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The New Mom's De-Stressing Plan

I had big plans for the three months I was taking off from work after my son's birth  -- mother-and-baby exercise classes, lunch dates with other new moms, a stack of novels to read, visits with friends, and walks with my blissfully peaceful newborn snuggled in his frontpack. Maybe, while he was napping, I'd even paint the living room.

Boy, was I living in a fantasy world. I never anticipated the stress I'd feel, particularly during the first six weeks of Steven's life. Looking back, of course, it makes sense. Like most parents, my husband and I knew next to nothing about newborns, nursing, jaundice, cord care, and the many colors of baby poop. Add in hair-trigger hormones, the overwhelming demands of a new baby, unrealistic expectations, and a tiredness so severe you can barely remember your last name, and you have the materials for some of the most stressful moments in your life.

Luckily, there are good ways to cope, as I found out from Alice Domar, Ph.D., a woman who knows about stress. As the director of the renowned Mind/Body Center for Women's Health at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, the author of Healing Mind, Healthy Woman, and the mother of 3-year-old Sarah, Domar  -- along with her team  -- has done pioneering work in stress management. So BabyTalk asked her to put together a program specifically for brand-new moms  -- simple, practical techniques to reduce anxiety, increase energy, and get more enjoyment out of those first, precious weeks with a baby.

And that's what she did. The methods Domar suggests aren't just simple, though; they take little time and you can use them whenever you like  -- from the day you leave the hospital on. But the New Mom's De-Stressing Plan may be especially useful during those first six weeks. Why? That's when most new mothers  -- who generally don't see their doctor again until six weeks postpartum  -- may be feeling a bit adrift, full of questions and concerns. And while Domar's program won't give you the energy to paint the living room, what you will accomplish is tremendous: You'll enjoy your newborn more and you'll discover your own inner strengths and abilities as a mother. What could be more worthwhile than that?

Alice Lesch Kelly is a freelance writer who lives in Newton, MA.

Week 1: Practice Mini-Relaxations

The first week of your baby's life is really overwhelming," says Domar, in a voice that resonates with firsthand knowledge. "There are so many things in that first week that make a new mother anxious." One of the best ways to combat anxiety when you feel it coming on is through "mini-relaxations," which means that you change from breathing shallowly to taking deep breaths that fill your abdomen. It's simple to do: When you feel anxious, stop and slowly take a deep breath. Count to four as you breathe in, pause, and then exhale. Count back as you slowly let the breath out: four, three, two, one. Repeat this a few times, then return to what you were doing. Your heart rate and blood pressure will drop, and your body will back down from the "fight or flight" response it adopts in a stressful situation.

As simple as deep breathing sounds  -- and is  -- it's vital to relieving stress. When we're anxious and upset, we breathe shallowly, which withholds oxygen from our cells and prompts an unleashing of stress hormones and energy-sapping anxiety. Practiced regularly, mini-relaxations teach you to breathe more deeply throughout the day; they also distract you from what's causing you stress and remind you that you can remain in control  -- even when everything around you seems out of control.

Domar recommends doing mini-relaxations before nursing, when you're helping your baby to latch on to your breast or take a bottle, when the baby won't stop crying, when you can't fall asleep  -- any time you feel tense. Some women, for example, feel stressed when someone else holds their baby. Doing a mini-relaxation beforehand may make you feel less upset. Of course, if you're anxious because you're concerned that Baby isn't eating enough or is ill, take action: Call the doctor.

Week 2: Take Longer Relaxation Breaks

Now you're ready to try longer, more structured relaxation breaks. This week, focus on carving out 20 minutes a day for deep relaxation. It may sound like a lot, but by taking 20 minutes or so, you allow your body to become tranquil and to experience deep relaxation, which brings about long-term physical and psychological changes  -- what's known as the "relaxation response." A cornerstone of mind-body health, the relaxation response was discovered 30 years ago by the founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, M.D., who wrote a book by the same name. "If you do formal relaxation regularly, it has a carryover effect  -- meaning, you start feeling less anxious throughout the day," Domar says.

There are a lot of different ways to elicit the relaxation response: Breath focus (paying attention to your breathing); meditation; yoga; repetitive prayer (repeating a religious word or phrase); body scan (focusing on each part of your body, releasing tension as you move from your forehead to your toes); and visual imagery (picturing yourself in a relaxed, peaceful situation) are just a few. During your second week postpartum, a daily breath focus is an excellent way to relax. Here's how to do it:

  1. Ask your husband or a trusted family member to watch the baby for 20 minutes. Settle down in a comfortable position in a quiet room free of distractions.

  2. Begin by taking a normal breath. Then take a deep, slow breath, allowing air to come through your nose and move deep into your lower belly. Breathe out through your mouth.

  3. Alternate normal breaths and deep breaths several times. As you do so, focus on your breathing, and notice the sensations throughout your respiratory system that you feel with each inhalation and exhalation.

  4. Now take a few minutes to practice breathing deeply. Let the inhalations expand your belly. Allow yourself to sigh as you exhale.

  5. For the last 10 minutes of the breath focus, imagine that the air you breathe in through your nose carries with it a sense of peace and calm, and that the air you exhale is removing tension and anxiety.

Week 3: Start Gentle Exercise and Mindful Walks

You begin to feel brain-dead at week three," says Domar. "You feel so anxious and so crazy, so tired and so tied down. Getting out of the house and exercising is crucial." If you had a vaginal delivery, you should be able to start doing some mild exercise this week. (Be sure to check with your obstetrician first; c-section moms may need to put this off for a few weeks.)

To relieve stress and tension and begin to get your body back in shape, Domar recommends "mindful" walks, which simply means that you take the time to enjoy small pleasures while you walk. If you're bringing your baby along, start by putting him into a front-pack or stroller and choosing a pleasant walking route. (Best time to go: when Baby has just been fed and is freshly diapered.) While you're walking, focus on the here and now  -- not on how little sleep you got the night before or the fact that the laundry is piling up, but on, perhaps, the way a breeze feels on your face, or even just the joy of getting out of the house. Walk slowly, fully experiencing the sensations of walking, one step at a time. As you move, smell the grass and trees; notice the buildings you pass and the people you see; really listen to birds chirping, dogs barking, lawn mowers droning. When anxious thoughts enter your mind  -- the house is a mess, the thank-you notes still need to be written, I wonder how they're surviving without me at work  -- gently acknowledge them and then let them go, as you nudge yourself back into the present moment.

After your walk, try to carry that awareness into the rest of your day. Instead of watching TV while feeding your baby, feed him mindfully, observing his mouth as he sucks, feeling the softness of his skin next to yours, smelling his hair. Being mindful  -- simply paying attention to what's happening now  -- makes it easier to find your own sense of peace and stillness and heightens your capacity to enjoy the smallest pleasures.

Week 4: Seek Emotional Support

This week, try to find other new mothers who can lend emotional support. "Just being able to get together for a few hours a week and talk to other mothers makes you feel less stressed," Domar says. Indeed, researchers have found that women with strong support systems are at lower risk for everything from the common cold to heart disease.

Kelly Sewell of Nashua, NH, the mother of two sons, ages 3 and 1, can't say enough about her mothers' group, which she joined after her second son was born. Having other moms to lean on was a huge comfort for Sewell, particularly when her son was having feeding problems. "In the beginning, when he wasn't nursing well, the moms were supportive of my decision to stop nursing," she says. "I'd nursed my first son and I knew of its importance, so the decision was agonizing. They helped me to realize that I wasn't a horrible mother for formula-feeding my baby." As her son grew, Sewell continued to receive tremendous support from the group. "It's helped take the stress out of child-rearing, because I don't have to have all the answers  -- I simply need to keep in touch with other moms who do!"

If you don't know any other new moms, be bold about finding them, Domar suggests. Ask your childbirth educator how to reach the women in your childbirth class and invite them over for a reunion. Put up a sign in your community center. Check your newspaper for new-mother support groups and ask your doctors if they know new mothers looking for a friend. Family and friends may be helpful, too.

Any kind of emotional support is a tremendous boon to a mother with a new baby, but having others who are in the same boat and with whom you can compare notes is a powerful stress-buster. "During those first weeks, it makes you feel so much better to know that somebody else feels as cruddy as you do," Domar says. "It means you aren't warped, you aren't handling motherhood badly  -- it means that this is what a newborn does to you."

Week 5: Restructure Negative Thoughts

Now's the time to start focusing on what you're thinking. Mind-body research shows that your thoughts determine your emotional state, which can in turn influence physical health. Women are prone to negative thought patterns, says Domar, and new mothers are particularly vulnerable  -- especially around the fifth week postpartum. "This is when the fatigue really gets to you and you start getting irrational," says Domar. "The negative thoughts are 'My baby is never going to sleep; I'm never going to feel better; this is awful; I feel awful; I'm still fat.' These are all negative tapes that play in our heads."

Using a process called "cognitive restructuring," though, you can learn to turn around negative thought patterns and rid yourself of a major cause of emotional distress. Essentially, cognitive restructuring means analyzing your negative thoughts, step-by-step, and turning them into positive, constructive thoughts. "It offers a way to erase these tapes and to record new tapes that are both more fair and more truthful," says Domar.

This week, when you find yourself having a negative thought, acknowledge it and then ask yourself, Does this thought make me more stressed? Where did I learn this thought? Is the thought logical? Is it true? Chances are, the negative thought won't hold up to the test of logic. Once you realize that, you can restructure it in a positive way. An example: You try on a pair of prepregnancy pants and can't get them over your thighs, let alone zip them. Your first thought (as you dissolve into tears) is, I'm fat and I'm never going to be thin again. So start by analyzing this thought: Am I fat? Well, yes. But I just had a baby and it's natural to have excess weight. Will I always be fat? No, if I eat right and exercise, this weight will come off. Then you can work on taking it a step further by saying to yourself, In fact, right now, instead of comforting myself with a bowl of ice cream, I'm going to have a bowl of sorbet and then go for a 15-minute walk. By analyzing the thought, you take away its power to cause you stress. And by turning it around you have a tool to help solve the underlying problem.

Week 6: Take Care of Yourself

For five weeks you've been devoting yourself, around-the-clock, to caring for your infant. During week six, teach yourself how to separate from your baby occasionally and take care of yourself. It's tempting to skip this step  -- after all, your baby's needs are infinite, and you may feel guilty leaving him with someone else  -- but if you fall into the trap of being a mother who denies her own needs, both you and your family will suffer. "This is the time to attend to your needs," says Domar. "Your baby doesn't need your attention 24 hours a day. In fact, she can begin learning that other people can care for her, too."

Start by giving yourself permission to take some alone time. "This may be the hardest step, because many of us were not raised to do so," Domar says. Then, find someone to watch the baby for an hour or so (consider swapping a few hours of time alone with another new mother), pump some breast milk or mix a bottle, grab a cell phone or beeper, and take off. Some possibilities: a massage; a long, meandering walk; a bit of mindful gardening; listening to your favorite songs over and over again. Or work self-nurturance into your schedule by signing up for a class; having to attend it each week makes it easier to fit in time for yourself. "It doesn't really matter what you do, as long as you're really focusing on caring for yourself," Domar says. "By treating yourself with compassion and care, you become more able to give compassion and care. And that helps make you a better mother."