New mothers all around the world are given the same job description which looks something like this:
- “Must be able to multi-task 24 hours a day, cope with no sleep and expect no pay. No prior training is available. Job satisfaction is anticipated to be high.”
Certainly new motherhood brings with it unprecedented joy but also a fair share of anxiety and exhaustion. With so much to learn from feeding, changing nappies and sleep cues to settling and interpreting crying, mothers often look outside themselves for answers. Yet despite our information age of internet and chat forums, as mothers we should also remember that we possess good instincts and intuition that ought to be listened to. So many mothers go against their instincts when they choose to follow some of the modern parenting styles such as controlled crying and teaching early independence. When we really stop to listen to what we need and what our children need, there is no need for experts because we already know the answers. Even so, the road to being a relaxed and confident mother often starts rocky and has many pitfalls.
Postnatal depression is common these days as mothers struggle to meet their own and society’s expectations. The myth of the superwoman who can have it all – a successful career, happy children, a healthy relationship and personal intimacy has been questioned more and more in recent years. We now know that this is hard to achieve or sustain and rarely brings the quality of life that we want. Most mothers (and fathers) crave more time with their kids and more meaningful relationships with their partners and loved ones. When this fails to be achieved it can bring about depression and anxiety.
Other causes of postnatal depression are birth dissatisfaction or trauma, not having any support from family or friends and hormonal imbalance. Another risk factor for postnatal depression and anxiety which affects most new mothers is simple sleep deprivation. Babies are born very dependent on their mothers for their wellbeing and survival. Unlike most species, humans are born with an immature physical and mental capacity and they take the longest to mature to adulthood. This means that babies and children depend on their parents (or caregivers) completely for food, clothing, shelter, warmth, hygiene and emotional security. These needs are most intense and physically demanding in the early days and often lead to exhaustion.
Babies need to be fed regularly as their tiny tummies don’t hold much. Humans are a ‘cached’ species – meaning that we have evolved carrying our babies and feeding them regularly. The composition of breastmilk is designed for this close relationship with mother and baby. It is high in lactose (milk sugar) and relatively low in protein and fat. This means that babies really need to feed regularly as breastmilk is quickly broken down. This contrasts with ruminant mammals such as cows whose milk is much higher in protein and allows the offspring to have much longer stretches between milk feeds and they grow quickly to maturity over a year or two.
Being up feeding a tiny baby in the night means a full night’s sleep is uncommon for mothers in the first 6-12 months. Breastfeeding does offer some help by way of hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin that promote calm and connection. After breastfeeding mothers tend to sleep deeper and more soundly until the next feed, so even though their sleep is interrupted it is still refreshing. Even so, night after night does add up and most mothers end up feeling tired and emotional at least some of the time.
Looking after ourselves really well is essential to prevent exhaustion and depression. This means making sure you eat a healthy, nutritious diet to provide nutrients for physical and mental wellness and stamina. If depression or anxiety is apparent then herbal and nutritional remedies can be safe and effective, even while breastfeeding. Mothers of all ages need to take time out for themselves regularly. Even just a short walk, a long bath or the occasional massage can really help with our ability to cope with the demands of motherhood. Ensuring you have a nap in the day occasionally can really help to recharge your mind and body.
Baby’s thrive on gentle rhythms and predictability and are easily upset by overstimulation and too many activities. As parents we need to welcome this time of quietness and stillness and learn to say ‘no’ to unnecessary engagements. Slowing down and not over-committing to social engagements is a good idea. Trying to let some days unfold at their own pace will bring a sense of calm and peace for you and your baby.
Last of all, build a community of likeminded friends and ask for help from family where possible. Support makes all the difference – so don’t try to do it all on your own!