Taking Good Care of Yourself Postpartum
It’s one of the most important things you can do for yourself and your child
Most new parents are shocked by the amount of time and energy it takes to care for a newborn, far more than they realized. It’s all too easy to get burned out during the postpartum period by devoting all your time and energy to the baby and neglecting yourself. One of the important things to remember is that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, so you need to pace yourself. There are several key areas of self-care that can help new mothers sustain the intense work of parenting rather than burning out and becoming overwhelmed early on.
Remember the metaphor of the oxygen mask. When explaining to travelers about what to do if the cabin in an aircraft depressurizes during a flight, attendants always say, “If you’re traveling with someone who depends on you, put on your own mask first before trying to help them put on theirs”. This is also true of being a parent. If you devote all your time to taking care of your child and none to yourself, you’ll collapse and not be there to help them when they need you. This is why taking good care of yourself is also the best thing for your child.
- Time for Yourself
- Stop Comparing!
- Seek and Accept Support
- Make Sure to Notice the Positives
Adequate sleep is essential to recovery from childbirth and maintenance of physical and emotional health during the postpartum period. Good sleep can help new parents sustain motivation, clear thinking, a sense of humour, and perspective on the fact that the chaos of the first few months postpartum will not last forever. In contrast, sleep deprivation can lead to intense negative mood states (sadness, anxiety, anger), confused thinking, lack of energy and motivation, and an inability to get perspective that “this too shall pass”.
New parents sometimes feel that when family and friends visit after the birth of a baby, they need to present a tidy house, a clean and content baby, and entertain the visitors. In fact, when family and close friends visit is an ideal time for new moms to sleep, and this should be the priority, especially in the first six weeks. If possible, before the baby’s born, try to set up a regular schedule of visits from people you trust and feel close to, who can watch the baby for a few hours during the day while you sleep. This will make it possible to catch up a bit on the sleep you’re missing during the day. For more tips on getting enough sleep, see the WRHA website (PDF) for some helpful tips.
If you’re having trouble sleeping even when you have a chance to do so, behavioural sleep strategies can be very helpful. For a list of some of these strategies, see http://anxietycanada.com/articles/tool-8-sleep-new-moms/.
Relaxation is more than just not doing anything. Many people consider watching TV, playing video games, and similar activities to be relaxing. Although these types of activities might be enjoyable and provide a mental escape from stressful things in life, they may not count as true relaxation strategies.
Relaxation strategies are techniques that produce a relaxation response in your body. A relaxation response is the opposite of a stress response (the “fight or flight” response that is triggered when your body is preparing to face a threat). The relaxation response can be produced by many different relaxation strategies. Although these strategies are not difficult, they do require practice at first. Try to set aside a few minutes per day to practice a relaxation strategy you like, and over time you will get better at it. Doing a relaxation strategy every day can lower your overall level of daytime stress. Here are links to two easy to use relaxation strategies you can try:
Be realistic about what you expect of yourself. There are many ideas and beliefs in our society about motherhood that can lead women to be overly critical and have unrealistic expectations of themselves. These unrealistic expectations can set you up to feel like a failure when you are actually doing just fine. See Myths of Motherhood for some examples.
Time for Yourself
It might seem like an impossible task, but try to set aside a bit of time for yourself every day, even if it’s just 15 or 20 minutes. Use that time to do something you find relaxing and that you enjoy for it
’s own sake. Even a short break devoted to something you enjoy, like a warm bath, a cup of hot chocolate, or reading, can help you feel recharged and more able to cope. Do not use that time to accomplish tasks that need to get done, like loading the dishwasher or folding laundry – those things can create a positive feeling of accomplishment, but will not help to recharge your energy day to day. Having a short break daily to do something you enjoy will help you to not burn out over the first 2-3 months, which are often the most difficult of the postpartum period as they are the steepest learning curve. This is one way of pacing yourself.
There are many different ways to be a good mother, not just one. Just because someone else is doing things differently doesn’t mean your way is wrong. Because there’s so much to learn when you become a mother, many women doubt themselves and question what they’re doing, leading to uncertainty and anxiety. One of the big problems with comparing is that you’re comparing how you feel with how others look outwardly, which is comparing apples to oranges. Those other mothers may have just as many doubts and worries as you, but they cover it up (just like you probably do) because they might also be anxious about what others think of them.
Seek and Accept Support
Being home alone with a baby can be lonely and isolating. Seek and accept offers to connect with other people who are supportive, even if you might not feel like it. Help can come in different ways; emotional support, help with watching the baby while you sleep or get necessary tasks done, or help with household chores or cooking. Every time you accept help from others, it’s an investment in you being able to maintain your stamina over time.
Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for or accept help. Make a resolution with yourself – if someone asks, do you need any help, always say yes, and give them a suggestion of what they can do. The exception to this is people in your life who are not supportive or who only help with strings attached. You don’t need any extra drama in your life, so it makes sense to politely decline offers of help from others who are likely to make you regret letting them help. There are also many mothers’/parents’ groups available in the community for support and information; your Public Health Nurse will be an excellent resource in letting you know what is available in your area of the city or province.
Make Sure to Notice the Positives
Negative thinking can wear anyone down emotionally over time. Try to make sure that in addition to noticing all the challenges you face, you also notice the positives. When feeding, bathing, or settling the baby to sleep goes well, take note of it and give yourself a pat on the back.
After a new baby arrives, things can be so busy that it might seem hard to make time for good nutrition. Meal planning and food preparation take time. However, good nutrition is more important now than ever. Your body is recovering from nine months of pregnancy (creating a new person!), the ordeal of childbirth, and possibly creating milk for breastfeeding. You need very good nutrition during this time to recover and to maintain your physical and emotional health.
Following are some tips about how to keep eating healthy during this busy time:
- When people ask if they can do anything to help, say yes! Ask them to drop off healthy, easy to cook/prepare meals that you can use when you have no time to cook or are just too tired to do so.
- Keep healthy foods on hand that are quick and easy to eat. Eating healthy does not mean you have to find time to cook. Many healthy foods are quick and easy. Raw fruits and vegetables, Greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, raw nuts (not roasted, salted, or sugar-coated), nut butters, and hummus can be kept in the house for an easy and quick snack anytime. If you live somewhere that fresh fruit and vegetables are not available, frozen is usually just as healthy, and can be less expensive because there is less risk of waste due to spoiling. Canned fruit or vegetables are also an option if fresh and frozen are not available.
- Keep some healthy items in the pantry that can be used anytime and won’t spoil, like canned tuna and salmon, low-sodium soups, lentils and other legumes, and quinoa.
- It’s just as healthy (and probably even healthier) to eat many small snacks throughout the day, rather than a few large meals, as long as the snacks are healthy. There is no need to prepare an elaborate meal. If you don’t feel hungry at all, try to eat small amounts of food and drink some fluids every 2-3 hours to keep up your energy.
- When you do cook, prepare large batches so you can store extra in the fridge or freezer to reheat another day.
- If you’re breastfeeding, expect to be hungrier and thirstier than usual. Do not restrict what you eat to try to lose the baby weight faster! If you don’t eat and drink enough, your energy will be low and your milk supply won’t be as good. If you’re eating healthy food and getting regular physical exercise, you will lose the baby weight over time.
- Try to make sure everything you eat is healthy, so your body can use it. Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of protein are key elements to healthy eating. Getting enough protein does not have to mean eating meat, which can take time to prepare. Easy, nutritious sources of protein include legumes (lentils, black beans), cheese, Greek yogurt, and canned tuna or salmon.
- Try to avoid eating foods that are high in sugar or very processed. High sugar foods can give you a quick energy boost, but this energy often wears off fast and leaves you feeling more tired than before. Try not to buy junk food if you can help it; once you’ve bought it, you’re probably going to eat it.
- Water and low-fat milk are better choices for fluid intake than fruit juice, which is very high in sugar. It’s much healthier to eat a piece of fruit, which will give you fiber and other nutrients, and drink a glass of water, than it is to drink fruit juice.
- Pay attention to your caffeine intake. Caffeine is found in coffee, many teas, many sodas, energy drinks, and chocolate. It is usually not necessary to avoid all caffeine, but try to limit intake to two cups of coffee or less daily. Note: a “cup” of coffee refers to a measurement cup (250 ml or 8 ounces), not the typical oversized coffee drinks that are popular in many coffee shops. For example, a Starbucks “Short” coffee and a Tim Horton’s “small” coffee are both 8 ounces. Caffeine is a stimulant that can increase anxiety and make it hard to sleep, so if you’re having problems with either anxiety or sleep, try to avoid any caffeine.
- Even though healthy eating is important, it’s okay to treat yourself sometimes, including with food. If there’s a treat you really enjoy, go ahead and have it once in a while. Occasional indulgences can make it easier to stick to healthy eating the rest of the time.
- Dial-a-Dietitian is available to answer questions and provide easy to use advice on food and nutrition to assist Manitobans, and their families, to eat well, live well and stay healthy. Contact them in Winnipeg at 204-788-8248 or Toll Free at 1-877-830-2892.
Regular physical exercise has proven benefits for physical and emotional health. It can improve sleep, concentration, mood, and anxiety. Exercise does not need to be prolonged and intensive to be helpful. Even light exercise such as a 15-minute walk daily can help. You probably feel that you have no time to exercise with a new baby in the home, but there are some ways to make it more realistic:
- Many gyms have free child
- Baby and me yoga classes or stroller fitness classes can provide exercise and a social outing to meet other new moms.
- Walking outside with the stroller provides interesting things to look at for your baby, and some exercise for you. At any time of year but especially in colder seasons, some shopping malls offer early access before regular hours and welcome you to walk with your stroller.
- Walking anywhere or doing household chores while wearing your baby in a carrier is like exercising with a special weight on.
- Try to find a buddy to exercise with – it’s usually easier to follow through with things if you make a commitment to someone else as well as yourself.
Mindfulness refers to a state of mind in which you focus on what is happening in the present moment and accept it for what it is, without judgment. This is in contrast to focusing on things from the past or on possible future scenarios and judging yourself or others. Thinking about regrets from the past, or worries about the future, can distract from enjoying the present and can increase sadness, anxiety, and anger. Many people find that mindfulness exercises help them to enjoy their lives more and live in the moment, rather than living in the past or worrying about the future. For more information about mindfulness, check out the following link: https://anxietycanada.com/articles/tool-7-mindfulness-new-moms/
From time to time, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Winnipeg and the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba run courses on mindfulness. See https://mbwpg.cmha.ca/programs-services/learning-centre/mindfulness-based-stress-reduction/ or http://www.mooddisordersmanitoba.ca/services/CoursesandIntensives/ for information about course registration.
In addition, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy with Mindfulness classes have been set up in a number of sites in Winnipeg and beyond to improve access to cognitive behavioural therapy in Manitoba. Learn more about these classes and where they are offered at http://cbtm.ca/.
Some individuals benefit greatly from using mindfulness apps. The following free apps are recommended:
- MindShift CBT – Anxiety Canada
- Stop, Breathe & Think
- Mindfulness Coach
- Calm in the Storm: Stress Management and Relaxation