Beating New-Mom Stress

by Melanie Howard

Beating New-Mom Stress

Having a baby can be magical — and crazy. Here’s how you can make your life easier

Pamela Cerrie often thinks back on the last parenting class she took before her son, Joseph Jr., was born 14 months ago. The speaker was a college professor studying new mothers, and instead of a chipper pep talk, the professor warned that being a new mom wasn't always fun, and that it could be exhausting and overwhelming.

"I thought, 'This awful woman! How could she say that about having a baby! It's wonderful and I'm looking forward to every second,'" laughs Cerrie, 29, of Fredonia, New York. "Now I'm glad she prepared me for some of the hardships of motherhood. I think as a society we don't prepare women enough."

The happiest event of a parent's life is difficult? You bet, says Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, M.D., medical director for The National Center for Children and Families, in Bethesda, Maryland. "It's normal to feel overwhelmed even about something as positive as a new baby," says Dr. Dryden-Edwards, who's also a family psychiatrist. "Stress is a reaction, a physiological and emotional adjustment to change."

Stress, as we know it, occurs when an event triggers our body's "fight or flight" response, causing symptoms such as elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, quickened breathing, and muscle tension. Major trauma, like a death in the family, can produce stress, but so can an inflated credit card bill, the prospect of giving a work presentation, or a life-change like having a baby.

These reflexes evolved long ago when a baby's cry in the night meant Mom might need to fend off a pack of wolves, not just stumble to the glider chair to nurse. Our bodies are constantly preparing us for action. If we don't find a way to control or release that tension (how many wolf packs have you fought off lately?), it can take a psychological and physical toll.

Stress has been implicated as a risk factor in health problems ranging from headaches and insomnia to high blood pressure and cardiac diseases. New mothers are especially vulnerable because they're already undergoing major physiological changes related to weight gain and loss, fluctuating hormone levels, and sleep deprivation. "You will live longer and be healthier if you learn to manage your stress," says Dr. Dryden-Edwards. You'll also be a more effective parent, experts say. "Mothers who are really overwhelmed may have difficulty sleeping, making decisions, and just maintaining daily activities," says Nancy Murray, a lactation consultant and a nurse clinician with Duke Children's Primary Care, in Durham, North Carolina, who works with new moms under stress. "These moms may find it harder to read babies' cues that they're tired, hungry, or need to be held. In turn, babies may become more fussy, mothers feel more anxious, and it gets to be a vicious cycle."

As a new parent, it's not realistic to think you can eliminate stress completely from your life, but you can and should minimize it. Recent research published by the American Psychological Association analyzed 293 studies and found short-term stress "revved up" the immune system and actually had a positive health effect, while chronic or long-term stress caused wear and tear and left subjects vulnerable to illness.

BabyTalk interviewed experts in psychology and parenting as well as veteran moms for the best advice on how to reduce your daily pressures. Here are the three most common stress "hot spots" and strategies for cooling them down.

Contain the Chaos

A new baby, with his 24-hour sleep and wake schedule and constant need for care, can leave even the most put-together woman reeling, and turn the most spotless home into an obstacle course.

Women who were super-organizers in their pre-baby lives often suffer the most from chaos-induced stress, says Murray. "If everything was perfectly organized and on time in your life before, it can be difficult to realize that babies have their own schedules, and that you may need to lower your standards."

Experts say simplifying is the secret to keeping your life not perfect, but livable. If your day-to-day routine — or lack of one — is overwhelming you, try to "do one thing differently," suggests Dr. Dryden-Edwards. For Tiffany Boone, 27, of Dunbar, Kentucky, her hair had to go. The mother of a 14-month-old and a 28-month-old, she found that blowing out her long tresses each day before leaving the house became unmanageable, so she got a new cropped 'do. "I love it," enthuses Boone. "I always swore I wouldn't be one of those moms who cuts off her hair, but it's easy to care for, the babies can't pull it, and it has taken a huge load off of me."

New moms should evaluate which beauty routines make them feel pampered and which are just a pain, says Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, Ph.D., the Durham, New Hampshire-based author of The Hidden Feelings of Motherhood and The Well Ordered Home: Organizational Techniques for Inviting Serenity into Your Life. Boone may have given up hair care, but she always puts on lipstick before leaving home. "Keep the routines that are special to you," Kendall-Tackett says, adding that moms should keep their beauty supplies in one convenient place.

Changing "just one thing" might also mean cutting back on a household task like cooking, either by preparing double dinner portions (so you can freeze the leftovers) or budgeting for take out. It could also mean simplifying your cleaning routines by keeping supplies where they're used (cleanser, gloves, and sponges in the bathroom, for example), suggests Kendall-Tackett.

Murray advises mothers to pare down their baby equipment. She says she sees mothers overloaded with new baby gizmos and suggests that moms consult their more-experienced mom-friends before going shopping, so that they only buy what they'll really use.

New moms can also try to arrange their homes with an eye toward function, not fashion. "Remember, you don't have to have everything in the house look so perfect," Murray says. "Say, okay, I'm going to have a lot of things in one room so I don't have to go all over the house, and I'm going to set up a station for myself with everything I need for me and the baby."

Rescue Your Relationship

"I didn't have any idea the birth of a newborn would be so hard on us," admits Pamela Cerrie, who says her husband, Joseph, 34, seemed to suffer from "displaced Dad syndrome." "He was upset at being bumped out of the number one spot, and I didn't handle it very well," she says. "I just told him 'Baby Joe is the only one in this house allowed to be a baby right now.'"

Joseph Cerrie's confusion over his role and Pam's anger are typical of what many couples experience postpartum, experts say. "You are undergoing such a time of change as a couple," says Toni Zimmerman, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins.

One key stressor is the increased family workload and the tendency of women, even those who were in equitable relationships before baby, to find themselves in charge of child-related duties. "If the father doesn't step up to the plate as a fully functioning partner from the get-go, that can be quite damaging to a marriage," says Zimmerman. Often, she adds, this isn't Dad's fault, it's just a gap in communication: "In general, fathers are well-meaning, but we socialize them to the sidelines."

New parents don't have to fall into these patterns, says Zimmerman. "Many of the changes that occur when you have a baby are magical. You can fall in love with each other all over again because you fall in love with each other as parents and share a common love that is quite intense." The solution is to address stressful changes in your relationship up front. "Be proactive, so you can enjoy the magic," she says.

Zimmerman says just talking, rather than fuming, is the first step to remedying postpartum relationship stress. "Couples have to talk about sharing work beforehand and during," she says. "They may never get it right, but they should be in constant communication to work toward that."

Family researcher Alyson Shapiro, Ph.D., at the Relationship Research Institute, in Seattle, Washington, has found that couples can not only maintain but improve their marital satisfaction after the birth of a child. In an article in the Journal of Family Communication, Shapiro details a program, "Bringing Baby Home," that she and other researchers have developed based on successful new-parent strategies. "The big take-home message from our research is that it's important for couples to treasure their relationship and foster fondness and admiration for each other," she says. Often, it's as much about attitude as strategies. Successful couples, she says, "approach stresses as challenges you can meet as a team rather than as something chaotic and out of control." Couples can think ahead to find specific ways that the father can be involved, says Shapiro. "If Mom is breastfeeding, maybe Dad can handle bathing and that can be his special father time."

Cerrie says things are going more smoothly now that her husband is taking her son to and from daycare and feels more involved. "It's been very good for them," she says. "Joey is very communicative and interactive, and since they've been enjoying this time together, Joe has been helping out a lot more around the house."

Parents should also try to cheerlead each other's efforts with the new baby, says Zimmerman, rather than criticize. She points out that a Dad who is told he can't put diapers on right may decide not to try. She also suggests new parents set up a weekly meeting to organize the practical side of running the family. Compare calendars, see what everyone's needs are, and divvy up the work. That way no one's suit ends up left at the dry cleaners the night before an important meeting, the household doesn't run out of toilet paper, and there are fewer arguments about who was supposed to call the sitter."But along with running the family, it's very important to find love within the organization," Zimmerman adds. With the tasks divvied up, new parents will find more time to spend reconnecting with each other (and Dad may be pleasantly surprised to find that Mom is less exhausted and more romantic if she's had a nap, a break from cooking, or an hour out). "It can just be simple time," she says. "You can play cards or walk the baby in the stroller when he's sleeping."

Tiffany Boone says she and her husband, who live in the country, love to put the girls to bed, and then sit out on the deck just listening to the crickets at night. "We can see so many stars where we live, and we just love to go out and look at them together."

Remember that "togetherness" is for talking about politics, music, the weather  — anything but baby and household stuff. "Think back to when you were dating," says Zimmerman. "Sometimes you talked about deep things, and sometimes you talked about who won the ball game. If you talked about housecleaning and bills all the time, well, you wouldn't keep dating!"

See Shades of Gray

One week, I was "Melanie Howard, Award-Winning Journalist," and the next week, after my daughter was born, I wasn't. At least, that's how I felt. As much as I adored my baby, I still had dreams about my job from which I'd wake up in tears, convinced I'd never be a writer or work again.

When women today become mothers, most of them have been in the workforce, so they are switching from a job where they've been an "expert" to one where they are totally inexperienced, says Kendall-Tackett. Not only that, but suddenly they are completely responsible for all the needs of another human being, and their new "boss" isn't going to give them clear-cut feedback in the form of evaluations and raises.

For women who stay home or switch to part-time, it also may change the balance of power in their marital relationship or how people treat them, says Kendall-Tackett. For mothers who return to work, there's the push-pull of family time versus work time and the constant guilt that they're not doing enough on either front. In both situations, women may feel alone, depressed, and unsure of who they are anymore. Kendall-Tackett did. "That for me was a shock as a new mom," she says. "I thought, this is it, my life is over." Instead of thinking in black and white terms about motherhood versus work and "the old me" versus "the new me," experts say new mothers should think in shades of gray. It's less overwhelming to look at a change as something you are doing for a while, rather than forever. (This isn't just a mind trick. Note that Kendall-Tackett has written several books since her "life was over," and, obviously, I'm writing this story.)

Mothers should realize that the decision to return to work or stay home is highly personal. "For some families, it's too hard to sacrifice the money a woman earns, while others might decide that eating Hamburger Helper is easier than having Mom returning to work," says Dryden-Edwards. Whatever your choice, says Kendall-Tackett, if you can think through why you're doing it and feel good about your decision, you'll be less anxious if others question you.

Tiffany Boone recently started working on an occasional basis for a local catering firm, despite the fact she has to drive nearly an hour to her mother's to drop off the children. "It barely pays my gas," she admits, "but it's the biggest stress relief. I get out of the house, I get to have adult conversations, and I know the girls are with my mother."

For both at-home and working moms, support can help the adjustment to parenthood, says Murray. "You can join a mothers group, which is particularly helpful for at-home mothers or during maternity leave," she says. "You can also start 'networking' in parks and talk to others who are going through this change." Since Pam Cerrie became a new mother, she's reached out through online support groups and has spent whole days on the phone with an old college roommate who also had a new baby.

New moms also need to remind themselves of who they are besides Mom, says Murray. "Getting out and doing something that you used to do before the baby came can really help you see the forest for the trees," she says. Plan something every other day, she suggests, whether it's a haircut, a walk with a friend, or an exercise class. If your budget won't allow for a sitter, be ready to roll when your husband gets home from work, or join a babysitting co-op. Pam Cerrie relaxes with quilling, a decorative hobby, while Tiffany Boone pursues photography.

"Just remember, whatever you do, it has to be what is best for you," says Dr. Dryden-Edwards. "Be creative. Standard advice on reducing stress may help, or it may not. Just find something that's constructive and healthy for your life. If it works for you, well, that's the test."

Proven Stress-Busters: Try One Right Now!

Are you a little stressed out? These five strategies are guaranteed to make you feel better  — fast!

Break a sweat: The National Institutes of Health report that exercising 20 minutes a day or more can reduce stress and build confidence. Easy ways to fit exercise (with your doctor's okay, of course) into your schedule include:

* Walking with your husband and baby in the stroller for 10 to 20 minutes in the morning or evening.

* Joining a "Mom and Baby" exercise class (check your local hospital, recreation center, or YMCA for offerings). These make fitness fun and social, and you don't need a sitter.

* Finding a nearby yoga class (many studios offer classes especially for new mothers). Yoga is soothing and impact-free, and those stretchy yoga clothes are a great, comfortable look in and out of class for postpartum figures.

Get out: Plan a regular activity that gets you out of the house. Have your husband, a relative, or a sitter watch your baby (don't forget to pump a bottle of milk if you're nursing), and join a book or cooking club. Swim laps with a friend at the local YMCA or look into activities at religious institutions — many offer free classes and moms' groups.

Eat: Poor nutrition can sap your energy level and increase stress, says Nancy Murray, a lactation consultant with Duke Children's Primary Care, in Durham, North Carolina. She recommends that Mom or Dad (or Grandma, if she's nearby) spend time each evening loading the fridge with individual servings of nutritious foods and cold drinks so that it's easy for Mom to grab a meal while she's taking care of the baby the next day. Sandwiches are ideal because they can be eaten one-handed while nursing or giving a bottle.

Murray also suggests disposable plates and cups to minimize cleanup. Feel like you can't make it out of the nursery? Plug in a mini-fridge to store snacks as well as pumped breast milk or leftover formula.

Although post-pregnancy weight can be a source of stress, experts urge nursing moms to avoid dieting which can compromise the quality of your breast milk. Eating right and exercising should slim you down, or you can talk to your doctor about ways to cut calories safely.

Pamper yourself: In childbirth rituals around the world, new mothers are celebrated and pampered. Since celebrations in this country mainly revolve around the baby, you need to pamper yourself. Get someone to watch the baby, and schedule a manicure or facial, or for a low-cost alternative, hit your favorite makeup counter at the local department store where sales reps are usually happy to give you a free makeover.

When you can't get away, create your own at-home "spa." Shut the door to the bedroom and the door to the bathroom, and take a long, steamy shower. Pick up some soothing, scented bath and body products to complete your home spa treatment. Some fragrances, like lavender and chamomile, are thought to soothe nerves.

Enjoy date night at home: Sure it's more fun to go out to a nice restaurant or movie with your husband, but sometimes it doesn't work out. Instead, commit to one "date" a week, whether you leave the house or not. If you rent a movie, choose a comedy — a 2003 study found that laughter reduces stress and can boost the immune system.

Get help: If you feel overwhelmed by stress, you can and should seek professional counseling. Women sometimes don't seek support because they're afraid that it makes them a horrible mother to feel stressed or depressed after childbirth, says Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, M.D., medical director for the National Center for Children and Families, in Bethesda, Maryland. Instead, think of it as getting the help you need to be an effective parent.

The National Mental Health Association has a comprehensive resource list and a 24-hour hotline for those who need immediate help (800-784-2433). Or check out the "therapist locator" at the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy website.