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David Baxter PhD

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Babyproof Your Sanity -- 6 Tips for New Parents
July 18, 2005
By Sherry Rauh, WebMD

Sleep deprivation combined with the constant demands of caring for a baby can test your limits. The challenges of having a new baby can take their toll, but while you are focusing on your bundle of joy, don't forget to take care of yourself.

1. Take Care of Your Health
"The health of a family depends on the health of the mother," says Elizabeth Stein, CNM, who has a private practice in New York called Ask Your Midwife, PC. She recommends following up on any conditions identified during pregnancy, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, and focusing on good nutrition rather than weight loss. "I remind new moms that it took 40 weeks to gain 40 pounds, so she should give herself that long to lose it."

Sharon Wishner, a single mother with a 4-month-old son, says taking care of herself was tougher than she expected during her first few weeks as a new mom. "You know you need to eat because you need the strength, but I was so tired that I didn't have an appetite," she tells WebMD. "You think, 'Should I go to sleep or should I eat?' I didn't think about showering or dressing. My choice was whether to eat or sleep."

New parents often make the mistake of skipping meals, according to Judith Chamberlain, MD, a member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Family Physicians. "There's a tendency not to bother to eat," she says, although good nutrition and rest are equally important. She also recommends a flu shot and regular hand washing, "especially if your baby is in daycare."

2. Tag-Team to Get Some Sleep
Chronic sleep deprivation doesn't only lead to exhaustion, but it can also interfere with your memory, your mood, your concentration, and your ability to cope with your new responsibilities. It can also make you more susceptible to illness.

While some degree of sleep deprivation is usually a fact of life for new parents, there are strategies for maximizing your shut-eye. "One of the most common mistakes young couples make is they both get up with the baby," Chamberlain tells WebMD. She says parents are better off dividing the night into shifts. "They should take turns. One should stay up and one should sleep. The one who is up should take the baby to a totally different part of the house if necessary."

Of course, tag-teaming isn't usually an option for single parents. "The first six weeks were pretty tough," Wishner says. "It was just me and my baby." Luckily, her son, Shane, started sleeping through the night at 11 weeks. Until then, "I just tried to sleep whenever he slept."

3. Take Personal Time
Quality time away from your child is just as important as quality time with your child, says Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and chairman of the department of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University. "You have to nurture yourself so you're not running on fumes," he tells WebMD. What qualifies as quality time? "Working out, walking, reading a book, sitting down with a close friend. It can be almost anything that relaxes and centers you, and takes you away from the immediacy of someone else's needs."

Psychologist Arthur Kovacs, PhD, stresses that your own needs don't disappear when you have a baby. "Every human has three critical needs -- solitude, human warmth and companionship, and the need to feel productive, that one is making use of one's talents. If you're a conscientious parent, you may forget about this. But it's important to spend at least a few hours a week on something other than changing diapers."

4. Accept Help
Stein tells WebMD that women who have insufficient help may feel overwhelmed by "the daily, unrelenting chores of new motherhood." She says this can increase the risk of postpartum depression. For a less stressful adjustment to life with a baby, "family should be encouraged to help, and paid help should also be considered."

Wishner says, in addition to accepting food from neighbors and friends, she devised a few shortcuts to reduce chore time. "I'm not one who likes to do a lot of laundry, so I have enough clothes and sheets to last me two weeks."

5. Maintain a Social Life
"It is too easy to become focused at an infant or toddler level of interaction and stop being an adult," Shapiro says. Making plans with other adults, particularly new parents who understand what you are going through, can prevent feelings of isolation and give you an emotional support system.

Wishner says she finds it helpful to spend time with other first-time moms she met through a prenatal yoga class. "We get together at least weekly and do [mother-baby] classes and stay busy," she tells WebMD. She adds that she benefits not just from receiving support, but from providing it as well. "It helps me to feel needed, knowing that these women who are new friends look to me for support."

6. Spend Time With Your Partner
If you have a spouse or partner, "fight to spend some time together," Kovacs advises. Hire a babysitter, enlist the help of relatives, do whatever it takes to get an occasional evening out for an intimate dinner or a long walk. "Don't let the relationship idle," he warns. "Weeds will grow."

Staying close to your partner is not only vital to your health and the future of your relationship, "it is the very best thing you can give your child," according to Shapiro, who is the author of The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Father You Wish Your Father Had Been. We'll have more on strengthening your relationship in Part 3 of our series.

If You're Over 40
If you're having your first child as a 40-something, the transition to parenthood is likely to be harder in some ways, easier in others. As Shapiro puts it, you'll have less energy but more patience.

Kovacs agrees. "There's nothing like life wisdom that prepares people for having a child. You don't have as much physiological stamina, but you're much better prepared emotionally."

Wishner, who is 41, has found she is the support person for younger moms, but she doesn't think her age is a factor. "I don't think I would have felt differently if I had done this 10 years ago," she says, adding, "I've wanted a child all my life. This was the biggest dream I ever had, and now I have it. So emotionally, I'm in heaven."

SOURCES: Elizabeth Stein, CNM, Ask Your Midwife, PC. Sharon Wishner, first-time mother. Judith Chamberlain, MD, board of directors, American Academy of Family Physicians. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist; professor and chairman, Department of Counseling Psychology, Santa Clara University; author, The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Father You Wish Your Father Had Been. Arthur Kovacs, PhD, clinical psychologist.
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