By Linda Melone
The excitement of becoming a new mother can quickly become overshadowed by exhaustion. Simple practices, such as asking for help when you need it and eating healthy foods to keep up your energy, can go a long way towards a happier postpartum experience.
Experts chime in on their favorite self-care tips—and how caring for yourself will make you a better mom.
Practice Self-Massage and Yoga-Style Breathing
Sometimes things that feel good are also good for you. One example: self-massage.
“Self-massage increases the blood supply to the soft tissues of the hand, wrists and sides of the back and belly area,” says Michele Olson, PhD, CSCS, senior clinician of sport science at Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Alabama.
Self-massage may be done using the palm of your hands or fists while gently pushing and rolling muscles in circular motions, always toward your heart; while applying body lotion after a shower is an ideal time. Press against a tennis ball on the floor or against a wall to target tight spots you can’t reach with your hands.
Olson says you can also combine massage “with yoga-style breathing to get your deep abs working again: Breathe deeply on four counts and exhale slowly on six counts, filling your diaphragm and belly with air.”
Olson suggests this routine as a warmup and cooldown for stroller walks; using a 1-to-10 exertion scale, aim for a moderate level of about 4 to 5. “Your hormone levels and uterus have to moderate and heal before you engage in more vigorous activity after about eight weeks,” she notes.
Find Ways to Keep Active
The fatigue of caring for a newborn makes exercise seem like an impossible task. However, low-key activities such as yoga or stretching can help restore social ties with other new moms as well as provide self-care.
“Establish a network of mothers (and caretakers) that you can call on for support and empathy,” says Stephanie J. Wong, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in San Mateo, California. “Try to stay active even if it’s carving out five minutes to take a shower, or taking a brisk walk with the baby in the stroller.”
Once everyone is able to move about freely again, do something nice for yourself every other week, such as Mommy-and-Me yoga classes. “The public libraries also offer reading and sing-a-long times,” says Wong. “This helps new moms get out of the house and provides an opportunity to socialize with other parents.”
Avoid Inflammatory Foods
Choosing nutritious foods is crucial. “A new mom’s body is recovering from a major event, regardless of how delivery occurred,” says nutritionist Lisa Richards of TheCandidaDiet.com. “She needs nutrient-dense food to promote healing and immune health.”
Richards adds that a proper diet can help prevent chronic inflammation, which can lead to many problems including slowed healing and such emotional side effects as fatigue, anxiety and poor sleep.
New moms should stay well hydrated and focus on whole fruits and vegetables, according to Richards. Stock the refrigerator and pantry with easily accessible nutrient-dense food and snacks, such as nuts and seeds.
Avoiding refined carbohydrates such as sugary sweets can also help. “Refined carbohydrates and sugar can lead to poor gut health, and we know that the gut is the key to immunity,” Richards notes.
Prioritize Sleep by Planning Ahead
Getting enough sleep can be a serious challenge for a new mom but must be a priority, says Eva Klein, JD, a certified infant and child sleep consultant in Toronto. As she puts it, “The adrenaline rush of giving birth to a new baby is going to wear off rather quickly, and the exhaustion involved with being up every few hours soon kicks in.”
Even though newborn babies usually eat every two to three hours a night, Klein says a new mom can still get herself a four to six hour chunk of sleep if she:
1) Feeds the baby.
2) Hands the baby off to her partner and goes to sleep.
3) Has her partner offer the next feed so that she doesn’t have to wake up (for breastfeeding moms, hold off on this step until breastfeeding is established).
4) Feeds the baby at the following feed.
By this point, mom could easily get herself a five-hour stretch of sleep. “This is worth its weight in gold at this stage,” notes Klein.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
Right now, having visitors just isn’t possible. However, don’t be shy about calling on your partner for assistance and your wider support network (such as family and friends) for advice via phone, Skype, email or social media. Also seek out new-mom groups with chat functions in which you can air your feelings, doubts or fears.
Once it’s possible, when people offer to help, take them up on it—and if you need something, ask. Don’t be afraid to let others make dinner, pick older kids up from school or grab a few things for you on their next trip to the store.
Ditch Expectations and Comparisons to Other New Moms
One of the best things that a new mother can do for herself and for her child is to forgo expectations about how things “should” be, especially expecting things to be perfect.
“Realize how susceptible you are to criticism and protect yourself from your own thinking, which will make things harder than they already are,” says Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Yourself From Anxiety (Da Capo Lifelong).
Sometimes other mothers appear to be put-together and energetic. The instinct is to ask yourself, “What’s wrong with me?” Chansky says you should keep in mind that those moms look just like you when they get home. “Your experience is your experience, you want to be there for it as much as possible, rather than looking over the stroller at what you imagine is someone’s else’s experience,” she adds.
Setting clear boundaries is another crucial way to care for yourself that you may not have considered.
“Prepare your friends and family for baby’s arrival,’’ says Tamiko Kelly, a certified child sleep consultant in Austin.
Under any circumstances, “you want to set the expectation that you won’t be having visitors for the first two weeks after you’re home from the hospital,” Kelly says. “Everyone will be so excited to meet your new bundle of joy and many will want to come meet the new baby immediately.” (Under the current circumstances, of course, everyone needs to avoiding visiting anyway.)