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You may have read the books, been to the classes and talked to dozens of people about parenting... but now you know it's not really possible to understand the experience of first time parenthood until it happens.

Adjusting to the changes of being a new parent can take a toll on your emotional wellbeing and your relationship. Communication, seeking help and learning strategies to cope with a new baby are important to getting through this time.

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"Having a baby is a major life change and most people experience a period of adjustment," says Dr Heather Rowe, Jean Hailes senior research fellow. "It can be an anxiety-arousing time and we need practical support and emotional care from others that has not been needed before."

Washing up
  • If your partner is there with you:
  • Acknowledge the togetherness 'It's so good we've been through this together'
  • Thank each other often and communicate your feelings to each other:
    • It's a miracle
    • It's scary
    • How do I know if I'm doing the right thing?
    • I am bursting with joy and dying of tiredness
    • I miss the 'us', don't let us lose the 'us' even though there are now three of us

Head of Jean Hailes Women's Mental Health Program, Professor Jane Fisher, agrees. "Some aspects of parenting can't easily be imagined – especially the number of hours that are involved in caring for a baby and running a household in which a baby lives," she explains. "Common questions to pregnant women like "When are you giving up work?" convey the misconception that caring for children is not work."

Many of us imagined that there would be more flexibility and leisure time after having a baby. For most women it's a shock to discover their unpaid work doesn't permit a lot of extra time to see friends, has no neat boundaries and may be quite lonely. Parents may also expect others will help more than they actually do. It may help to think about these sorts of questions before the birth of a baby:

  • What help would I like?
  • Who can I ask for help?
  • Who will screen and/or time the visitors, so I can have my own time if I need it?

The impact of a baby on a relationship

There is consistent evidence that the quality of a woman's relationship with her partner is associated with her mental health. Mental health is promoted when partners are empathetic, encouraging, supportive and actively involved in the care of the baby. In contrast, wellbeing is lowered if they experience criticism or irritability.

When two people become a family of three, their needs as individuals and as a couple are changed. It can be helpful to think about what your needs are as an individual and as a couple. Your needs around who does an everyday task like cooking and paying the bills can change in the face of the demands of looking after your baby.

Your sex life is likely to change because you are tired, your body has changed and/or your relationship with your partner is in a state of flux as you adjust to life as a family. This can be demanding for both partners, particularly if you are not able to talk comfortably about these changes. It is true, in most instances, that a new mum will put the baby's needs before a partner's needs and even her own. It is common for partners to feel excluded in this new triangle. If this isn't discussed, it can lead to feeling of guilt and defensive behaviour.

Father and toddler brother with new baby newborn

The impact of a baby on physical health

Pregnancy and childbirth are physically demanding and women have to adjust to changes in shape and appearance and also how their bodies now function (e.g. with breastfeeding).

It can be more difficult to recover from a birth which has involved surgery and/or other intrusive procedures.

The impact of a baby on mental health

Having a baby means your identity, freedom and independence are changed forever. Some women experience the change as a loss. This feeling of loss can become more complex if you see your partner as not having suffered the same sort of loss.

While the work of mothering can be fulfilling, it can also feel repetitive, boring and isolating. You may find yourself coping with a huge change to your life about which you feel both joyful and appalled. Changeable emotions are a normal part of adjusting to such a major life change.

Your feelings may become less changeable with time and a sense of coping. Increased familiarity about what to do and an increasingly responsive, healthy baby are key to adjusting to being parents and knowing the joy!

Coping with a new baby

No matter how many books you read or classes you attend, having a baby is a change which brings unexpected emotional reactions. Use the list below to help you cope with a new baby:

  • Identify and make a list of the changes that have happened to you and recognise the things that cause you the most distress – tackle these through discussions with your partner, family, friends, a doctor or a psychologist
  • Recognise your losses (e.g. identity, leisure time, freedom) to help yourself adjust to your new life
  • Name your needs (e.g. time alone, help with the 3am feed, someone else to cook dinner)
  • If you have a partner, discuss how you plan to share the cleaning, the cooking, paying the bills and caring for the baby and make time to be alone and together
  • Expect changes in your body's shape, appearance and functions
  • Don't feel guilty for having negative thoughts and feelings – changeable emotions are a normal part of adjusting to a major life change

Coping with an unsettled baby

Research confirms a woman feels more capable if her baby quietens to her soothing, suckles easily, gains weight and smiles responsively. Her confidence is lower if her baby cries for long periods and is difficult to settle or feed.

On top of this response, frequent overnight waking and insufficient sleep leads to fatigue, slower decision–making, poor concentration and poorer mental and emotional wellbeing.

"Unsettled" is the commonly-used term for babies (up to 12 months old) who:

  • cry for long periods
  • cry and cannot be soothed
  • have difficulties settling to sleep
  • wake after short sleeps
  • wake up often during the night

At least one in four families experience infant crying and fussing behaviour that is distressing. Up to one in three families experiences a problem with infant sleep.

Babies vary in the amount and intensity of crying in their first year. Parents most commonly assume crying means the baby is either hungry or in pain, but a lot of the time crying is difficult to explain.

If you are struggling with a crying baby and feel at a loss as to what to do, seek support and help from a health professional rather than letting yourself get over tired and over stressed. Let other people, family or friends, help you. Let them in so you can rest, be by yourself in the garden or at a cafe or have time just with your partner.

You can also visit What Were We Thinking to learn about the techniques for effective settling of a baby

What Were We Thinking is a project by Jean Hailes Women's Mental Health Program. It is a carefully researched, evidence-based set of materials and activities designed to promote confidence and reduce distress in parents with a first baby. Individuals and couples can use the self–directed interactive website.

This web page is designed to be informative and educational. It is not intended to provide specific medical advice or replace advice from your health practitioner. The information above is based on current medical knowledge, evidence and practice as at March 2014.

Last updated: 05 January 2022 | Last reviewed: 10 March 2014

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