First, I would make the list of coping strategies shorter. New parents have enough new things to learn and do—any tips I have for them need to be small, simple, and to the point.
Secondly, I would rank the items from least important to most important. Sometimes doing one extra thing is enough to put a new parent (aka me) over the edge, let alone five. Now I realize the importance of giving parents ranked options so that they have a sense that what their stress management priorities are.
So, with that said, here are is Angela D. MacKay's Guide to Stress Management for New Parents. The five simple, most important things you can do to help you cope, in descending order, are:
5) Do something fun while you're baby is napping. All new parents hear "sleep when the baby sleeps", but I disagree. Sure, you need your rest, but you also need some connection to your life before you had a child, and that means doing something of the fun things you used to do in your down time. The key word here is "fun" and just to clarify, what you find fun when you're exhausted and you're life is turned upside down is very different than what you found fun when things felt more balanced. It may be as simple as watching a television show with your partner, or reading a novel while your partner, family, or friends are looking after the baby. As tired as I was, within the first three weeks after my beautiful babe was born, I was reading a novel and writing in my journal while my husband took over the evening feeds of pumped breast milk and supplemental formula. Reading and writing, things I did frequently before my baby was born, reminded me that there was a world outside of parenthood, and that eventually, I would have more of a connection with it.
4) Take some time to problem solve about things that would make your life easier. I was a pretty organized person before I got pregnant, but baby brain left me feeling a little less smart and a lot less organized. There were many important things I didn't yet have when my water broke eight days early, including a night-light, a soother, and a bottle warmer. What you expect to need when you are having baby may be quite different than what you actually need once your baby arrives. Taking the time to think about my options, to talk things over with my partner, and get support from other mothers allowed me to figure out what needed to change and what I needed to tweak in order to make things go more smoothly.
The decision to supplement breastfeeding with formula was huge, and at first, heart-breaking, but I soon realized what a dramatic change introducing formula would bring to my life. No longer would I be engaging in breastfeeding-related activities for 15 hours a day, going without food for five hours at time, breastfeeding and sobbing, wondering when and if my baby would ever be full and how much longer I could feed my child without losing my mind. Now, I breastfeed my baby for an hour at a time, and someone else can feed him a bottle while I go do the things that I need to do to take care of myself. That one choice changed everything for me—wiped out half of my stress, and spread out the responsibility of feeding my child to others, rather than having it fall on me alone.
So take the time to think about what choices you need to make in order to get the most stress-reducing bang for your buck. Tweak your physical space to make it more organized and efficient as needed—organization and structure in the physical world will decrease the chaos in your inner world. Find the supports and structures you need from within the community as well as your friends and family.
3) Tune into your body to figure out what you need to do for you. In those precious moments of quietude when your baby sleeps, just take a moment to tune in with yourself and get a sense of what you need to do next. Do you really need to take a nap? Is food a priority? Do you need a shower? Do you need to talk with someone? Or do you just need to be alone? Only you can answer those questions, only you can tune in in the moment, and discern what you need to do right now. Being present with yourself helps you better respond to both your needs and your baby's needs—when you are at your best, your baby will be at their best, too.
2) Know when you need to ask for help. This ties into number three. You need to know your limits, to know when you are too tired, too hungry, or too emotional drained to properly care for you and your child. Err on the side of caution—do not wait until you are completely overwhelmed to ask for help. I learned that the hard way. Many a time in those first two weeks, I knew I was about lose it after about 2 hours of breastfeeding, but I kept going anyway, thinking that I could just feed him a little bit longer, that he'd get full soon enough.
The result three hours later? A sobbing, hungry Mama and a wailing, hungry baby. When I was finally able to ask my husband to take over before I got so overwhelmed, things were much less stressful for all of us.
And the number one thing you can do to help you cope with your new bundle of joy? You guessed it...
1) Exercise. Now, I know some of you are thinking, "Come on, really? You want me to exercise right after having a baby? That's just not possible." Again, let me qualify that by saying that what you would do as exercise before having a baby, during pregnancy, immediately postpartum, 6 weeks postpartum and 12 weeks postpartum are all completely different.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, exercise is defined as any activity that requires physical exertion. That's all I'm saying—get up and move and you'll feel better.
As a new mom, I spent most of my time sitting—sitting and breastfeeding, sitting and changing a diaper, sitting and reading a story. For me, ten days postpartum, "exercise" was sweeping and moping my kitchen floor. Oh, you won't believe how good it felt, working up the tiniest bit of sweat! I had no idea that I could ever love cleaning my kitchen so much. Finally, I could get up and move!
At one month, postpartum, "exercise" was a twenty minute leisurely stroll with my baby and my dog.
And now, at four months postpartum, "exercise" is roller skating by myself for a half an hour while listening to Rob Zombie's "Dragula" over and over again. And the difference in my mood is night and day. Even my husband has noticed a significant change in my overall demeanor.
"Are going roller skating tomorrow morning?" he would ask. "I can stay home and keep an ear out for the baby." Because he knows when Mama's happy, everybody's happy. And what makes Mama happy is roller skating.
And so there you have it—Angela D. MacKay's Guide to Stress Management for New Parents. Do keep in mind that while this list is meant to be ranked in order of importance, as you can see, they each tie into one another, and only you can discern what you need to do when. The bottom line is that you need to trust yourself more than anything, even more than the books, more than the professionals. Give yourself permission to take care of yourself as well as your baby and everyone will be all the happier.