Image from Science News
I was talking to someone yesterday who was talking about a friend of hers who has just had her first baby and is feeling extremely overwhelmed and sleep-deprived. I sympathised so much, because I found the adjustment to motherhood a real shock, going from being a bright, independent woman in charge of my own destiny and good at what I did, to being an exhausted wreck, totally controlled by the mini-dictator I’d gestated and with no clue what I was doing. Having now been there, twice, it made me think about what advice I wish someone had given me, and what the best things are you can do to help new parents:
Advice for new mums:
1. This too shall pass. Every phase, however draining, dispiriting or demoralising it is at the time, will pass. You will sleep again. You won’t spend all eternity breastfeeding on the sofa in posset-stained pyjamas. Just grit your teeth and repeat it as a mantra.
2. Keeping a brand new and totally dependent human being alive is a full-time, 24/7 job. Do not beat yourself up about all the other things you aren’t doing. So…
3. …Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for help. If you possibly can, get a cleaner, just for the first few months. Now is the time for takeaways, ready meals, and beans on toast for tea. When friends come round, don’t be proud, ask them to unload the dishwasher or pop some clothes in the tumble dryer.
4. Chocolate is your friend.
5. If your baby is getting fed and a few cuddles and is in a relatively clean nappy then you’re doing your job just fine, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
6. Try and get out of the house at least once a day. Even if it’s just to the corner shop. A bit of fresh air will give you a new perspective, and might help with baby sleep as well. But make it an expedition for you – a new baby doesn’t need anything except cuddles and the odd lullaby, so unless you particularly fancy baby massage or baby music classes or baby yoga, then I’d save those activities for when the baby is older and just go and have lunch or coffee with a friend.
7. Now is not the time to worry about ‘getting your body back’. You have just grown an entirely new human being and, if you’re breastfeeding, are exclusively responsible for keeping it alive. You probably aren’t getting much sleep. This is one of the most demanding things you will ever do. Wear comfy leggings and forgiving tunics and eat cake.
8. That moment at 3am when they haven’t stopped cluster feeding for six hours, or when they’re crying and crying and crying and you’ve no idea why, or when they’ve just done an explosive poo all over your last clean outfit, and you scream in rage and frustration that you’ve made a mistake, you wish you’d never had a baby – normal. Totally normal. Doesn’t mean you’re not a good mum. Doesn’t mean you don’t love your baby. Doesn’t mean you really have made a mistake. It just means you’re exhausted and overwhelmed and adjusting to the biggest change of your entire life.
9. After the first few days, if breastfeeding is still really hurting, you need to get some help. It shouldn’t be painful, and there is loads of support available. Your local children’s centre, NCT, La Leche League, National Breastfeeding Alliance – ask for help. But, if you hate breastfeeding, and it’s making you miserable, and you’re reluctant to pick your baby up in case they want feeding, and you feel sick with dread at the thought of doing it for the next six hours let alone the next six months then stop. You might have had a baby, but it’s still your body, and you don’t have to do something that you hate. Your baby will be perfectly fine with formula, and a stressed and unhappy mum won’t make for a happy baby.
10. You know all those people who tell you to “make the most of it” and “treasure each moment”? Ignore them. NO-ONE who’s actually going through it treasures bleeding nipples or surviving on a few hours broken sleep a night, or being constantly covered in bodily fluids. BUT in months and years to come, time will place a soft-focus Instagram filter over your memories, and you suddenly will treasure them. I get a warm glow as I think of sitting in a chair in the corner of my bedroom, breastfeeding my firstborn, gazing out of the window and watching dawn break and revelling in the feeling that me and my precious girl were the only people awake in the world at that moment. That’s over seven years ago. Did I feel like that at the time? Hell no. At the time I was barely awake, and the two functioning brain cells I had were engaged in frantic calculations as to how much sleep I might manage in the rest of the night. “So, if she feeds 20 mins this side, and then 20 mins the other side, and then it takes me 1o minutes to wind her, then I rock her to sleep, I should be able to settle her by 4.30am, and then she might sleep for two hours so I could…” etc. But that’s not the memory I treasure now. You don’t have to worry you’re not enjoying it as much as you should be because hindsight will paint the whole thing with a wonderful rosy glow.
How to help new parents:
1. Don’t question or criticise their decisions relating to the feeding/sleeping/comforting/play routines of their child. So, you think breast-feeding is better, or that bottle feeding would give the new mum a break? Maybe you’re concerned that co-sleeping is dangerous or a separate room places the baby at risk? Did you read that dummies impede speech development or that cloth nappies are better for preventing nappy rash? That’s great, and if you have your own children you can put these theories into action, but when it’s someone else’s baby, keep your opinions to yourself and reassure them that they’re doing a great job. If you are specifically asked for advice then you can share your views, but still proceed with caution!
2. Don’t ask if they want help, just lean in and do something practical. The first time my friend Jenny came to see me and my firstborn she took one look at me and told me to go to bed. I came up with all the reasons I couldn’t – mainly centred round the fact that the baby would need feeding. She ignored me, and shooed me off. I slept for a blissfully restorative three hours while she employed goodness knows what witchcraft to keep my daughter happily distracted.
3. Home-made food is often a more welcome gift than cuddly toys or cute booties (although they’re lovely too!). Take a meal which can go in the freezer, or a cake which keeps well in a tin and will provide 3am sustenance for the next week.
4. Let them talk about the bad stuff if they want to Don’t assume that just because they have the most delectable baby in the world ever that there isn’t stuff they’re struggling with. Let them talk about their traumatic birth, or moan about their exhaustion or confusion or problems breastfeeding, or the fact that they’re really missing work, and don’t say things like “oh yes, but this little one makes it all worth it, doesn’t it?”, because although it does, they’re probably feeling guilty enough already about not feeling totally happy the whole time, and they just need to vent.
5. Tell them they’re doing a good job! One of the things I found hardest was going from a life where I got constant feedback from managers or colleagues to one where it felt like no-one noticed anything I did. Someone noticing something nice I’d done with or for my baby and commenting on it could elevate my mood for days!
But if you feel that you’re not coping, that you can’t cope, that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, or you’re worried your friend is feeling that way, then get help. Post-Natal Depression is common, treatable and nobody’s fault. Any health professional worth the paper their qualification is written on will know that and will be able to get you the support you need.