New mothers need to know their mental health is not a luxury

Instead of putting all the focus on the baby, new mums need support to look after themselves, writes Shevonne Hunt.
Instead of putting all the focus on the baby, new mums need support to look after themselves, writes Shevonne Hunt.  Photo: Yuko Hirao/Stocksy

When I brought my baby daughter home from the hospital, I was completely unprepared for the year ahead.

On the surface, it looked like I was sorted. I'd washed all her teeny tiny clothes and had them waiting in the nursery, which I had painted a pretty lemon yellow. I'd bought a stack of nappies, wipes and barrier cream.

What I wasn't prepared for was the enormous change this sweet small thing would bring to my life, nor did I have any idea of how to handle that change.

Shevonne Hunt.
Shevonne Hunt. 

Heather Irvine is a clinical psychologist who has spent 15 years working with new mums. This experience, and her own as a mum of two boys, inspired her to write Hello Baby! Everything new mums need to know about life with baby.

At first glance, it looks like another book helping mums work out how to look after their new baby.

But what it's really about is teaching new mums how to look after themselves.

Most pregnant women are pretty good at self-care. They watch what they eat, they rest, they exercise, they switch to organic everything (even shampoo and perfume). Generally society works to support that – pregnant women are seen as physically vulnerable, and needing care (which they are, and they do).

But Heather says there's a dramatic change once the baby's born. "It's like the mother no longer matters so much, and everything's about the baby, hence why we have such high levels of postnatal depression. And we know it's a complex formula for what causes PND, but one of them is that psychological factor of 'I don't matter anymore'."

Women become invisible, disappearing into the baby that they love and care for so much. But being invisible isn't good for anybody.

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Here's an alarming fact we don't like to talk about much: the leading cause of maternal death is suicide. For Heather Irvine, it's a driving factor behind why she wrote Hello Baby, to help women understand how to manage the impact of the first year, by caring for themselves. To understand that their wants and needs still matter.

To do that, she says, we need to shift our focus from the baby to the mother.

Veteran parents told me before the birth of my child that I couldn't really prepare for, or understand, the change to come. I agree, and I still can't really articulate the myriad ways my children have changed my life, but I think you can prepare for how to deal with that change.

And putting themselves first is one of the best ways to do that.

Let's look at the most practical example of this: sleep deprivation. We all know it's a ghastly reality of the first year of parenthood, but how many new mums allow themselves to sleep when their baby sleeps, instead of folding the washing, cleaning the bathroom, or getting dinner ready? How many mums do you know would actually ask a friend or family member to come over for a few hours to mind their baby while they take a well-deserved kip?

Now, new mums, if you're reading this … think about how much difference it would make in your day, just to have those few more hours of sleep?

But we don't do it. We think it's a luxury.

I remember that first year as being incredibly hard. But I wasn't expecting it to be easy, and I was under no illusions it would run like a soft-focused nappy commercial.

What I didn't realise was that I often made it harder for myself. I felt guilty asking for help when I wasn't coping. I put myself last, all the time. And I never acknowledged that by having a baby, I had also become a mother.

If I had acknowledged that I was going through enormous changes myself, I may have been kinder to myself. I may have realised just how sensible it was to put myself first more often.

About two years after my baby was born, my GP said she thought I may have been suffering from post-natal depression. I don't think I was, but the statistics are alarming. Up to one in seven new mums experience depression after the birth of their child.

I'm not saying that by new mums putting themselves first PND will magically disappear; it's a complex condition that can have many contributing factors. Almost all of those contributing factors are outside of a woman's control. They may have been through a traumatic birth, or have little to no support.

What I am saying is that it can make a difference. Caring for yourself at a time of huge emotional and physical change is important. It can feel contrary to your instincts, because you love your baby so much, and their needs are so great.

But your needs haven't gone away. You don't need to be last in line for all the love and attention.

We can all help new mums learn to put themselves first. Don't let them disappear. Ask them how they are feeling, don't just ask about the baby. Offer to come over so they can have a sleep or go for a walk.

We still need to care for and cherish our babies. But let's shift our focus occasionally to their mother.

After all, it's not just the baby being born, there's a new mum as well.

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