Self-care is taking action to preserve or improve your physical and mental health. If there is any time during your life when self-care is crucial, it is during your pregnancy. Your body is working incredibly hard right now, and you are going through a significant transformation in your life. Now is the perfect time in your life to make self-care a priority for two main reasons. First, you have more free time now than you will in the foreseeable future, which makes prioritizing yourself now easier. Secondly, making this a habit during pregnancy allows you to continue and build on your self-care practice later when you have more time and energy constraints as a parent.
The goal of this article is to get you to rethink self-care, learn how to make self-care a habit during pregnancy, and build a healthy practice of caring for your physical and mental health as a parent.
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What is Self-Care
Self-care is the practice of taking action to preserve or improve your health. This means not only your physical health but also your mental health. We constantly hear cliché sayings like, you have to put your oxygen mask on first. This concept makes sense, but often we have a hard time putting it into practice. A consistent practice of self-care results in you being healthier physically, emotionally, and mentally. A healthier you will ultimately make you a better parent.
Why is Self-Care Important During Pregnancy?
If there is any time during your life when self-care is crucial, it is during your pregnancy. In the nine months of pregnancy, your body goes through more changes than it ever will in such a short time frame. Pregnancy affects every system in your body, and your body is working incredibly hard right now. The physical requirements of building a healthy human require you to take great care of your health. Your mental health is especially vulnerable during this time. Your hormones fluctuate, making your moods and emotions all over the place. Plus, this is a time of significant transition in your life. Navigating pregnancy, birth, and preparing to be a parent means a lot to learn and think about, and your brain is likely running in high gear.
You may be fortunate to have people who do thoughtful things for you, but no one will prioritize your physical and emotional health like you can and should.
If this is your first pregnancy, you have more free time now than you will have for at least the next several years. If this is not your first baby, you know firsthand how true this is.
This is the perfect time in your life to make self-care a priority for two main reasons. First, you have more free time now than you will in the foreseeable future, which makes prioritizing yourself now easier. Secondly, making this a habit now allows you to continue and build on your self-care practice later when you have more time and energy constraints as a parent.
As parents, we put our children first. You are probably doing this by avoiding foods or substances that are unhealthy for your baby. While it is our job as parents to put our children’s needs in front of our own, we also need to take responsibility for taking care of ourselves. The healthier you are physically and emotionally, the better parent you will be.
What Self-Care Looks Like
When people talk about self-care, you often get a picture in your mind of someone 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 activities refuel you. You need 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 rap music. You may think of self-care as enjoying a healthy meal or sitting in front of the TV with a big bowl of ice cream.
Health-wise there are obvious steps you can take to practice physical self-care. The foundation of physical health is staying hydrated, eating a healthy diet and taking a high-quality prenatal vitamin, getting adequate sleep, and exercising. All of these are habits. If you are not in the habit of practicing and prioritizing these basics, now is the time to start.
Staying hydrated is crucial to help your overall health, and you have increased water requirements when pregnant. Plus, if you are not drinking enough water, you can exacerbate many common pregnancy symptoms. Hydration and drinking water can help constipation, Braxton Hicks contractions, edema (swelling), migraines, and skin health. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends drinking 64-96 ounces (1.9-2.8 liters) of water daily. Increasing how much water you drink may seem like a chore now. With consistency, you can make staying hydrated a habit that doesn’t require much effort. See this episode for more information on staying hydrated during your pregnancy.
During pregnancy, you have many increased requirements for nutrients. You have increased energy demands, and you have to supply your baby with everything they need to grow. Whether you are eating healthy now or need to clean up your diet, pregnancy is an excellent opportunity to focus on eating a healthy diet and developing or maintaining healthy eating habits. That could mean counting calories, adding more fruits or veggies, or cutting sugar. Your diet should be mainly healthy whole foods. The more nutritious foods you eat, the better building blocks you give your baby. Ensure you are taking a high-quality prenatal vitamin to fill in any gaps in your nutrition.
The growing body of research on sleep demonstrates the absolute necessity of sleep for every biological function. You can imagine the importance of sleep increases during pregnancy for your and your baby’s health. Unfortunately, many pregnancy symptoms can challenge your quantity and quality of sleep. A separate episode examines the research on common pregnancy sleep issues and the evidence on what interventions are proven to work. An episode also focuses on essential tips to improve your sleep.
Regular exercise can decrease your risk of complications like gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and cesarean birth and promote healthy weight gain. Working out can also ease common pregnancy symptoms like constipation and back pain. In addition, living an active lifestyle will improve your physical and mental health in the short and long term. Nearly every form of exercise can be modified to be safe during pregnancy. There are articles with in-depth information on exercise, cardio, strength training, and yoga. 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.
Your mental health includes your emotional, psychological, and social well-being. While taking care of your physical health will positively benefit your mental health, there are additional self-care steps you can take to practice mental self-care.
Learning about tools and techniques to manage stress is a fantastic way to take care of your mental health. Evidence-based tools, from breathing techniques to journaling, are beneficial. For more in-depth information on evidence-based tools to manage stress see this episode.
Meditation has shown tremendous 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, there are apps like Headspace or Calm that make this so easy. Like anything, this is a practice that gets easier over time. A bonus of practicing meditation now is that it is another tool you will have in your toolbox during labor and birth. If you don’t meditate, you don’t want to try it for the first time while working through a contraction.
Mindfulness is a component of meditation and is the practice of being in the present moment. It means that you are not looking at your phone; you are paying attention to the details of the moment. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 14 studies found that practicing mindfulness may be beneficial during pregnancy to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression.
What do you enjoy doing? Hobbies are another form of mental self-care. Maybe you like to draw or paint. Perhaps your favorite thing to do is to go shopping. I want you to think outside the box, 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 with a great view where you would enjoy spending time? Perhaps there is a cute café nearby that serves a fantastic lunch. Self-care is more than waking up, meditating, and writing in a gratitude journal. If that fuels you, then great, do that. If not, find something else that you love doing.
Connect with Others
Humans are social creatures that are wired to connect to others. A large body of evidence supports a connection between social connection and physical and mental health. Going through pregnancy and parenting in isolation or with little support from a larger community of friends and family will make everything more difficult. Building or deepening your social connections and a support system will benefit you, your baby, and the other people in your social circles.
If you feel like you do not have a great support system right now, that is something you can change. There will always be people going through pregnancy and having babies in your community. You can 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.
Hedge Against Postpartum Depression
One of the biggest reasons to develop a habit of self-care now is that having a baby comes with a risk of developing postpartum depression. After the birth of your baby, your hormone levels drop quickly. A significant drop in estrogen and progesterone after birth leads to chemical changes in the brain that trigger mood swings. Other hormones your thyroid gland produces may also drop sharply, making you tired, low energy, and depressed. When you combine drops in hormone levels with a lack of sleep, your body working to recover from labor and birth, and the stress of caring for a newborn, you have the perfect storm to be bummed out.
Many new moms will experience the baby blues after their baby arrives. This generally includes mood swings, crying spells, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. Some other signs are sadness, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, reduced concentration, and a reduced appetite. Baby blues typically begin within the first two to three days after birth and can last about two weeks. The good news is it generally disappears pretty quickly on its own.
Postpartum depression lasts longer than the baby blues and can be more serious. You need to know that baby blues and postpartum depression are not due to anything you did wrong. It is just a complication of birth. If you are not taking care of your mental health, coping with the baby blues or postpartum depression will be even more challenging. The healthier you are mentally, and the more you take care of your mental health, the better you will deal with the baby blues and postpartum depression. You may still not avoid it entirely, but you will have more powerful tools to deal with it if you practice self-care.
If you are struggling with signs of depression, you do not need to be embarrassed or ashamed and know that you are not alone. So many women deal with this, and very few openly discuss it. The sooner you seek help, the better. Please speak to your doctor or midwife about how you feel and seek professional assistance if you are struggling mentally or emotionally.
Once you become a parent, all your focus is on your new baby. It is still essential that you do things for yourself. A typical recommendation would be to treat yourself to a massage. That is an excellent option if you can afford it, and there are many evidence-based benefits to prenatal massage. It could be going to the farmer’s market and buying yourself flowers. Your idea of doing something for yourself could mean getting a pedicure or enjoying your favorite ice cream. You should treat yourself, and that doesn’t have to be expensive. It could be an at-home face mask, having a movie at home, or binge-watching a show on Netflix.
The first few weeks after your baby is born is another critical time to take care of yourself. Knowing what to expect postpartum and planning ahead will give you a leg up on what you need to know and how you can prepare to take good care of yourself and your baby. Having some meals prepped and frozen ahead of time can make eating healthy meals easy during your birth recovery. Having healthy snacks on hand that you can eat with one hand while you are holding your baby with another is another way to take care of your health. You may want company in the first few weeks if you are craving more human interaction. On the other hand, you may prefer to have some quiet time without visitors. You must prioritize yourself and your well-being, especially during your recovery from birth.
You will likely spend a lot of time breastfeeding, especially in the first few weeks. That is time that you can also sneak in some self-care. Breastfeeding is an opportunity to connect with your baby and give them attention. You will also have some times when you can listen to an audiobook, read, or catch up on a show while feeding your baby.
Self-Care as a Parent
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 while you can, this is also an opportunity to have a few minutes to yourself. You can put your little one in a stroller and go for a walk. Put in earbuds and catch up on a podcast, listen to music, or start a new audiobook.
You can take a baby pretty much anywhere. Want to meet a friend for lunch? Take your baby along with you. Being a parent changes many things, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do things you like to do. If you have the opportunity to get out of the house by yourself, and you want to do that, please do. You should not feel any guilt about making yourself a priority. Remember, taking time to refuel will put you in a better headspace to be more present and enjoy your time with your child.
Build a Practice of Self-Care
This article covered a lot of ideas of what self-care could look like, and hopefully, you are brainstorming some things you want to make a priority for yourself. Brainstorming is a start, but starting or building a self-care practice takes time and practice. Here are some tips and ideas to incorporate self-care into your life.
Make Self-Care a Priority
We all have time for the things that are important to us. Think about that for a minute. It is easy to make the excuse that we don’t have time to do something but the truth is that we prioritize the things that are important to us. 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. It is a lot easier to make time for self-care if you make it a priority.
One of the keys to self-care is planning and putting it on your calendar. Taking time to do something for yourself can be challenging if you do not plan for it. This is especially true after your baby arrives. For me, self-care is having a cup of coffee in the morning, which means I get up earlier than my kids so I can have a few minutes to myself. That also requires that I go to bed earlier. Self-care is meeting up with my best friends for dinner, which means I have to coordinate schedules and put it on the calendar. I need to make sure someone is available to be with my kids. I have to plan to have time to get ready. Put self-care on your calendar, make plans, and prepare in advance.
Make Self-Care a Habit
You do hundreds of things daily that you are unaware of. The reason you don’t realize you do things is because they are habits, and you do them on autopilot. You want to curate positive habits supporting your physical and emotional health. Habits are not formed instantly; it will take trial and error to find what works and is sustainable. I would love to treat myself to a weekly massage, but that is not a reality financially. I can start each day by drinking Athletic Greens to support my health. Over time this has become an automatic habit I don’t even think about; it is just what I do as soon as I wake up every morning.
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 both excellent reads. There are lots of tricks you can use to build or strengthen habits. You can leave written notes for yourself, set reminders on your phone, and put tasks on your calendar. One great way to start a new habit is to use a trigger. If you already get up in the morning and go to your kitchen to make a cup of tea, put your prenatal vitamins next to your tea to remind you to take them.
Ask for Help
Parenting will be a lot harder if you try to do it alone. Ask friends and family for help so you can have time for yourself. It is okay to have your partner spend an afternoon with your baby, so you can get out of the house and enjoy some time for yourself. You can and should ask a friend or family member to watch your baby, so you and your partner can go out for dinner. In the earliest stages of parenting, having someone come over and spend a short time with your baby can allow you to take a nap or a shower or just relax for a few minutes. Friends and family will help, but you need to ask for assistance.
How Will You Prioritize Self-Care?
Being a parent is amazing and comes with so many benefits and challenges. You can and should 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 enjoy.
Self-care doesn’t have to take place in a big block of time. If you return to work after your baby is born, maybe self-care looks like listening to music on your commute. If you pump milk at work, practice mindfulness or meditation for five minutes after pumping. Self-care could be taking a few minutes to decompress before picking up your child from daycare.
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 methods to take care of your physical and mental health, fill yourself up, and refuel. Remember, the goal is to rethink self-care to find what you need to refuel your mind and body, which will look different for everyone.
Thank you to the amazing companies that have supported this episode.
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