early February and flu season, so they limited visitors and his older sister was not allowed to visit. Since he was born with low blood sugar they had to come into the room to rub sugar on his gums every 2 hours. He was also blue and cold most of the night, so I snuggled with him right beside me.
Soon after bringing my son home, I began to have daily migraine headaches, I’ve had trouble focusing, and can’t eat. I experience frequent anxiety with racing thoughts, along with panic and fear of leaving the house. It was a struggle to even make it to this appointment today. I don’t know that much about postpartum anxiety and depression, but I understand that something serious is affecting my mind and body.
Therapist: There is a lot of change that happens after having a baby. These changes can really take a toll on your mental, emotional, and physical health. Many women experience hormonal fluctuations, in addition to stresses on the body due to recovery.
Client: Yes, and my partner doesn’t know what to do either. He is trying to help me, but often feels at a loss. The most he can do is take the baby from me for a while so I can rest.
Therapist: Yes, partners may experience anxiety or depression as well, due to changes in routine, and adjusting to a new life after baby. Even though this is your second baby, this period is always an adjustment, and each pregnancy and postpartum period can look very different. It is good that you are getting support from your partner. Also seeking out help extended family, or community can be beneficial for you. Sometimes it can just be a struggle to feel the ability to connect with your infant, while taking care of yourself. This is why self care becomes especially important during this time.
Client: I really haven’t been able to take care of myself. I feel that the baby needs me so often, I barely have time to rest. When I do have time, I often don’t sleep because I feel so anxious.
Therapist: Anxiety will certainly interfere with your ability to sleep, and sleep is lacking anyway due to being a new parent. It is a vicious cycle. Even if you don’t sleep, doing a calming, self-soothing activity will help. Try to fully engage your senses. Light a candle, use aromatherapy, eat a nutritious snack, do some knitting or needlework (relaxes and calms the body through repetitive movement).
Client: I do have some aromatherapy and I enjoy relaxing in the bath. I hardly get the time for myself, but when I do, it does calm me down to take a warm bath and experience the aromas. I also like taking a walk around the block, with baby in the stroller. He will often sleep while I push him.
Therapist: Excellent, exercise is very productive as well, and often puts anxiety to constructive use. It is hard to maintain anxious thoughts when you are walking at a brisk pace. Plus the endorphins help to neutralize adrenaline response. Additionally, getting enough exercise promotes healthier sleep habits, as well.
Client: Yes, I agree. When put more time into my self-care, I don’t feel as overwhelmed or depleted. Then I can truly rest and relax.
Therapist: Good. Let’s start here, we will also work on re-directing some of those anxious thoughts that can interfere with your self-care practices.
Remember, the picture perfect image of the “glowing new parent” can be a hard to obtain reality. The truth is, this is a stressful period in life, and a lot of changes are taking effect. It doesn’t mean that you are not a “good parent” or that you don’t love your baby. Being kind to yourself is just as essential for your well-being, so you can feel replenished and able to give that loving care back to your child.