Nursing, burping, changing poop-filled diapers, learning how to put your infant to sleep, coping with the after effects of delivery, feeling like your body is no longer your own, sleep deprivation – there are so many things to do and so much of it is so new after giving birth. New motherhood is fraught with the challenges of what is essentially both a transitional period as well as the addition of another role to a woman’s life. It’s no wonder that self-care often falls by the wayside.
Whenever I see a new mother (defined by having given birth in the last year, inclusive of all first/second/third time mums) in my office, and ask about how they are feeling and taking care of themselves, I usually get a half-smile and a scoffing sound. They indicate that they know that self-care is what they “should” be practicing but for one reason or another, can’t. According to Barkin and Wisner (2013), unhealthy degrees of selflessness, which is also associated with good parenting, can also get in the way of setting boundaries and caring for your own self. This then can lead to feeling like a failure perpetuating an unhealthy cycle of negative thinking.
Hence, self-care of new mums needs to start with a very basic NESTS plan:
- Nutrition: are you eating 3 meals and a few snacks a day? Keeping a healthy snack bag handy for home as well as for when you head out is crucial to maintain energy levels. Give yourself permission to accept food from family and friends, and to plan and prep for meals ahead of time.
- Exercise: start with 5 minutes a day after clearance from your doctor and if you feel like doing more, go for it! Start with something you have enjoyed in the past eg dancing, walking, yoga and you will notice a small but remarkable change in your energy and emotions.
You can take baby along for a walk in the carrier or stroller or even for a fun mum and baby yoga class.
- Sleep and rest: new mums are highly attuned to their babies and newborns can be very noisy sleepers! So if you find yourself being highly alert to the slightest movement or sound from baby when they’re asleep, try and hand over your sleeping baby to another caregiver to look after and get some rest yourself.
- Time for yourself: this is the hardest part as it is the most guilt inducing. Try taking short breaks through the day instead of hoping for a long one, or cutting further back on sleep to get some me-time. Even if it is 10 minutes to sit by yourself and drink a cup of tea or taking 15 mins to chat with a friend, it will help you feel like yourself again.
Reading books or watching fun shows on TV when breastfeeding is also a good way to unwind.
- Support: the benefits of a good support system is incalculable – it may be someone you trust who looks after the baby while you eat, sleep or shower; they maybe friends who drop off healthy food on a regular basis. Line up some friends who will check in on you regularly.
Motherhood can be lonely and a group of new mums whom you can check in with, people who will be awake at 2 am when you are – is invaluable and Singapore offers many new mother support groups. Having a team of medical support – a great gynaecologist for you, a paediatrician you trust, a lactation consultant and/or a postpartum doula, a confinement nanny, a therapist – you can rely on for solid advice can feel hugely supportive to new mums. There are several services in Singapore that offer free or low cost support.
Make a list of your support system while still pregnant and let them know specific ways they can be of help after the baby arrives.
If implementing these habits feel exceptionally challenging, consider if any of the following are getting in your way:
- Limited time and resources: several women reported not having time for themselves upto two years after birth. Some described the struggle of managing on a small budget (Barkin and Wesner, 2013).
- Difficulty setting boundaries: some women say that there are there too many visitors coming around to hold the baby or an overbearing confinement nanny who completely takes over and does not let them do anything for the baby. Consider saying no and asking for what you need – whether it is someone holding the baby while you eat, sleep, shower or unwind or whether it is supporting you to hold the baby while they clean, cook or help otherwise. It may sometimes mean educating people around you that support means caring for the mother as much as caring for the baby.
- Difficulty accepting help: many women described their own behavior as a barrier to effective self-care. Despite having people willing to lend a hand, they were unable to fully trust their partner/husband to take care of their child even though they had been fully capable in the past. Guilt can also be a factor in difficulty placing a high priority on their own needs and setting boundaries (Barkin and Wesner, 2013). Managing the guilt complex with the help of a therapist can be a good starting point.
As a new mum it is vital to be compassionate towards yourself and your struggles. Take it slow – one day at a time and lower your expectations of what you can accomplish in a day. Most significantly, remember to enjoy your baby and know that there will come a day when things will get easier and you will feel like yourself again.
MSc (Counselling Psychology)
MSPS, Registered Psychologist