Becoming a mother is one of the biggest changes that someone will go through in their life. A woman’s brain goes through several neurological changes once she becomes pregnant and then again once her baby is born. According to a review of research on the maternal brain, Dr. Jodi Pawluski found that during pregnancy and postpartum, women’s brains are at their most plastic (meaning they can adapt and reorganize due to experience). Some argue that the amount of change your brain will undergo as you become a mother is akin to the growth of a child’s brain in their first year of life.
In my work as a psychotherapist in Washington, DC with women during the perinatal period (meaning pregnancy and the year following the birth of a child), I speak a lot about this transitionary time. I am also a relatively new mother who has undergone this wonderful and massive change to my own identity when I became a mother three years ago and then again, a year ago.
As someone who thrives when I can plan and have a classic “A type” personality, parenthood took me by surprise. I had to learn to adapt and adjust my expectations for what I could accomplish in one day. For those of you who like to plan and are newly pregnant, or, for those who have recently become parents, I’m sharing some ways to help you take care of yourself so that you can thrive in your new role as a mother.
- Accept Support – As a psychotherapist one of the things I always recommend to new or expecting parents is to accept help. Think about who in your life you can approach for help to meet your different needs. Some areas that might be worth thinking about are emotional support (who can you call when you are feeling overwhelmed), professional support (therapists, pediatricians, lactation consultants, OB/GYN, etc.), task support (make you meals, help you do laundry), and baby support (watch your baby for forty-five minutes so you can do something for yourself). Most of the time people want to help!
- Maintain a Healthy Diet – Try to have three healthy, balanced meals a day (I know this is easier said than done for new parents). If people offer to make you meals, accept them! Plan ahead and freeze meals. I ordered healthy meals from Mighty Meals and Springly – who both deliver in the DMV area. Keep healthy proteins around to give you a quick energy boost – such as nuts or hard-boiled eggs. Lastly, keep yourself hydrated!
- Stay Active – Once you have been cleared by your health-care provider, try to exercise for at least fifteen minutes/day. Plan a time that someone can watch your baby. If that’s not possible, try to get outside for a walk with your baby. In fact, getting outside (even in the winter) can be wonderful for your mental health.
- Get Sleep – This is another one of those “Really?! How do I do that with a newborn?” things. The first few weeks can be challenging – put your thinking cap on to try to problem-solve, because sleep is one of the most restorative things for our mental health. It can start with establishing a consistent bedtime routine to signal to your body it is time for sleep – brush your teeth, wash your face, put on your pajamas, turn on your noise machine and try to stop using your phone ~3 hours before bed. If your baby isn’t sleeping in your room, turn their monitor down to the lowest setting so that you aren’t disrupted every time they move around (babies are noisy sleepers!). Or, if they sleep in a bassinet in your room, try and sleep on the other side of the bed so you aren’t woken up every time they move. If you are chest feeding, try and pump one bottle and have your partner, a friend or nighttime doula give your baby one overnight bottle so you can have a chunk of uninterrupted sleep. If you can afford it – even for one or two nights a week – a night nurse can be incredibly helpful.
- Make Time for Yourself – Try and do something for yourself a few times a week. See if someone will watch your baby while you go and get a tea with a friend, get a manicure, or even go to the grocery store or Target. I have spent a blissful hour walking around Target just to have some ‘me time.’
- Practice Breathing/Guided Meditations – Breathing is one of the greatest tools we have within ourselves to decrease our stress levels with just a little practice. 4-count breathing is excellent for this. I always encourage clients to practice breathing when they are not experiencing intense emotions to get the hang of it and then begin to use it in moments of stress. Intentional breathing is slower and deeper down in your stomach.
- Begin by practicing for a couple minutes 3x/day (you can eventually work-up to 10 minutes)
- Breathe in through your nose for four
- Hold for one
- Breathe out through your mouth for four
- Try different counts (i.e. some people like to breathe in for 3 and out for 3) – see what works best for you
- Some people find it helpful to place one hand on their tummy and one on their chest (you should feel your stomach moving in and out)
- That’s it!
- There are countless guided meditations online or on apps such as insight timer (many for free!). I love anything by Tara Brach, Kristin Neff, or Jon Kabat Zin. Body scan meditations are a particular favorite of mine.
- Seek Professional Help – As with any major transition, receiving professional mental health support can be incredibly helpful in adjusting to your new role. If you have been experiencing anxiety or changes in your mood for more than one month, this can be a good sign it is time to get help.