Somewhere in the throes of the early months with a newborn, every new mama finds herself stretched too thin. The sleepless nights combined with round-the-clock feedings and the stress of trying to keep up with a household’s busy schedule can quickly wear a woman down. Suddenly, even taking a quick trip to the bathroom seems hard to manage.
But when you’re raising a baby and your body is healing from the stress of labor and delivery, taking care of yourself isn’t just a nice thought. It’s essential.
It turns out, there’s an important reason airlines tell parents to help themselves first before assisting their children. The concept, as it pertains to parenting, notably showed up in the book Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, in which Christine Carter, PhD, suggests that parents can do their children well—even best—by identifying ways to take care of themselves first.
“Moms should not feel guilty for investing in themselves. Rather they should feel obligated to do so,” says Brad Imler, PhD, president of the American Pregnancy Association. You obviously want the best for your baby, but if you take on the expectation that you must be the one to meet your baby’s every need, you’re depleting your own well-being, he says.
Here are nine simple ways to get the care, help, rest and personal rejuvenation you need …
Feed yourself every time you feed your child.
Whether it’s a handful of trail mix you keep by the nightstand for middle-of-the-night nursing or a bowl of slow-cooked steel cut oatmeal for breakfast, try to eat something every time (or almost every time) you feed your baby. It might be easier to skip meals, but you owe it to your recovering body—and to your baby—to take care of yourself. Plus, if you’re nursing, getting adequate nutrition is essential for milk production.
Make a refreshment list.
Set aside 10 minutes, and write down everything you can think of that you enjoy. List items and activities that feed your soul, put a smile on your face and make you feel relaxed or inspired. Some ideas might include a warm bath with candles, a good book, cooking a leisurely meal, knitting, gardening or going for a hike.
Anytime you find yourself drained, frazzled or running on empty, refer to the list to find something that will give you a boost.
Carve out some alone time.
A little alone time—30 minutes here, a few hours there—can work wonders for ground- ing yourself and putting things in perspective. But how is that going to happen, you may ask, while you’re attached to your baby for hours on end? Talk with your partner or friends about ways you can regularly do something that’s just for you while knowing your child is in good hands.
Then let go of the guilt. Taking time to work out or have coffee with a friend does not make you any less of a mom. In fact, according to Kelley Hanrahan, MD, OB/ GYN and division head at Minor & James Medical Group in Seattle, “If she is happier and more attentive with her newborn as a result, that should be viewed as more of an accomplishment than a failure. The indirect benefit to the baby is that you are feeling happier and less tired, which leads to better bonding.”
Get up and move.
Some people find energy and rejuvenation through exercise. Others can’t seem to drum up enough willpower to tie on gym shoes and step outside the door. But the reality is that we all need fresh air to get our blood flowing. “I used to put my daughter in the stroller and walk to get coffee daily,” says Christina Witteman, mom of two in Seattle. “It gave us both fresh air, and it was nice for me to see other adults.”
Take advantage of these summer months, and get your body moving a little each day, even if it’s just up and down the block at first. In addition to the physical perks, your mental health will benefit from the endorphins as well.
Sleep when the baby sleeps.
It’s one of the most frequent pieces of parenting advice for a reason: “Being tired makes [new] moms feel more stressed and less able to handle the challenges of having a newborn,” says Siobhan Dolan, MD, March of Dimes medical advisor and co-author of Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby: The Ultimate Pregnancy Guide. “They may lack the energy needed to eat well and exercise and are more likely to feel depressed, tense and irritable.”
That’s enough reason to prioritize sleep. But if snoozing in chunks and napping around the clock is difficult for you, there are other ways to get rest, too. Consider asking your partner to give you an occasional night off—a full night to sleep as long as you can in a quiet room with ear-plugs. Have someone watch the baby while you take an extended daytime nap. And even if you can’t sleep, skip the chores, and let yourself just relax with a book or favorite TV show.
Process your experience.
Birth seldom looks exactly like we envision it. Ideally, you’ll end up with an experience you’re happy with, but if things take a different course, you may find yourself not only recovering from the physical effects of birth but also coping with the emotional experience. Give yourself permission—as well as the time and space—in the early weeks to process your experience, good or bad.
Maybe you need a creative outlet to help with expressing your emotions. Try drawing, painting or writing out the details as vividly as you can while they’re still fresh. Journal your thoughts and emotions. Also talk through them with your partner, a friend, support group or healthcare provider.
Seek a change of scenery.
With at least eight feedings a day in those early weeks, new moms spend a lot of time sitting inside the home. A change of scenery can work wonders as you adjust to the changes that come along with motherhood.
Brainstorm outings you can take with your baby, from walking to your local library to driving to a park across town. For Cortny Helmick, mom of one in Seattle, going out to eat at nearby restaurants was the best way to get out and about. “Sleeping newborns are really easy to have out, and it made me feel human to dress in real clothes and have good food,” she says. “We would go early, choose places that weren’t crowded and keep the baby away from people.”
Keep up appearances.
Beauty may only be skin deep, but maintaining your daily rhythms can be helpful for your sense of well-being. If you need a shower to help you wake up or need to get dressed in something other than yoga pants to feel ready for the day, then do it.
It may seem difficult to find the time at first, but if you identify a handful of small priorities that are musts for your daily routine, you’ll figure out ways to make them happen. Rest assured, you won’t be the first mom to sing to her newborn from the shower stall or make up a silly song-and-dance while brushing her teeth.
Embrace your community.
It’s easy to feel lonely or isolated when you have a newborn, but establishing a support system can allow you to feel connected and looked after. Even before you give birth, reach out to people or groups who would be willing to help you and available to spend time with you in the early weeks with baby. You might include family members and friends, as well as new mom support groups. Contact your hospital or place of worship to find out about its program offerings, and don’t discount the online community’s endless social outlets as well.
Although your to-do list is already a mile long, adding these key tasks promises to make getting it all done more manageable. With practice, taking care of your baby will become second nature—and so will taking care of yourself.