I can tell you now, that being completely prepared for the arrival of a new baby is impossible! However, lots can be done to arrive as prepared and organised as possible, with the right information and without unrealistic expectations.
The transition to parenthood is associated with many changes and challenges and, as a result, parents have to deal with high levels of stress. Therefore, it is not surprising that mental health problems are common during this period.
It is therefore important for parents to reduce their levels of stress, to protect their wellbeing and their baby’s too, as stress during pregnancy and postnatally can also have negative effects on the infant's development.
To reduce stress, it is important to start thinking about possible strategies that can help deal with the changes and meet the requests of this period. Practical examples include:
building a network of support for the family to receive help and avoid loneliness
delegating house tasks so you can sleep when the baby sleeps
reducing unnecessary commitments
being flexible and self-compassionate about what is feasible to do with a newborn baby
include some time for self-care.
Below I will discuss some of the aspects that would be helpful to consider, based on my experience as a mum and my work as a psychologist.
The importance of self-care and social support
We said it already: taking care of a baby is a 24-hour job, with no breaks or holidays. This is why mothers (and fathers) can feel exhausted, but often carry on doing everything by themselves and don’t ask for help. This is partly due to the fact that it is not culturally recognised that parenting can be very tiring. It is not uncommon to hear things like, "Why are you always so tired? You are at home all day!"
It is important to recognise that taking care of a baby alone is challenging, and asking for help does not mean you are a bad parent. Indeed, receiving emotional and practical support is an important protective factor for the mother's wellbeing, and therefore, for the baby’s wellbeing too. If a mother has been emotionally supported and has time to rest or do something for herself, she will have more energy for the baby and will be more likely to take care of them in a sensitive way.
Remember that taking care of ourselves as mothers means taking care of our baby too.
The needs of the new-born baby
As we have discussed previously, babies don’t have bad habits but have actual needs that have to be met. Therefore, it is important to be aware of these needs and think of possible strategies that can be implemented to help you meet these needs.
For example, newborn babies often require lots of physical contact with the caregiver and can manage very limited time on their own. A possibility to satisfy this need is baby-wearing, which leaves you hand-free for other things.
Furthermore, often babies need to be fed frequently, not only because their stomach is small, but also because sucking doesn’t satisfy only hunger but also helps the infant to calm down, receive reassurance, alleviate pain, connect with the mother, and sleep. This behaviour is referred to as "comfort nursing".
There is growing evidence on the importance of "responsive" feeding — also called "baby-led" or "on-demand" feeding, regardless of whether it is breastfeeding or formula feeding. This means following the baby’s cues for feeding rather than timings. This is associated with a number of positive effects for the baby, even in the long term, such as better infant cognitive development.
Last but not least, babies don’t only need sleep and feeding, but lots of other things too, such as adequate stimulation with a caregiver who treats them as individuals with minds of their own.
Building a relationship with the baby
As with any other relationship, the parent-infant relationship is a "building process", which requires time and effort, as parent and infant need to get to know each other.
For some parents, the development of the relationship with their baby is fairly straightforward, while for others it takes more time. There is no right or wrong.
However, as the relationship with the baby starts in pregnancy, it can be useful to start creating "a space in the mind for the baby" during this period, which means starting to build an emotional connection with the baby.
Examples of what you could do include: talking with the baby, listening to music with them, focusing on their movements and how they may feel at the moment, touching the belly, and thinking about what you could be doing together once the baby is born.
After delivery, you will slowly get to know each other and you will gradually start understanding their cues and signals, and the relationship will build up day-by-day. It is not always easy to understand what the baby is telling us and what they need, and this requires time. We will talk more about this in the next blog.
Remember that every baby is different!
Once again, it is easier for you to build a healthy relationship with the baby if you receive support from the people around you.
The cultural views and expectations with regard to parenthood
There are many cultural, unrealistic expectations that surround parenthood. For example, it is a general thought that becoming parents is only characterised by joy. However, parents can feel stressed, frustrated, and bored. This is normal, considering the amount of effort required.
Also, becoming parents is a learning process and it is important to not have high and rigid expectations about it. When a baby is born, a new mother and father are also born.
Furthermore, no matter what mothers do, it is likely they will receive some criticism. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear things like, "Have you not come back to work yet? The baby is grown up now". Or the opposite: "Why did you come back to work so early? The baby is still little and needs you". Or "you should work part-time to have more time for the baby", or "if you worked full-time you could earn more money". Remember that nobody else knows better than you what’s best to do in your circumstances for you, your baby, and your family.
In addition, in our society, mothers are often expected "to work as they were not mothers and be mothers as they were not working". Obviously, this is very difficult as it is challenging to perform each of these tasks as though the other one does not exist.
Mothers also often suffer from what is commonly called the "mental load of motherhood", meaning that often they are those responsible for hundreds of baby- and house-related tasks, with the consequence that their brains are constantly occupied by pressing thoughts of things that need to be done.
"Are we running out of nappies? What can we eat for dinner? I need to book the baby health check. I need to buy winter clothes". It is easy to understand how these constant thoughts can affect the mother's energy and ability to concentrate and perform at work. It is important to make a plan to allocate tasks between different family members and off-load the mother as much as possible.
Breastfeeding is a competence that needs to be learned
We all know that breastfeeding is beneficial as it provides nutrients and antibodies for the baby, promotes mother-infant attachment, and protects the mother from some diseases. However, breastfeeding is not always easy, and a competence that needs to be learned and, in fact, many women need some support with it.
Also, women need to do what’s best for them. Breastfeeding is important but is more important that women are happy and don’t feel forced to do something they don’t want to do. Babies need an emotional connection, a caregiver that is there for them, and this can be achieved regardless of the type of feeding chosen. It seems a slogan, but it is actually true: when a mother is happy, her baby is too!
In summary, becoming parents is associated with many changes and challenges in many aspects of our lives including our identity, our couple relationship, and our sleep. Our way of thinking and priorities also change. It is therefore important to be as prepared as possible while not having unrealistic expectations. Pregnancy is a good opportunity to start preparing and then when the baby arrives, there will be a further gradual process of mutual adaptation.
For our wellbeing, it is important to do what we think is best for us and our baby, reduce stress, and have some time for ourselves. This will help us to have the mental and emotional space for our baby.