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New-Mom Stress Soothers

Magical, yes. But no one ever said the first few months at home with a newborn are blissful. "Being responsible for another human being can be so emotionally and physically draining that it's normal to be very anxious in the beginning," says Marguerite Truesdale, R.N., director of Baby Matters, the parent-education program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "But it's important to try to keep stress in check and take care of yourself so you can enjoy this time and stay strong for your baby." Here's how:

Get moving. Even walking 30 minutes a day a few times a week can boost endorphin levels, which, in turn, relieves tension. (Check with your doctor before resuming physical activity.)

Sneak in some shut-eye. It's no surprise that sleep deprivation is one of the leading causes of stress among new parents. So it's important to nap whenever you can -- especially when your baby sleeps. Don't say, "Now's my chance to clean the house." Instead, turn off the phone and hit the hay.

Eat healthfully. Rather than snacking on whatever you can grab, make sure you're getting nutritious, balanced meals, complete with fruits, vegetables, and protein. You're still eating for two in a sense -- you need enough energy to take care of your little one.

Open up. Bottling your worries will only make you feel isolated. Instead, talk to other moms who understand what you're going through -- your mother, a friend, or even neighborhood acquaintances.

Cut back on caffeine. Besides the obvious -- it's a major sleep saboteur -- caffeine does anything but help you mellow out because it makes your heart beat faster, says Nada Stotland, M.D., a women's mental-health expert and professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College in Chicago. Try to limit yourself to one or two cups of coffee or soda a day -- tops.

Take shortcuts. Order in dinner, stock up on prepared meals, use paper plates, and consider getting any appliance that saves time, such as a microwave, says Stotland.

Learn how to say no. "When you do something you don't want to do just to please someone else, it's very stressful," says Elizabeth Stirling, Ph.D., a psychologist in Santa Fe. Don't feel guilty about politely cutting your mother-in-law's stay short, for instance.

Schedule time away from the baby. "It's not healthy to be with your newborn 24 hours a day," says Stirling. "A mother needs some 'me time.'" Allow others to bathe your child, dress him, and feed him (pump or prepare formula ahead of time) so he's not totally dependent on you. Then do something that's just for you, whether it's getting a pedicure, reading a juicy novel, or having lunch with a friend.

Don't be a perfectionist. "No parent is perfect, and babies don't need them to be," says Truesdale. "By caring for your child and loving him, you're doing the best you can -- and that's more than good enough."