First Time Parenting & Your Mental Health

A Parent’s Mental Health

Whether you have been preparing for several years to be a parent or you were caught by surprise, first time parenting can be intimidating. You may not know what to expect because every one may be telling you different things. You may have been told conflicting things like infancy is exhausting or that it’s the easiest stage since all they do is sleep. One thing is for certain: you’re overwhelmed with love and other emotions! If you’re taking home your baby, there are a few things that you need to know about the baby, but there are also things you need to know about taking care of yourself and your relationship. Focusing on your baby shouldn’t replace your mental and relational health.

What to Expect- Sleeping for Baby and Sleeping for You

Bringing home a new born is full of excitement and challenges. Emotions can be high as reality sets in that you’ve finally become a parent! Infants can require a lot or minimal amounts of attention depending on the temperament of the child. Some babies may prefer to be held while others may prefer self-entertaining. Some babies may want to breast feed while others prefer a bottle. One frequent topic which occurs has to do with sleep. Sleep for infants is bizarre! Newborns generally sleep 16 hours or so a day. They often sleep during the day and are awake at night at first. They will sleep for small stretches at a time as they wake up to eat every two to five hours (Erford, 2017).

baby bears, bears for parenting

What this means is that parents need to nap while baby is napping. Sleep has so many effects on mental health. For example, extreme lack of sleep can mimic symptoms of schizophrenia. Sleeping for parents is super important also to avoid frustration. Shaken baby syndrome may occur when parents are overloaded and exhausted. Babies around six months old generally sleep through the night and have an established sleeping pattern with most sleeping 12-hours a night (Erford, 2017).

Here are a few guidelines for infant sleeping:

Always place a child on their back to sleep

Don’t place pillows or stuffed animals in their sleeping space (they’re cute, but not safe)

Don’t leave animals (specifically cats) in the room while your child sleeps.

These things have been linked to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). It’s also highly recommended that you don’t sleep with your infant when they come home. There have been many accidents when exhausted parents fall asleep and roll over on top of their infant causing death. In summary, sleep is very important for a developing baby as well as the mental health of their parents.

To Hold Baby or Not to Hold Baby- That Is the Question

Alright, here’s the question all new parents may be asking themselves: Should I pick up my crying baby? Answer: there’s no one correct answer. As mentioned earlier, babies have different temperaments. Meaning, some will generally be fussier than others. Some may be calmer than others. Yet some babies may need more social interaction than others. They’re human beings and so they’re going to vary with their wants and needs.

With that said, picking up a crying infant isn’t inherently good or bad, it depends on what your beliefs and values are regarding parenting.

If you pick up your child every time they cry, then they will likely expect to be held a lot of the time. If you don’t mind holding your child often as you see it of a sign of secure attachment or want to foster healthy dependency- then do it!

If you rather let them cry for a short amount of time as you want them to learn to self-soothe and be independent- then do that!

parent holding baby, newborn baby

Personally, I think that moderation is key to just about all things in life. One suggestion, although it can be beneficial to let the baby “cry it out” on occasion (i.e., mom is only one home and she needs a shower), babies that are frequently not responded to can develop undesirable attachment styles which can affect their relationship patterns throughout their entire lives. Again, the key is moderation. Take care of your baby but reflect on the message and values you want to instill in your child and your relationship with them.

Taking Care of Yourself

            One of the most important things to know about bringing home a baby is that there is one person you may not have thought needs just as much attention…you! It may be easy to dismiss or deprioritize yourself when the infant demands attention and everyone else is asking questions about them. Simply stated, your needs matter too! Whether you were the one who just birthed a beautiful baby into the world, or you are a devoted partner, taking care of yourself is so very important. Think of it this way: you can’t help someone else before you help yourself. I mean, I guess you could, but you wouldn’t be as effective as you could’ve been if you gave yourself some TLC first. So what in the world does taking care of yourself mean? If you rearrange the words you will find the oh so popular phrase self-care. Ask yourself: what did self-care look like pre-baby? Taking a long shower, getting your hair trimmed and styled once a month, watching your favorite show, visiting with a friend, going to individual counseling, or getting a nap in. Continue to do your self-care. Those naps maybe interrupted by a crying baby, but you can take turns with who feeds and changes the baby which allows you a break and recharge. Your baby deserves the best parent you can be. You can’t be your best self for your partner or your baby if you don’t take care of yourself first.

Taking Care of Your Relationship

woman smiling, sunny day

Ah yes, we finally got to the part about your relationship- my fave! It’s well known that relationships take a hit when a baby arrives. This is true even if the pregnancy was intentional and you and your partner were madly in love. Relationship dissatisfaction can be caused by many things but the number one is giving all the attention to nurturing the baby and not each other. Not saying you shouldn’t give your baby ample attention, but when you’re used to coming home and spending 20-minutes debriefing your day and showing affection is replaced by irritability and chores, it can be difficult to connect on a deep emotional level with your partner. You must make time for your partner and continue the bond of communication. Too often couples get sucked into devoting every waking minute into their children and they forget why they wanted to have a child with this person to begin with. Protect your time with your partner. Make them a priority to go on a date (and avoid talking about chores or baby talk on your date!). If you lose the things which kept you connected, you may feel lonely and more overwhelmed. If you’re reading this blog before baby, you can arrange a sitter to come predictably to make sure that setting time aside doesn’t fall in the cracks and get lost. Also, I know it might be hard to leave baby- but your relationship is worth it.

Single Parenting

Single parenting is on the rise as more individuals are having babies outside of marriage or committed relationships, deployment occurs, adoption has become easier (not easy by any means- but easier), career women decide they want to be mothers, and medical interventions are developed. Single parenting comes with it’s own challenges. You may feel obligated to give your child as much love and attention as a two-parent household. This can be taxing on your self-care routine, your budget, and your emotional stock tank. You must reflect on your emotional stock tank so that you don’t become drained. As if it wasn’t said enough; you cannot be the best parent you can be if you are not taking care of your self. I urge you to lean on those in your support system and be sure to continue self-care while continuing to recognize your self-worth as an individual. Self-care may look different being a single parent as you can’t let the other parent take a turn, so you may have to get creative. Get dressed up and eat a nice dinner by yourself. Take yourself out to a movie. Whatever you can do to refill that emotional tank.

flowers columbia mo, yellow flowers

Final Thoughts

Here you will find a quick summary of what you just read. Your mental health is important. Taking care of your mental health when bringing a baby home can help you be the best parent, partner, and self you can be. Sleep is very influential to mental well-being. Having an infant can drastically alter your sleeping pattern and can lead to a deterioration of your mental health. Nap while baby is napping; be aware of the safest ways babies sleep, and take turns taking care of your baby will help reduce the impact of lack of sleep. Holding your baby when they cry is a parenting preference on what you believe is important and good. Just don’t let the baby cry it out too much- you don’t want your baby to feel abandoned. Take care of yourself through continued self-care. You must take care of yourself to be able to fully care for another. Don’t neglect your relationship, which is extremely easy to do. Make your partner and connecting with your partner a priority. Lastly, single parenting is more common and comes with more challenges. Self-care is even more important when you’re a single parent as you can’t let another parent take a break. Lean on your support system. Lastly, CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR NEW BABY!

Molly Lyons- PLPC

Individual and Couples Counseling

Molly lyons columbia mo, molly lyons counselor, molly lyons smiling

Molly is currently in her final year of the Master of Science in Clinical Counseling at Central Methodist University (CMU) and is a student intern at The Counseling Hub and Boone County Mental Health Coalition, where she will assess and provide mental health interventions and resources for individuals and groups in Boone County schools. She obtained her Bachelor of Science in General Psychology with a minor in Child Development from Central Methodist University directly before enrolling in the counseling program. Prior to pursuing her counseling degree, Molly received an Associates of Science in Early Childhood Education from Moberly Area Community College. 

Molly has experience in the Counseling Center at MACC's Columbia campus, providing counseling services for students around the topics of identity crises, school-related stressors, depression issues, and coping with anxiety. Molly has co-facilitated Safe Zone trainings which introduce its members to the LGBTQ+ community terminology and basic information. Molly has also completed on online course in LGBTQ+ Counseling Competencies (College and Career Readiness) through the American Counseling Association (ACA). Molly is an active member of both the ACA and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development (AMCD).

Molly enjoys working with diverse populations and seeks to always be open to new learning experiences. She works best with individuals who are trying to discover who they are and how they relate to their world, as well as others in their world. Molly believes that a person’s external factors can provide both barriers and resources towards growth and that one must discover these in order to thrive.