Your health

Hello, baby

Social support is key to helping parents adjust to changes that come with having a child

baby lying on mom

BY NICOLE NEAULT
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2016

It's no surprise that a new baby brings many changes into a parent's life, and it is expected that parents will go through an adjustment period.

Most parents with a newborn expect to feel tired or overwhelmed at times, and they have heard about the range of emotions that are common for new parents.

However, what does surprise parents in this adjustment period is the intensity of those feelings and experiences. For example, new parents expect to be tired, but they don't anticipate feeling exhausted day after day. They expect to be very busy, but they may not expect to be frequently overwhelmed.

Whether you are a first-time parent or you have several children, each new addition to the family brings change and requires some thoughtful care to make the most of this important time in life.

Joy, fulfillment and love are feelings that most new parents anticipate with the arrival of a baby, and many parents do experience these emotions. It is also very common for new parents to experience frustration, anxiety, anger, sadness, or fear.

These emotions are more difficult to talk about because everyone wants to see happy parents with happy babies. Not acknowledging these more challenging emotions can have a negative impact on parents' adjustment.

Parents with a new baby may experience guilt, shame or disappointment that they are having these negative emotions. All parents need to know that having these feelings once in a while does not make them bad parents. If parents find that they are unable to enjoy very much about parenting, it is important to reach out for support.

Family pressures, social media and "expert" opinions can create tremendous pressure for new parents to be perfect and to get everything exactly right. Many even worry that they risk ruining their child's life if they are not able to do it "perfectly."

Images and stories of idealized family life portrayed in social media and in parenting magazines can contribute to parents' unrealistic expectations, especially for mothers. Messages that motherhood is bliss leave no room for women to accept their reality that may include a fussy infant, challenges with breastfeeding, changes in mood and energy, or a lack of resources or support.

Single parents, parents whose babies have medical concerns, or those living far from supportive family may all feel additional pressures. Another reality is that half of all pregnancies are unplanned; this too can create additional stress on the family. Having realistic expectations of yourself, talking openly about your emotions, and practising self-compassion go a long way toward supporting a smooth adjustment.

The amount of social support families receive during the first year after birth is a significant factor in how well families adjust. Social support may include family, friends, helpful neighbours or community groups for parents. Support can be in the form of practical support like meals and childcare, emotional support such as having someone to talk to, or peer support - which means connecting with other new parents. Research shows that fathers as well often struggle during this time, especially when they feel they are unable to meet the needs and expectations of their partners. They, too, need support and understanding.

There may be some days that parents feel down or may struggle with feelings of anxiety or frustration, perhaps even anger. They may miss the way things used to be or wish that things were different. This is normal and to be expected.

Sometimes, due to lack of sleep and other demands, the ability to tolerate stress is lowered and our resilience is not at its best. That does not necessarily lead to clinical depression or anxiety. The important thing is that we try to do our best on any given day, notice the good and learn from those moments when we feel we may not have been able to do our best. Because the demands are so great for new parents, it is very important to take good care of ourselves and our mental health and well-being at this time.

Every person, couple and baby is unique, and there are adjustments for everyone. It is very important to make time for self-care, use a support network and find your own best way to adapt to parenting. It is also important to remember that what can at times be the most difficult job in the world can also be the most rewarding.

Here are some helpful tips for parents, partners, and family members:

Be accepting

Acknowledge and accept your feelings, even the difficult ones, like anger and frustration. Accepting our feelings can help us to manage them in positive ways. Writing, drawing, singing, physical movement, or talking to someone that we trust are helpful ways to express and deal with our feelings.

Create a support system

Everyone needs and deserves a variety of supports to be able to raise a healthy child. Reaching out and connecting with friends, family or community supports or resources can reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation. Don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it or if someone offers, whether you just need to talk or you need help with child care or housekeeping.

Take care of yourself

Set aside some time every day to take care of yourself, even if it is only 15 minutes. Do something that makes you feel good, warm, safe or nurtured. You can include activities that are good for your heart, mind, and body. For example, a warm cup of tea, strolling in the park, or listening to your favourite music.

For couples, make some time to nurture your relationship. Set aside time to do something together even if it is staying home and watching a movie or enjoying a nice meal together. 

Eat well and sleep often

When we are stressed or anxious, we can forget to nourish our body with food. Remember to eat regularly and avoid sugar - it can cause mood swings. Take time to rest or relax throughout the day, especially if your sleep during the night is interrupted. 

Think positive

Each new day provides an opportunity to acknowledge positive things that we have experienced. Take the time to notice your successes and the moments that bring you joy, like when your baby smiled at you. Keeping a positive outlook helps us bounce back from disappointments and challenges. Negative thoughts and emotions can deplete our energy resources and can lead to anxiety and depression.

Accept that there will be good days and bad days; parenting is a process, not an event. Adjusting to a new baby takes time and there is no "perfect." Do the best you can each day. Remember that we are all unique and we gain more skills and confidence as we grow as parents. 

When to get help

If you find that you are experiencing sadness and/or anxiety for more than two weeks, or you are concerned about a loved one's ability to cope and manage their daily activities, it is important to seek help from a doctor or other health-care professional.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of harming themselves or their baby, or is in crisis, go to the Winnipeg Health Region's Crisis Response Centre at 817 Bannatyne Avenue or call the Mobile Crisis Service at 204-940-1781 (24/7).

Nicole Neault is a mental health promotion facilitator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: November / December 2015

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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