New Moms Need to Think About Their Health, Too
New moms have a lot on their minds, from when their baby last ate to whether they're getting enough sleep to how in the world they're going to find the time to wash all those blown-out onesies. It's understandable that mom's considerations about their own health—chopping up greens for a healthy lunch, say, or taking a short walk outside—fall way down on the list.
But being a good parent means you need to prioritize yourself sometimes, too.
It's about "meeting your needs," said Catherine Deasy, a social worker in the Johnson Center for Pregnancy and Newborn Services at Stanford Children's Health. "Stepping away for 10 minutes to make yourself a healthy meal and reminding yourself, This is for my baby. I have to take care of myself so I can be this great mom. I need to make sure my needs are met."
In 2019, a national survey by Orlando Health found that 26 percent of mothers did not have a solid plan for managing their own health after giving birth; that number rose to 37 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds. What's more: More than one-third of respondents said they were embarrassed by what their body was going through postpartum.
(No, we're not ignoring dads. They experience similar feelings of overwhelm and exhaustion, but in heterosexual couples, more of the early responsibilities tend to fall on women, especially if they're breastfeeding. Paid parental leave is also more limited for men, FYI.)
Medically, the postpartum period is recognized as six weeks following delivery. But things don't just magically fall into place once those six weeks are up. There's a lot happening throughout what's known as the "fourth trimester": recovery from pregnancy, labor and delivery; the transition to a new identity as "mom"; and shifting relationships with partners, family and friends.
"You can't take care of your newborn, your family and your job, if you are mentally and emotionally not at your best," said Megan Gray, an OB-GYN at Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies. "The only way to be at your best is to be sure you are centered and grounded and caring for yourself." In an effort to help ease the process, we're highlighting five areas new moms and their loved ones can—and should—focus on.
Mental health and stress
Between one in five and one in eight women experience postpartum depression, according to research by the Centers for Disease Control. "A lot of moms feel like there's something wrong with them if they do start to experience some of those depressive symptoms," Deasy said, but, "It is very common. It's not your fault. It's nothing that you did." Baby blues—the emotional ups-and-downs that occur after delivery—tend to only last for a week or two. If those feelings extend beyond 14 days, or become severe at any point, it may be time to talk to a professional.
Make a just-in-case plan pre-birth: Ask your partner or close friends to check in on you. Hang the phone number of your doctor or a therapist where it's easily accessible so someone can quickly reach out if needed.
Otherwise, leave the dirty dishes in the sink and take a few minutes each day to do something you enjoy, whether that's walking around the block or watching cat videos on YouTube. "Anything you can do to remind yourself that you're a whole person," Deasy said. "Especially for new moms, I remind them that, yes, you may be a wife or a new mom or a sister-in-law, but you're also Rachel and it matters how you're doing…"
Another major stressor may be your changing relationship with your partner. Before the baby arrives, Gray advises couples (or mom and whoever her postpartum partner is) to discuss how they best communicate during stressful times. What are a few words or sentences you can say in tough moments that will signal to the other person that you need help or a moment alone?
"I don't think anything can prepare you" for the fatigue of parenthood, said Gray, a mother of two. But getting enough rest is vital for new parents. "Sleep is so important to the postpartum journey," she added. "It helps with healing with your emotional well-being; it helps with your mental well-being." Easier said than done, of course. At a minimum, new parents need to get 1 two- to three-hour block of uninterrupted sleep during the day and another block at night, Gray advised.
Because a newborn's circadian rhythms aren't yet developed, nighttime tends to be more of a struggle. Gray's tip: Think of night as a 10-hour block. Divide that time with your spouse or other postpartum partner, with each of you in charge of the baby for 1 five-hour period, while the other sleeps. (If you're breastfeeding, have your partner bring the baby to you and take them out of the room once they're satiated.)
Nutrition and hydration
Gray encourages focusing on the basics of nutrition: consuming lots of lean meats, fish, vegetables and fruits, and staying away from too many processed foods. Notice that you're forgetting to eat because you're caught up with everything else going on? Set an alarm on your phone three times per day. And make sure there are easy-to-grab snacks lying around, like carrot sticks, trail mix or bananas—healthy options you can eat with one hand.
Drinking enough water is key, too, especially if you're breastfeeding (your breast milk is 90 percent water). Buy a couple of oversize water bottles to stash around the house. Gray said drinking 10 ounces before and after a breastfeeding session is a good target. Not sure if you're getting enough H2O? Take a peek at your pee—if it's dark yellow, you need to hydrate; if it's closer to clear, you're good.
Everyone is different, so you'll want to listen to your body and your doctor. Walking, if it feels alright, is one of the easiest and best options in the first few weeks; plus, you can take your little one along. When you'll be ready for more vigorous exercise depends on whether you had a vaginal delivery or a C-section. It took Gray three to four months post-C-section to run without pain. If anything feels off or you're not sure, consult your doc.
New moms get a lot of advice—we know. And it can take time to determine what works best for you. But if you whittle it down, Deasy and Gray are really suggesting two things: Check in on yourself—and then listen to your own needs—and get comfortable asking for help, or accepting offers from friends and family. It does take a village, after all.
For more postpartum information, check out the 4th Trimester Project, an online database from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' robust "After Pregnancy" resources.