This article aims to get you to rethink taking care of yourself, especially after you have a baby. As parents, we put our children first. In many ways, this is our job, but we also need to take care of ourselves. Your identity as a parent does not mean that you should lose yourself as an individual. The healthier you are physically and mentally, the better parent you will be. Start making yourself a priority now, so you build on the practice throughout your parenting journey.
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This article aims to get you to rethink what taking care of yourself looks like. I hope you can see the value in making yourself a priority now, so you build on the practice throughout your parenting journey.
We hear all the time cliché sayings like, “you have to put your oxygen mask on first.” This is a concept we know about, but often we have a hard time putting it into practice. As parents, we put our children first. In many ways, this is our job, but we also need to take care of ourselves. Your identity as a parent does not mean that you should lose yourself as an individual. You have needs too. The healthier you are physically and emotionally, the better parent you will be.
What Taking Care of Yourself Looks Like
When people talk about taking care of themselves or self-care, you may imagine taking a bubble bath or reading a book. Self-care looks different for everyone. You know best what you require to take good care of yourself. That could mean putting on a facemask and taking a bubble bath. It could look like going for a run or watching a funny movie. Think about what refuels you.
I want to challenge you to define what self-care looks like to you. It could be meditating. It could be watching stand-up comedy. It could be going for a drive and blasting music. You may think of self-care as eating a healthy meal, or it could be sitting in front of the TV with a big bowl of ice cream. Not every decision you make is going to be perfect. You should strive for balance, not perfection.
Taking Care of Your Physical Health
There are fundamental building blocks to taking care of your physical health. These are diet, activity, and sleep.
Your diet includes everything you consume daily. In a perfect world, you eat healthy whole foods and limit sugar and processed foods. In reality, you need to find a balance that works for you, which likely means straying from a perfect diet. There are simple things you can do to improve your diet, even when taking care of a newborn.
Planning and Meal Prep
Eating well starts with planning. Before you even go to the grocery store, start thinking about what kinds of meals you want to eat and make a list. You are less likely to buy unhealthier foods if you have a plan and a list when you go to the store.
As a new parent, you will have less free time. Your schedule may be fluctuating as your newborn is adjusting to nursing and sleeping. Even if you love cooking, setting aside time to prepare meals throughout the day can be challenging. One thing you can do to limit the amount of time you are spending preparing and cooking meals is meal prep. By batching the work that goes into preparing meals, you will reduce your time in the kitchen. You don’t have to start trying to make everything ahead for a whole week. Even pre-making lunches for a few days can make a difference.
Planning for Meals Postpartum
If you have space in your freezer to make and freeze meals take advantage of the time you have towards the end of your pregnancy to make meals ahead of time for after you have your baby. You may also consider asking someone to organize a meal train. Friends and family can coordinate dropping off pre-made meals to you in the month or two after you have your baby. This lets your loved ones help out, and you and your partner can enjoy home-cooked meals without the work. There are even websites that help you coordinate.
As a new parent, you will be spending a lot of time holding your baby, especially breastfeeding. Since nursing is demanding, you will be multitasking feeding yourself and your baby. It is helpful to have snacks and meals that you can eat with one hand because the other will hold your baby. You have increased caloric requirements when breastfeeding, and you need to fuel your body.
Cleaning Up Your Diet
If you need to make some changes to your diet to eat healthier foods, this may seem like a big chore when you start. Over time it gets easier. You learn what foods to avoid without reading labels at the grocery store. You find out what is quick and easy to cook. You figure out what healthy snacks you enjoy eating. The more you eat healthier foods, the more they become a habit and not an inconvenience. Your baby will start eating solid foods around six months. The food you have in your home, the meals you cook will all have a lasting impact on your child’s health.
Vitamins and Supplements
You can take easy steps to fill the nutritional gaps in your diet and ensure you are getting the nutrients you need. The first is to make sure you take a high-quality prenatal vitamin during pregnancy and while breastfeeding. There are a few other supplements that you may want to consider. I am a huge fan of starting every morning with Athletic Greens. This has 75 whole food sourced vitamins, minerals, probiotics, prebiotics. It is nutritional insurance. You may also consider taking an omega-three supplement and vitamin D. If you are not in the habit of taking supplements every day, the more convenient you make it, the easier it will be. You can set a reminder in your phone, keep supplements somewhere you see them, or even use a pillbox to organize everything you are taking. If you forget to take vitamins one day, adjust to make it easier the next day. Over time this becomes a habit you don’t even think about.
Staying hydrated is critical, especially when you are pregnant or breastfeeding. As a new parent, you will be stuck in one place for blocks of time while breastfeeding. If you do not have water nearby, it will not be convenient to stop breastfeeding and get up for a glass of water. Make staying hydrated easier by keeping bottles of water in the places where you are spending a lot of time with your baby. You can fill up multiple water bottles at the start of your day or the night before, so it is easier to keep track of how much water you are drinking. You may also consider adding electrolytes to boost your hydration. I am a big fan of the hydration mix from Basis.
Getting physical activity is another way you can take care of your health. After you have your baby, you will be recovering from birth for weeks or months. Do not focus on losing weight or getting back to your body pre-pregnancy. Incorporating activity can be as simple as going for a daily walk with your baby in a stroller. Physical activity has so many benefits, from your physical health to your ability to manage stress. If working out isn’t your thing, try going for a walk or pull up YouTube and find a dance tutorial. If you hate running, don’t force yourself to run. Try something new, and you may just find something you enjoy doing. In the long run, it will not only benefit you but getting physical activity will set a good example for your child. If you are not active now, it may feel challenging to get started. Over time it becomes less of a chore and more of a habit you will look forward to.
Sleep may be the most critical component of health, both short and long-term. Unfortunately, being a new parent will challenge your ability to get quality, consistent sleep. There are a few things to keep in mind that may reframe how you feel about sleep and adapt as a new parent.
Babies are hard-wired not to sleep for long periods. Breastfed babies will sleep for shorter stretches than babies on formula because breastmilk is easily digested, and your baby needs to be fed more often. Even when examining studies on sleep for babies, researchers define sleeping through the night as 5-6 hours. As a new parent, you will be tired, and you will adapt to less sleep for a while.
With that being said, you should prioritize sleep when you can. The cliché “sleep when the baby sleeps” is good advice. If your baby is taking a nap, try to close your eyes, even if it is just for a short time. In the real world, it can be challenging to do this. Your baby’s nap times are a convenient opportunity to get other things done. Prioritize sleep as much as you can within the constraints of your parenting responsibilities.
Even with less sleep, there are many things you can do to improve the quality of sleep you do get. An easy adjustment is to dial in your light exposure. Getting outside in natural light for just a few minutes at three times during the day can help set your circadian rhythms to sleep better. You want to view natural light ideally at sunrise or shortly after, around solar noon and sunset. Exposure to blue light after the sunsets reduces melatonin production, which is a powerful sleep hormone. Significant sources of blue light include your phone, computer, and television. Rather than look at a screen before bed, opt for a book. Turn the screens off and spend some time with your partner. You also want to avoid bright lights late at night. When you start winding down, dim, or turn off lights, you don’t need. This is also helpful as you work to get your baby on a regular sleep schedule.
An excellent resource for science-backed information for sleep is this toolkit from Andrew Huberman with links to his podcast episodes on sleep. Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and sleep scientist, is also a fantastic resource.
Taking Care of Your Mental Health
Taking care of your mental health is just as important as your physical health. This is especially true when you are a parent. If you have a difficult time mentally, every challenge you encounter with your child will be more difficult. Taking care of your mental health will be unique to you. Here are some concepts and tools to figure out what works best for you.
Making Yourself a Priority
We all have time for the things that are important to us. Think about that for a minute. It is easy to excuse that we don’t have time to do something but the truth is that we prioritize the important things. You may be too busy to call that friend who lives across the country, but you are not too busy to check your Instagram. You don’t have time to work out, but you watch television for an hour and a half. We make time for the things that are important to us. If you want to know what your priorities truly are, look at how you spend your time. Think about how you can allocate your time to make yourself a priority.
Making Time for Yourself
Making time for yourself doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to hire a sitter for your baby. Newborns nap a lot. While you should be sneaking in some naps with your little one, this can also allow you to have a few minutes to yourself. Put some earbuds in and catch up on a podcast, listen to music, or start a new audiobook. It is easy to feel trapped at home with a baby. You can take your baby pretty much anywhere. Want to meet a friend for lunch? Take your baby with you. Being a parent changes many things, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t do something you like to do. If you have the opportunity to get out of the house by yourself, please do. Taking time to refuel will put you in a better headspace to be more present and enjoy the time you have with your baby and your family.
Put Yourself on Your Schedule
It can be easy to put your baby’s needs and everyone else in your family ahead of you with a busy schedule. It may help to make time for yourself if you schedule it in advance. Block out time on your calendar, coordinate with your partner or someone who can care for your baby if you need childcare, and add it to your schedule. It is much easier to do something for yourself if you plan. This is true for everything from going to a workout class to meeting a friend for lunch.
The Importance of Social Connection
There is a large body of evidence to support a connection between social connection and physical and mental health. Humans are social creatures that are wired to connect to others.
Starting or growing your family comes with significant life changes that can impact your lifestyle and the people you connect with. Going through pregnancy and parenting in isolation or with little support from a larger community of friends and family will make everything more difficult. If you feel like you do not have a great support system right now, that is something you have the power to change. There will always be people going through pregnancy and having babies in your community or area. You have the opportunity to meet other expecting or new parents through an in-person birth class, a local Facebook or Meetup group, or even at your neighborhood park. Pregnancy or having children around the same age is an instant common ground to connect with others.
COVID-19 has presented new challenges as many people are more isolated than ever. Research links isolation due to COVID-19 to stress, anxiety, emotional overload, poor sleep, and even physical health complications. If you feel less connected, you are not the only one. It may take more effort to try and connect with people right now. Building or deepening your social connections and a support system will benefit you and your baby, as well as the other people in your social circles.
Friends who have kids will also have busy schedules, and friends who do not have kids may not understand that you still want to spend time together even though you have a baby. Sometimes you may just need to reach out and ask to schedule a lunch date or a time to catch up on the phone. If everything feels too busy to meet up with friends, consider sending a message that you think about them. This is something I have incorporated that has made a big difference in maintaining friendships during times when schedules are just not syncing. A text could say something like, “Hi! Just thinking about you and hope life is good”. There are no questions or anything that requires a response, just to let someone know you are thinking about them.
It can be tough to take good care of yourself when you are under a lot of stress. Learning to manage stress is a must as a new parent. Not only will it improve your mental health, but it will make you a better individual and a calmer parent. There is an episode that talks about stress during pregnancy and goes into many different tools to manage stress.
Hobbies are another form of taking care of your mental health. What do you enjoy doing? Maybe you like to draw or paint. Perhaps your favorite thing to do is to go shopping. Think outside the box and think about what you love to do, and make sure you carve out time and space to do that. Anything you enjoy doing will fuel your mental health. Is there a place in your neighborhood that has a great view you would enjoy spending some time? Perhaps there is a cute café nearby that serves a fantastic lunch. Being a parent changes your priorities. One perk of having children is you get to see the wonderment in your child as they explore and learn new things. You should also explore and try new things. You may just find something new that you love doing.
Meditation has shown excellent benefits for mental health. You don’t have to sit in a silent room for an hour to get the benefits of meditation. If you are new to this practice, apps like Headspace or Calm make this easy. Like anything, this is a practice that gets easier over time.
Writing can be a fantastic tool for processing and organizing your thoughts and emotions. If you do not keep a journal or write regularly, it may seem awkward at first. You can start with writing about something you are thankful for, what you feel that day, or something you are looking forward to. It is not necessary to go out and purchase a physical journal. You can always use a note-taking app on your phone or try a journaling app like DayOne.
The Power of No and Setting Boundaries
We have a finite amount of time and energy under even more pressure with a new baby. Every time you say yes to something, you indirectly say no to something else. Get comfortable with saying no and setting boundaries. Part of protecting your mental health is being comfortable saying no to things that you do not want to do. This could be an invitation to get together with people or volunteering for an event. Be protective over the time you have. Make sure that you are not saying yes to too many things that leave you mentally depleted.
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others
It is easy to constantly compare ourselves to other people, especially through social media. Instagram and Facebook are the highlight reels. The polished posts you see of new parents with their perfect babies are not reality. You are not seeing the challenges behind the scenes. People don’t post the challenging moments. People edit pictures to make themselves look better. It is easy to compare yourself to what you see on social media and feel like you are not living up to expectations. Try to avoid comparing yourself or your baby with others.
As your children grow, it becomes even harder not to compare your child to other children around their age. At points, you may wonder why your child hasn’t hit a specific milestone yet. It sucks to hear that someone’s baby is sleeping through the night when yours is not even close. All babies and parents are on a unique journey, and there is more than one path to figuring it out.
Ask for Help
Humans evolved to raise children in a village, not in isolated one or two-parent households. Get comfortable asking for help. If you feel like you could use more help around the house, ask your partner to chip in more. If your mom wants to come over, ask her to help with laundry or chores or pick up groceries on her way.
It is okay and can be healthy to have your partner enjoy an afternoon with your baby so you can get out of the house and enjoy some time to yourself. You should get a friend to watch your baby, so you and your partner can get out for dinner. Parenting will be a lot harder if you try to do it alone. Ask friends and family to help out.
Developing Good Habits
You do hundreds of things every day out of habit that you are unaware of. You don’t realize you do things because they are habits and routines. You do them on autopilot. If you want to dig into any good books on habits, Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg are excellent reads. Once something becomes a habit, it is less work and becomes part of your routine. You want positive habits that will support your physical and emotional health. For something to become a habit takes practice. Habits are not formed instantly, and it will likely take some trial and error for you to find what works and what is sustainable in your life. A helpful tip is to stack habits together. If you want to remember to take your vitamins first thing in the morning, look at your existing habits when you wake up. If you go straight to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee or tea, put your vitamins next to your coffee pot or your tea. (If you want to know more about caffeine during pregnancy and breastfeeding, see this episode.) Piggybacking a new habit on an existing one can make new habits easier to adopt.
How Will You Make Yourself a Priority?
Being a parent is amazing, and it comes with so many benefits and some challenges. You can pursue interests or things that have nothing to do with parenting or your baby. Make it a priority to carve out time to do some of the things you love. It is a cliché saying, but sometimes you need to put your oxygen mask on first. Being a parent often means putting your child first, but you cannot pour from an empty cup. Be sure to find some ways to fill yourself up and refuel.
Thank you to the amazing companies that have supported this episode.
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