Looking after Yourself (Self Care)

For many new parents there is a stark contrast between what life was like ‘pre-baby’ compared to ‘post-baby’. For most individuals life ‘pre-baby’ is typically filled with work, hobbies, time with family and friends and other commitments. After having a baby, the opportunities for mental, emotional and social stimulation decrease significantly in a lot of cases. Priorities shift and your own sense of independence and freedom changes as well. Many new mums in particular, find themselves at home for extended periods of time, without adult company. This can increase the sense of loneliness that is often experienced and can also contribute to the rise of emotions such as frustration, depression and a general sense of feeling disconnected from others. For all these reasons, and more, it is essential that parents look after their own needs, as well those of their children. There is no denying the fact that it can be difficult to juggle the demands of parenthood and also find time to look after yourself. The reality is that there will always be something else that you ‘could be doing’, so taking some time out to look after yourself will only happen if you make it a priority.

What is self-care? Well, self-care means different things to different people, so a good starting point may be to have a think about what are some of the things that you usually enjoy doing and/or that make you feel happier and more relaxed? Think about some positive/happy times you have had; what was it about these experiences that helped you feel good? Has it been a while since you’ve had some time to yourself or time with friends? Having time away from your baby/children usually requires thought and planning and can be difficult to organize depending on the level of support you have available, so it is helpful to think about what might be some things you could do that don’t necessarily involve a lot of time, money or a babysitter.

What can I do to look after myself at this time?

It is important that you look after yourself physically, emotionally, mentally and socially. Doing so will help you feel happier, stronger and replenished, instead of drained and depleted. Some suggestions on ways you can take care of yourself include:

  • Look after your eating habits: Many new parents’ eating habits are altered during the perinatal period. Time constraints, hormonal and mood changes all play a part in this. If you are struggling to find time to prepare food for yourself having some healthy snacks such as yoghurt or nuts on hand can be helpful. Keeping a bottle of water handy is also useful as dehydration can make you feel irritable and tired. Try and limit convenience foods and high-calorie snacks with little nutritional value. Set realistic goals in regards to your meals/snacks. Healthy, home-cooked food for every meal may not be achievable so don’t be too hard on yourself if this is the case. Can you think of any family/friends that can help with some food preparation? Is it feasible to use a healthy food delivery service for a while? If not, allow room for some quick and easy meals like toasted sandwiches, tuna and rice, especially on the more difficult days.
  • Try and engage in some regular physical activity/exercise: For most people, regular physical exercise is very helpful. It can increase hormone levels that help you feel happy and relaxed, while also getting you out of the house into the fresh air and sunshine. It can be helpful to schedule in some exercise time. This does not mean that you have to join the gym or take on any strenuous activities. It can be something as simple as a walk with the baby in the pram. Many people prefer a gentler approach to exercise, such as breathing exercises, meditation or a yoga class. Many websites and phone apps are also now available which provide short guided meditations or relaxation exercises, some specifically designed for new parents. It is important to remember that for many mums, childbirth impacts on pelvic floor function. If you are concerned or unsure about your pelvic floor function seeing a physiotherapist can help. Similarly, if you have any concerns about your physical recovery, it is important to consult a doctor before you undertake any strenuous exercise after birth.
  • Look after your sleep habits: Prolonged sleep deprivation can have an enormous impact. Some general rules for positive sleep hygiene include: where possible go to bed at approximately the same time each day, make the bedroom as restful an environment as possible, avoid screen-time, other stimulating activities and caffeine late in the evening or just before bed, try having a hot shower before bed to help regulate your body temperature for sleep, and if you can’t sleep get up and do something quiet in another room for 20 minutes before trying again.
  • Seek and accept practical support: If somebody offers to do something for you, say yes instead of “Oh no, that’s OK’. If this is not being spontaneously offered, think about who you could ask for some assistance. It is OK for someone to come over and help do the washing, cook a meal or look after the baby/children while you take a hot shower in peace. Try to let go of any reluctance you may have about this.
  • Seek emotional support: try and talk to someone with whom you can express yourself freely without feeling judged. Remember, it’s normal to feel bad sometimes when adjusting to life with a new baby.  If you are feeling lonely tell someone. Even if your family or friends have had children, it is likely that they have forgotten what it was like in those early weeks and months. Speak up and let them know how you are feeling and what would be helpful. Good friends will usually be proactive about catching up and offering help once they know how you are feeling.
  • Try and keep your expectations realistic: avoid media representations of parenting which are often ‘filtered’ and not an accurate representation of reality. On a similar note, try not to make unhelpful comparisons with other parents. Be flexible and realistic when thinking about what you can achieve each day. Accept that on some days nothing on the ‘to-do’ list will get done and that that’s OK. If you and your family are all healthy at the end of the day, does it really matter if the washing/cooking/budgeting didn’t get done?
  • Build a support network and increase your social engagement: This may include joining a playgroup or new parents group. Many new parents find that they make close friends at this stage in life as they go through the experience of new parenthood together. Other ‘mum and bub’ type of activities such as yoga, swimming, story time at the local library or music classes also becoming increasingly popular. Some people like to connect with other parents through various online groups, such as supportive Facebook pages. All of these activities can provide an opportunity to connect with other parents and possibly establish some new friendships.
  • Consider engaging in a project or activity that you can pick up, leave and return to as needed: While engaging in a project requires time and effort and may seem like it is adding to your ‘to-do’ list it can help create a sense of ‘you’ time. You might like to spend some time reading a book, sewing, researching a business idea, sorting through recipes etc. It can be anything you like that will help give you a sense of some ‘you’ time where the focus is on something other than feeding, sleeping, daily schedules. Listening to the radio, music or a podcast can also be helpful in providing a sense of connection with the ‘outside world’, while also providing an opportunity for some mental and emotional stimulation.
  • Include some ‘time out’ for yourself: It is important that parents have a break from the caring role at times. Even taking a few minutes each day to focus on your own wellbeing can help reduce feelings of stress and frustration and can even help to reduce the likelihood of postnatal depression. This might be possible when the baby is asleep, or when someone else is at home to help look after the baby/children. Scheduling regular outings can also do wonders for reducing your sense of loneliness, improving your mood and helping you recharge the batteries. Admittedly, this is not always easy to do. Common barriers include time constraints, limited options in regards to available carers/babysitters (particularly relevant in single parent households), as well as feelings of guilt sometimes experienced by parents driven by the belief that they ‘shouldn’t need’ time out from their family. Generally, ‘time out’ works best if the rest of the family is out of the house, or if the parent can go out themselves. Some families find the best way to create time out is to structure it (i.e., dedicate a set time each week/month for each parent). Common pleasurable activities include: taking part in a class or activity outside the home, taking a relaxing bath, reading a book/magazine, watching a movie, meeting friends for a coffee/lunch/dinner, having a massage or pedicure. What would you like to do?
  • Be Kind to yourself: Finding the time and space to be kind and compassionate to others as well as yourself can be difficult when you are tired, irritable, and juggling multiple demands and roles. High expectations of one’s self or being a ‘perfectionist’ leave little room for self-compassion when things don’t go to plan. Many parents have certain expectations of what parenting will be like; if and when the reality of the situation is different, it can trigger feelings of frustration, anxiety and fear for what ‘might be’. When we make the effort to be kind to ourselves, we given ourselves the opportunity to experience these emotions and accept them without harsh judgement or self-criticism. In essence, we give ourselves the same level of kindness and care we would offer a good friend if they were struggling. How often are you giving yourself the same level of understanding and compassion as you do to others?
  • Seek professional support when needed: If you are struggling to cope with the demands of parenthood, and are noticing yourself feeling sad, flat, teary, anxious, or generally not enjoying parenthood it is probably time to speak to someone. For some people it is helpful to talk to family or friends. At times this may not be helpful or even possible. In such cases talking to a suitable health professional such as a GP, psychologist, child health nurse or a suitable helpline (e.g., PANDA’s National Helpline) is even more vital. Parents often visit their GP or family health nurse for their baby’s needs, but it is important to connect and discuss your own needs as well. Help is available if you reach out.

Summary:

Parents typically put the needs of others first; as a result their own needs become a lesser priority. Sometimes, parents believe that this is what they “should do” in order to be a ‘good parent’. While this is understandable in many ways, it is important to remember that in order to care for those who need and depend on you, you need to take care of yourself as well. Looking after your own physical, emotional and mental health is essential, so that you can care for your baby and family. If your own needs and wellbeing are ignored it is likely that your ability to care for your family will be impacted, as well as your ability to enjoy parenthood.

Exercising, a healthy diet, resting when possible and developing a support network are all steps that can make a big difference in your own self-care. Similarly, connecting with other people and spending some time engaging in activities that help to stimulate the mind and/or replenish the soul are also valuable. Being a parent is hard work and can leave you feeling isolated and depleted at times, so findings ways to ‘fill’ your proverbial cup is necessary. After all, none of us can pour from an empty cup, no matter how hard we try so ask yourself, what else could you be doing to help fill your cup?

References and sources for additional information:

  • Austin M-P., Highet N., and the Expert Working Group (2017). Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline. Melbourne: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.
  • (2011). Clinical practice guidelines for depression and related disorders – anxiety, bipolar disorder and puerperal psychosis – in the perinatal period. A guideline for primary care health professionals. Melbourne: beyondblue: The national depression initiative.
  • Beyondblue (2012).Managing mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood: A guide for women and their families
  • PANDA (2013).Wellbeing and Self Care factsheet: https://www.panda.org.au/images/resources/Resources-Factsheets/Wellbeing-and-Self-Care.pdf

 Disclaimer:

Please note that the information provided in this article, and any associated references, is general and is not intended to be therapeutic in nature. If you feel that you would benefit from additional information, support and/or require urgent assistance please contact your GP, or one of the following services in your state.

Crisis and Support Services

National Services:

Lifeline
13 11 14 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.lifeline.org.au

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA)
1300 726 306 (Monday-Friday 9am – 7.30pm (AEST / ADST)
www.panda.org.au

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline
1800 882 436
https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au

MensLine
1300 78 99 78
https://mensline.org.au/

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
https://www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au/

Additional State Based Services:
Victoria:
Maternal and Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 22 29
Parentline VIC 8am to 12am Monday to Friday, 10am to 10pm weekends 13 22 89

NEW SOUTH WALES:
Karitane Careline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 227 464
Parentline NSW 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 130 052

ACT:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline ACT 9am – 9om Monday to Friday (except public holidays) (02) 6287 3833

QUEENSLAND:
Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 43 25 84
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
Child and Youth Health Service 9am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday 1300 733 606
Parent Helpline SA 24 hours a day, seven days a week 1300 364 100

WESTERN AUSTRALIA:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parent Help Centre WA 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 654 432

NORTHERN TERRITORY:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

TASMANIA:
Parenting Line TAS 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 808 178