5 Changes You Can Make Toward Optimal Health as a New Parent
What if good health, and in turn, more joy, was simpler and more accessible than you thought? Often, the prescription for good health ("just follow these five steps!") is simpler than the ability to follow it consistently and thoroughly. But if there was a way to narrow it down -- to choose just a few things as opposed to considering a whole self-help book's worth of changes in habits and lifestyle, then maybe, just maybe, we could implement small changes that result in big improvements in the long run.
There seems to be a consensus among therapists, psychologists, wellness experts and so on, that there are 5-7 key areas (often referred to as "pillars") in life that, if optimized and stable, will give us the best chance at good physical, mental, and emotional health. These pillars vary slightly from expert to expert, so for simplification in this post, I have chosen five pillars that are most relevant to life as a new parent and someone who is in the postpartum/fourth trimester phase of life.
Of course, there are many things you could change/incorporate under each key pillar for optimal health, but when given too many choices, we fall into the trap of overwhelm, which leads to burnout or not changing anything at all (the "freeze" in fight, flight, or freeze, which can happen in response to stress). The list below includes the two most impactful, and hopefully, most accessible actions that you can do to improve your health as a new parent.
5 Pillars for Optimal Health as a New Parent
Lack of sleep can affect so, so many areas of our lives, including disease, mental health, relationships, and basic functioning. And of course, lack of sleep is one of the major hallmarks of being a new parent. While there's not much that can be done to change the sleep/wake schedule of your baby, there are things you can do to help you get more sleep on a daily basis as a new parent.
Let go - Of your need to control everything, that is. Here's a reality check: you can't control everything. So why try to do so when it causes so much suffering? Letting go of control means that you allow someone else to hold/care for your baby or care for you and your household while you take care of yourself. It means you stop worrying about a clean house in exchange for a more rested self. It also means letting go of the idea of "perfect" and instead inviting the reality of "good enough." As a new parent, you're in survival mode, which means you need to focus on the basics in life. Sleep and rest may be the most important things you can give to yourself for the good of yourself and your baby.
Get support - Your partner, your sister, your neighbor, postpartum doula -- whatever combination of physical in-person support you can come by, get it. Here's the thing: you must ask for it directly, which will involve some of the letting go mentioned above. Sleep is so much easier to get when you're not trying to juggle the multitude of other tasks involved in day-to-day life and postpartum care.
Just because you're no longer "eating for two" doesn't mean you can or should put healthy eating and nourishment behind you! Quite the contrary. Eating the right foods after birth can impact how well and how fast you heal. Even if you didn't tear or have a c-section, your body is in a healing stage for several months after pregnancy and birth.
One fruit and one veggie every day - Forget Pinterest-worthy healthy meals. Instead concentrate on how you will get in one serving of fruit and one serving of vegetables every day. It may be as simple as adding enough applesauce and frozen broccoli to your grocery list for the week, or you may want to incorporate more creativity and diversity. Remember: simplicity is key in survival mode.
Drink water - Sometimes the simplest fix to feeling out of sorts, is to drink a tall glass of water. In general, drinking water during the postpartum period, especially if you're healing from tears or incisions, and/or breastfeeding, is crucial. Whatever you need to do to help make sure you're drinking enough water, do it -- set a timer on your phone, fill up several water glasses/bottles each morning, or pour from a large water pitcher that you finish each day.
This isn't the "how to get your pre-baby body back" kind of exercise. In fact, that misguiding and misleading headline is damaging -- physically, emotionally, and mentally -- to new parents. Physical movement that's tailored to your stage and pace of life helps bring strength and healing, which supports overall health. The key is to start slowly -- very slowly -- and work from the ground (aka, the pelvic floor) up.
Get on the floor - In the first 3-6 months after birth, the most helpful exercises can be done on your very own bedroom floor. Specifically, abdominal breath work and pelvic floor exercises rebuild the necessary foundation for healing and strength. It may feel as if these exercises aren't really exercise at all, but gentle movements help bring the body back together after pregnancy and birth, which is a critical first step toward future, more high impact exercise. For three simple but effective exercises, check out this from Legacy Physical Therapy, a specialist in pelvic floor physical therapy.
Walk - The next level exercise after rebuilding core and pelvic floor strength is walking. Not high intensity speed walking, mind you, but gentle, going as far and as slow as feels most comfortable in your body kind of walking. Beginning a walking routine immediately after birth (no matter how gentle), however, can be detrimental to or delay healing if you do not first strengthen or get evaluated for the strength of your core and pelvic floor.
The support, connection, and love from others cannot be underestimated. It boosts your mood, confidence, and mental and emotional well being. Perhaps you're lucky enough to be surrounded by a well connected village already, but if not, consider the following two ways to help create that village.
Seek other parents - Those who will best know how to help and support you will likely be the other parents in your circle of family and friends. Those who have been in your tired shoes. Find these folks and connect with them however you can -- in person, online, by phone. If you can't connect with supportive people you already know, search for a local or online new parents group.
Pick up the phone - Now is the time to pick up your phone and have actual conversations with those you love most. Call the various members of your circle for support, love, an open ear, or perhaps advice (if you ask for it, of course).
This element of life is often last on the list or overlooked entirely, but the impacts of being connected to something outside of self, or simply bringing awareness to being present in the moment can have profound impacts on your mental well being and happiness. If this is a new topic for you, there's no shortage of information about it online -- pick a resource that resonates and begin with a simple practice like meditation (even 5 minutes!), attending a church, or seeing a therapist.
Get outside - The simplest way to bring more mindfulness and attention in your life is to spend 10 minutes outside. Fresh air and natural surroundings automatically call to all of our senses and we can't help but slow down and pay attention, giving us a break from stress, to-dos, and overwhelm.
Seek professional support/guidance - The best way to jump start your connection to mindfulness and bring more clarity and peace to your mental well being is to invoke the help of a professional. Often, insurance will cover therapy and counseling, so don't assume that it's too expensive or out of your reach. Even just a few sessions can dramatically change and improve your day-to-day life.
How are you connecting with these five pillars of health? Which areas feel depleted? Which areas feel full?