The adjustment to becoming a parent is a complex event that doesn’t happen overnight. While the baby might arrive in a day (or two!) this doesn’t mean that the adjustment to becoming mum or dad will happen immediately. There are many parts; including learning new skills, adjusting to your new role and renegotiating your other relationships. This all takes time, with possibly a few missteps along the way.
While parenting requires ongoing adjustments, let’s talk specifically about those first few weeks with baby. Many people consider those first few weeks (and even months) with a new baby to be some of the most stressful and overwhelming times they have had. It is common to feel sleep deprived and stressed about everything from feeding to pooing. Many new parents (and in fact some parents with older children) will have moments of self-doubt and could even be wondering if they’ve made the right choice. All these feelings and emotions are normal- even the negative ones. The challenges are also very common.
The most common themes that arise for new parents are:
- Feeding issues - parents may grapple with breastfeeding challenges, pressure to feed a certain way or uncertainty about whether baby is getting enough.
- Exhaustion - dealing with lack of sleep, frequent night waking and times when the baby is very unsettled.
- Bonding with baby - there may be things that get in the way of bonding (such as separation from parents at birth/ shortly after) which can cause distress for some parents. We do know that bonding is an ongoing process and can occur at any time, but parents might worry if they haven’t felt the overwhelming gush of love straight away (see our bonding with baby article here).
- Ambivalent or conflicting feelings - managing strong but conflicting feelings about your baby can be confusing, especially if there have been difficulties trying to conceive. It is very common to grieve for your old life, worry that you have made a mistake and feel enormous love all at the same time.
- Mental health difficulties - these may arise (or resurface) once baby comes along. This can look like a worsening of symptoms that were there previously or new symptoms that are triggered by difficult labour, hormonal changes and sleep deprivation.
- Relationship changes - the intimate couple will go through major changes in how their family unit works with a new (often demanding) member. Many women report that they start the adjustment process as their body grows and develops during pregnancy. Whereas for partners, they may start their process of adjustment once the woman is showing, when they can feel the baby kicking or even once baby arrives into the world. Additionally, family and friends go through a sort of adjustment period too as everyone is working out how this new dynamic works.
- Dealing with other people - coupled with relationship changes mentioned above, you might find that people close to you start offering advice, suggestions and possibly anecdotes about how they did things when they had kids. Being able to manage this advice without damaging relationships can be very difficult, especially in the early days when our lack of sleep can interfere with our tactfulness! While the advice is often well-meaning it usually undermines the parent’s beliefs about how they are doing in their new role.
No one can prepare you for the reality of having your own baby. You can read everything there is about having a new bub and still feel caught off guard by many of the challenges. What this information can help with however, is your own expectations of what the initial few weeks could be like for you and your family. However, if you are finding that you are struggling to cope in these times here are some tips:
- Be specific if you ask for help- for example, “mum, can you cook us a meal and bring it over? We don’t need help with the baby but are struggling to eat well and that would be a big help”.
- Talk to other new parents in an open and honest way about the challenges. It is likely they are finding similar things challenging.
- Seek professional help from someone who understands the postnatal period (see our article about why seeing a perinatal clinician is important)
- Remember that most parents have difficult times. It is easy to go towards beating yourself up, or assume you are failing if you have these thoughts. Try to be kind to yourself in these times and not add to your suffering by judging yourself harshly.
The term ‘adjustment’ seems to imply that there is an endpoint, a time where the adjusting is completed and finished, when in fact we know that having children requires constant change and fine-tuning along the way. So, whether you are pregnant, trying to conceive or have a little one already, just remember that adjusting takes time and there may be times when you feel stressed, experience negative emotions and feel overwhelmed by this new role and this is a universal parent experience.