Listen: Psychologist Heather Irvine shares mental health tips for new mums.
Despite the joys of a newborn baby, many new mums have a constant “mental cage fight” going on inside their head, as they heap themselves with self-doubt all day long.
Commonly known as mummy-guilt, it’s the root of a lot of postnatal depression, according to psychologist Heather Irvine.
In her new book Hello Baby, Heather shares tips for new mums on how to look after their mental health. She tackles topics like sleep routines, bonding with baby, navigating social media, managing tough days, and building support networks.
Mum’s Health Just as Important as Bub’s
Chatting to Hope 103.2’s Laura and Duncan, Heather said self-care is one of the most important keys to a mother’s mental health—and their baby’s too.
“What mums need to know is that they’re important,” she said. “One of the key factors that seems to lead to some of their postnatal depression and anxiety is, the mother is incredibly important while she’s pregnant – everyone is big on her getting rest, sleep, the right positions, gets fed well, is cared for – and then once you have the baby, it’s almost like mums stop being important.”
In fact, after the birth is when mum’s nutrition and rest are more important than ever.
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Tip 1 – Build Social Networks
When women lack a social support network, they’re much more likely to experience dark days. If you’ve moved to a new area and don’t have your old networks around you, building new friendships is a key to good mental health during motherhood.
“Social supports are big factor in predicting who may or may not get postnatal mental health issues,” she said. “When you’re the first to have the baby and none of your friends are in the same space, that can get very lonely very quickly. It’s adult contact that’s often very much missing in a mother’s day.”
Tip 2 – Avoid the Pressure of Social Media
Social media has a terrible way of making mothers feel guilty, unworthy and less than beautiful. Even if you’re only using Facebook and other platforms to get advice from your friends, it may be hampering your mental health if you find yourself constantly checking for responses.
Heather encourages women to limit their social media time. It may be helpful to have a social media detox and work on having face-to-face connection with friends instead—even if you have to call for support and ask them to come to you.
Hello Baby contains tips on navigating the world of social media as a new mother.
Tip 3 – Get Enough Sleep
A third of all mothers who think they have postnatal depression, are in fact just sleep deprived. That’s why Heather encourages women to think creatively about how they can get better sleep.
“Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep in your mental health,” she says. “It’s absolutely fundamental and if you have no support you might need a night nanny, or get a friend in to get a couple hours of sleep. That’s crucial.”
In her work as a psychologist she also works on helping women to overcome guilt, so that they can have a nap when their baby finally does settle.
Tip 4 – Watch Your Thinking
One of the biggest factors in postnatal depression is guilt and self-doubt.
“The most important thing in terms of kids’ wellness is having a sane mum,” Heather said. “So whether you use a particular bottle, a particular pram, a particular settling method, is important—but if you’ve got a really stressed-out mum because she feels like she’s not getting anything right, then a lot of things start to go wrong very quickly.”
Mums can reduce their negative thinking, by putting less pressure on themselves to do everything perfectly. For those who are struggling with their thinking, counselling can be a key ingredient in breaking the cycle of negative thinking.
Tip 5 – Slow Down Your Breathing
An unexpected factor that plays a role in a mother’s mental health, is breath rate: the speed at which you’re breathing. If you’re breathing quickly, that’s a sign you’re feeling traumatised, and according to Heather it can affect your mental health.
“High breath rates are pushing us into psychological disorders,” Heather said. “Lower breath rates lead us into the headspace to be able to make decisions , be creative and be ourselves.”
Tip 6 – Support of Partners
In her practice as a psychologist, Heather works on helping husbands and partners to understand the daily challenges mothers face when raising a baby.
“Some of them continue to see a day with a baby as almost a day off,” she said. “We need to bring them in and make sure that’s not how they see it—so that when they get home from work, and they can see a really worn out mum, they don’t say, ‘What have you done all day’, or ‘I’m still waiting for my dinner’.
“They need to be asking ‘How are you going sweetheart, how are you feeling, where are you up to, what went on for you today’ and give a sense of ‘We’re a team’.”
Couples facing conflict over their roles are encouraged to seek counselling together.
Remember the Dads
While she spends a lot of time supporting women, Heather says it’s important not to forget fathers who may also struggle with a new baby and need the care of their partner and their community as well.
“We actually know that for every mum that has postnatal depression, half that number of dads will have it too,” she said. “So you can see that in some families it’s a double whammie, where both mum and dad experience a postnatal mental health issue.”