By Melissa Fiorenza (volunteer)
“It takes a village to raise a child.” An old African proverb, those words could not be more spot on today. With two kids of my own, I have no shame in saying that if it weren’t for my parents, my in-laws, and everyone else who has somehow contributed to the health and happiness of my children, we’d be a total mess. That said, if I could travel back a few centuries and make one time-honored tweak to that proverb, it’d be this: It takes a village to raise a child… and new parents.
“In American culture, all of the attention is placed on the baby once he or she enters the world and the new parent becomes an afterthought,” Paige Bellenbaum, LMSW, of The Motherhood Center in New York City told me. “Yet moms require physical and emotional attention too,” she says. Absolutely. And fathers need that attention too.
Without it, we risk losing parents into the depths of sleep deprivation, anxiety, the baby blues, and depression. In other words, poor mental health. I had postpartum depression with one birth and not for the other, but in both cases, it was the help from my husband, family, friends, and professionals that made all the difference in those first few months. I think we can all agree that even new parents who appear to have it all together on the surface could still use a hand.
So while our culture as a whole has some work to do, here are 7 ways to help new parents that will have immeasurable impact. (Special thanks to those who shared their tips with me!)
- Let them have sleep. One survey* found that nearly half of all parents with children six months or younger get just one to three hours of uninterrupted sleep at night. Not okay! The more rested the parent, the safer the baby. And research shows that sleep disruption can wreak havoc on the brain. While giving the parent some time to nap is great, offering to spend a full night to care for their baby—bottle feeding and all—could mean the world to them and improve their mental health.
- Encourage self-care. Not only is it hard for some new parents to accept assistance (like me, with my first child!), it might be tough to even make a decision about what to do with that help when their mind is elsewhere. When visiting, be specific: offer to watch the baby while they exercise, go on a date, or even just watch their favorite TV show for some sense of normalcy. I remember after my first was born, someone told me to go relax in a hot shower while she watched my son. As soon as the water started flowing, so did my tears. It was a release of emotions that I didn’t realize I needed, and it was so nice knowing I didn’t have to rush out this time. My #1 priority in that moment: my mental health.
- Validate their feelings. Sometimes, it’s what you say that can give them peace. Bellenbaum told me: “We can give permission to a new parent to feel overwhelmed and afraid if that’s how they feel, and let them know that not everyone bonds immediately with their baby—it takes time.” A new mom I know adds: “Having another Mom come over and have candid conversations with me helped immensely. Hearing that, yes, breastfeeding hurts in the beginning, and yes, you’ll be so tired you’ll want to cry all the time made me feel like all my struggles were perfectly normal (and they were).”
- Keep their family fed. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro at whipping up frozen meals or at ordering takeout—either way, it’s food, and it’ll be much appreciated. Better yet, set up a meal train with friends so the new parents don’t have to think twice about when they’ll grocery shop or what to cook. (There are websites and apps that makes the coordination super simple!) Keep in mind too this isn’t just about putting food on their table; making good food choices can positively affect mood and mental health.
- Take parents out. Another mom shared this with me, and I absolutely love it: “A friend once thanked me for forcing her to get out of the house. We made plans to hang out Tuesday mornings and go to a new moms group. She confessed a year later that if I wasn’t counting on her to come, she would have been a hermit. She meant it. I never knew at the time but she needed a push to get up and out with a new baby.” In terms of mental health, social wellness and connectedness is so important. (Not to mention, when you’re alone, how often do you scroll through Instagram and feel like your life is somehow worse than everyone else’s? Raising my own hand here!)
- Offer to be a mental health guidepost. This also comes from a mom I know, and it’s one of the best tips I’ve ever heard. She said, “Before the baby was born, I assigned one of my besties to be my mental health check. I had seen several people struggle with postpartum and was afraid I wouldn’t recognize it in myself. So it was her job to check in. Thankfully, I never suffered from Postpartum Depression, but I felt better knowing she was keeping an eye on me and would alert my family if I wasn’t okay.”
- Connect them to resources. If you know a new mom or dad is struggling with something—the decision to breastfeed or formula feed, trouble with their relationship, a health issue the baby may have, or just anxiety in general, the best thing you can do (aside from be there for them) is to connect them to a professional support network. If it’s a new mom, for example, you could start with her primary care provider, OB/GYN, or a therapist if she already has one, or even dial the MHANYS Mental Health Information Center for her. No matter how seemingly small the struggle, acknowledging it and offering support and guidance could be everything a new parent needs to move through and past it.
Here’s to our village—together, we can promote mental wellness and help parents ease into their new lifestyles in bigger and better ways. Did your friends do something for you that you’ll always be grateful for, that we didn’t mention above? Share it with us on our Facebook page.
* Survey conducted by Owlet Baby Care