Having a new baby in your life is challenging at the best of times and perhaps most of all when it is your first child. There are likely to be many happy moments but there will be difficult times too and sometimes looking after even the easiest of babies can be exhausting. Here, Christopher Barnes, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, examines what life in lockdown is like when you are a new parent and how you can help yourself and your family during this time.
Babies can be unpredictable and may not always signal their needs effectively. So, until they become older, babies may want you all the time, cry continuously or sleep little during the night. This can obviously make parenting very stressful and tiring, and while it is typical to experience some level of stress and anxiety about parenting, there are instances where parents may also experience some sort of perinatal mental health problem (e.g. Postnatal depression or anxiety).
This can happen either during pregnancy or the first year following birth (NHS, 2020) with about one in five women and one in 10 men being affected. Many people can find it difficult to talk about their mental health, but when it is centred around the time of having a baby there can be additional pressure to be happy. We are surrounded by many images of the positive and perfect life that a new baby can bring, so this can be very difficult for new parents to deal with if they instead feel guilt or shame about being anxious or unhappy (Tommys, 2020). It goes without saying that without proper treatment, mental health problems can have lasting consequences for women, their partners, and their children too.
During the COVID-19 lockdown the freedom to engage in typical day-to-day activities has been reduced, the most immediate sources of support, respite and socialisation with friends and family limited, and attendance at local parent and baby groups removed. The potential for all parents to feel isolated has been increased, regardless of whether they are experiencing a mental health issue or not. But whatever the circumstance, it is important to remember that help is at hand and you are not alone.
What is the current health advice for parents and COVID-19?
The NHS offers some advice to parents and this includes information from the World Health Organisation and The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The WHO recommends women to continue to have close contact with their baby and try to exclusively breastfeed early on where possible. Women are still being supported to breastfeed safely during this time, hold their new-born skin-to-skin, and share a room with their baby too. The WHO has has also put together some useful tips for healthy parenting during this time and it covers things such as planning one-on-one time, staying positive, creating a daily routine, and managing stress.
What support services are available for parents?
There is a lot of support available to parents who may be going through a difficult time and this includes; charities such as MIND, organisations like Home-Start or the NCT who can help new parents develop their support networks and look after their mental health, and online communities too (like Netmums) where it is sometimes just nice to share your experiences with other parents.
Maintaining social contact through video calls, joining positive online community groups, or cleaning up your social media by removing or unfollowing accounts that you feel impact upon you negatively can make such a difference. However, if you ever feel particularly affected, you should always speak with a medical professional such as your GP, midwife or health visitor. So, please don’t struggle in silence and reach out for help if you need it.
How can you help yourself and your family during this time?
Taking care of yourself and trying to be positive is incredibly important for your mental health and wellbeing – both generally and during lockdown. It goes without saying that it is important to eat well, sleep or nap whenever possible, try to do things that relax you and to be active as much as you can – all of these things help combat stress, lift mood, help with anxiety and depression and improve wellbeing. But there are other things you can do too, and below are just a few ways that might help you maintain healthy parenting.
Gain confidence in parenting – Early interactions between a parent and baby can be of great importance to the child’s later development and help form strong attachment relationships too. Our research with mothers of prematurely born babies, first time mothers and parents of children with a food allergy indicate that as parents grow in confidence, so do the improvements in things like their quality of life and new-born outcomes. Fortunately, there are plenty of things that parents can do to help build their confidence and UNICEF encourages a number of everyday activities to help. This includes what parents might do during one-on-one time with their baby such as play, singing or dancing. Parents can also use positive touch like baby massage. Many of these things, and particularly touch, are simple but effective and share many benefits; that include, helping the baby develop their communication, thinking and physical skills. Through these high-quality interactions parents gain better insight into what their baby wants, and this will often lead to an enhanced psychological health for parents too. You can read more about the different types of touch and how it can help here.
Connecting with nature – There is a great deal of research to show the benefits to health and wellbeing of connecting with nature. A connection to nature involves the feelings people have while in it or towards it and has been shown to counteract things like stress and anxiety. Our current and ongoing research within the Human Sciences Research Centre demonstrates that parents also benefit from engaging in nature with their children, and as their connection increases so does their wellbeing. Research also suggests that you can increase your connection further by doing things like listening to birdsong, enjoying natural scenery, or thinking about what nature means to you. So, wherever you live it is still possible to notice things about nature as part of your daily exercise routine and share this experience with your family.
Being compassionate to yourself and others – When you have a newborn it can be easy to be negative towards yourself or feel judged by others about your parenting. When things are difficult (like now during lockdown) it is important to be compassionate. Compassion allows you to engage with any distress you may be feeling and adapt the way you think, feel and react in order to reduce or prevent it. So, sometimes it is important to take a moment to reflect and notice how you are feeling, to be mindful, and be kind to yourself in order to be your compassionate best.
You can listen to some of the real voices and experiences of women and men who have had mental wellbeing difficulties around the time of pregnancy, childbirth and beyond – here (Positive Parenting, 2018). Charities like Tommy’s provide information that includes five ways to wellbeing to help everyone with their happiness.
BLISS – Supporting families, campaigning for change and supporting professionals, and enabling life-changing research
MIND – Advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem
National Childbirth Trust – Information, support and events to support new parents
Perinatal Mental Health Toolkit – Many useful weblinks to ‘Resources for Women and their Families’
Pink Parents – Offers support for gay and lesbian parents