How to Prioritize Self-Care as a New Mom
No matter how many books you read or how long you've held the title of "cool aunt," there's nothing that can truly prepare you for the realities of parenthood. It's simply one of those life transitions that has to be experienced to be appreciated in all its spit-up-covered, sleep-deprived, baby-babbling glory. And it takes a lot to keep a tiny human alive, growing and reasonably happy.
But if you find yourself giving, giving, giving to the point where you feel like you can't make time to breathe, then it's time to recognize a very important fact: "When a new mom ignores her own needs, the baby suffers. The mindshift into understanding that a mom should be well in order to take care of a baby is very important to the mom and baby daddy," explained Noha Polack, M.D., FAAP, a New Jersey–based pediatrician with Progressive Pediatrics.
Of course, this is often easier said than done. It's tough to make time for yourself when you feel like you're constantly on-call for your baby, not to mention all the other people and things in your life that require attention. It's easy to say, "I'll prioritize myself when the baby's in school…" or some other nebulous and distant event, but you can start taking steps to make time for self-care as a new mom.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
If you can make a plan for self-care before the baby arrives and the sleep deprivation saps you of your ability to think straight, you'll be ahead of the game. Think about your personality, your needs, the things that give you energy and your family dynamic to come up with tools and plans to make it through the tough transition period.
"I advise moms to ask for help and assign roles before delivery," said Polack. "Ask friends and family to prepare meals and drop them off every few days. Get help cleaning the house. Then spend time healing, bonding with your baby and sleeping."
The thing is, if you think you're going to be able to make time for cooking, cleaning and showering just like you did before, you're kidding yourself. You simply won't have the luxury of time, and the transition will take more out of you than you realize.
"Prepare for the strong possibility you'll be overwhelmed," advised Shari Foos, marriage and family therapist, and founder of The Narrative Method. "Even something as simple as having a friend over weekly to cook with you or watch your baby while you take a shower gives you that time to be with someone and take care of your needs. The more you plan, the less likely planning will become another 'to do' added to the list."
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Prioritize your big needs
Of course, if you don't know what to plan for, it's going to be hard to arrange. Think of your basic needs—sleep, food and hygiene—and don't overlook your mental health. The stress of a new baby can make you feel sad, anxious and even depressed. Make a plan to help release your stress and give yourself mini-breaks and opportunities for connection even when you can't get away for more than a few minutes. "Your mental health is essential, and that means staying connected to your friends to share a laugh, a cry, and remind you of who you are," Foos said.
Plan for food and meals
Prepping freezer meals before your baby comes and setting up a food train is one way to alleviate the need for cooking after the baby arrives. But it's also a good idea to set up online delivery with your local grocery store, putting together shopping lists of your most-needed (and quickly prepared) foods and snacks so you can easily place an order when it's needed.
"Your new motto should be, 'Anything that can be delivered should be delivered,'" Foos said. "You are better off settling for your shopper's best guess than spending the hours it takes to get dressed, get to and from the store, and fight your way through the maze of other shoppers and checkout."
Plus, this preplanning of shopping lists gives you the chance to focus on ordering healthy, good-for-you foods. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins will give you the nutrients you need to recover from birth, while ensuring you're bolstering your breast milk supply, too. And if you always have healthy foods in the house, you'll be less likely to order fast food or grab whatever quick (and less-healthy) snack you have on hand.
Give yourself permission to rest
There's a reason why everyone tells you, "Sleep when the baby's sleeping." This piece of advice keeps being tossed around because: 1) it's fundamentally important, and 2) new moms are always bad at listening to it.
Especially in the first few months, when your baby needs to feed every two to three hours, you're going to be painfully short on rest. And if you're not the type of person who can lie down to nap in the middle of the day, at least make a point to spend your baby's sleeping hours resting.
"Sleep or rest when your baby does, instead of running around the house handling chores," said Ana Sokolovic, psychologist and life coach for ParentingPod.com. "Chores can wait. Your health cannot."
And given that sleep is a cornerstone of all healthy behaviors, if you allow yourself to rest (even if it means letting the dishes and laundry pile up), you'll have more energy to dedicate to your baby, your partner and yourself.
Take that bath or shower…it'll help you feel human
After a couple of weeks of "all baby, all the time," when you've logged hours pacing and bouncing the baby to try to get them to sleep, and you feel like you're constantly covered in breast milk or spit-up, and as soon as you sit down to rest, your partner asks you for some benign favor that just makes you want to scream—you'll realize exactly how important it is to feel like your old self again.
The reality is, you're not your old self. You're a mom now, and life has changed. But that doesn't mean you aren't important or that your needs are secondary to everyone else's. Figure out a way to set aside 30 to 45 minutes a day for personal hygiene. Give the baby to your partner or arrange for a friend or family member to come spend time with them. Then allow yourself to take that long, hot shower or luxurious bath. Paint your toenails. Pluck your eyebrows. Shave your legs. Turn your bathroom into a self-care sanctuary and run an aromatherapy diffuser or buy some nice shower products to help you unwind.
"Lavender scents for home or personal hygiene can help ease stress, as they affect the limbic system," Sokolovic explained. "Citrus and minty scents can be useful when you're struggling to stay awake and alert. They can be a source of freshness when you need it."
Think small for other means of self-care
If your meals are taken care of, and you're prioritizing rest and hygiene, it's time to start thinking about other ways you can rejuvenate, and feed your soul. It's important that you don't isolate yourself during this time, so connecting with friends, other moms and family members may be one important step to take. It can be as simple as having a weekly coffee date (even at your own home) with someone you really enjoy who can help you laugh and relax.
You may also want to start your own mini self-care routine after every feeding. "If you're nursing in a hunched-over position, take a minute to do a backbend as soon as you put the little one down," suggests Dana Harron, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist working in Washington, D.C. "You can usually take a deep breath even when both hands are full. Deep breathing soothes the entire nervous system."
Put together a playlist of happy songs that will help lift your spirit, and head outside for a little bit (with your baby monitor in hand). Walking around the yard, doing some gardening or even just sitting on your porch as you breathe the fresh air can help ease your stress and tension. And when you've been cleared to exercise, start incorporating a stroller walk with your baby as part of your morning or evening routine. The exercise is good for you and works as a stress reliever, too.