What to do when motherhood burnout hits

There's no doubt motherhood can be exhausting.
There's no doubt motherhood can be exhausting. Photo: Getty Images

Life coach Heather Lindsay sees it all the time. Mums who are "overwhelmed, frustrated and at a loss as to what to do improve their situation".

They're run ragged looking after their children, and aren't spending enough time looking after themselves or fulfilling their own needs.

Sound familiar? If it does, you're far from alone.

While the term 'burnout' is usually reserved for work-related stress, Clinical Psychologist Kirstin Bouse says parents can "absolutely get burn out".

"Parenting is exhausting and if you have a little one who has special needs or simply is a terrible sleeper, feeder etc., and this continues month after month, it's a recipe for burnout," she says.

Bouse explains that burnout occurs when the pleasure/reward circuit in our brains "crash".

Usually, when that pleasure/reward system is activated, we're flooded with "lovely feel-good hormones" dopamine and oxytocin. "So when our baby smiles at us and engages in a delightful way with us we get those hormones."

But when you're burnt out, your pleasure/reward system struggles to operate, meaning you'll find it harder to feel joy in things you would have normally.

Unfortunately, burnout can happen to anyone. Bouse says it makes "absolutely no difference" if you're working or a stay at home mum; both are just as susceptible. "It's about how much downtime they [as mothers] take, or don't take."


Lindsay says there are two main types of burnout - physiological and psychological.

She says physiological burnout occurs when you fail to care for your physical needs. In other words, when you don't eat, drink, exercise and sleep properly. (But don't feel too bad if you don't do these things. As Lindsay notes, "Ask any mum and they aren't doing this!")

Psychological burnout is a bit more complicated. Lindsay says it relates to feelings of self-doubt, which can stem from both internal and external forces.

She says the internal forces of self-doubt are thoughts such as, "'I'm not doing enough' or, 'I'm not doing the right thing'". The external forces are "people who like to weigh in on every decision that a mum makes".

Lindsay says psychological burnout can also occur when you don't know how to improve your situation, which can leave you feeling hopeless. "It's the syndrome of 'I've tried everything and nothing works."

While there's no quick fix for burnout, both experts agree there are ways to feel better. And yes, it all starts with looking after yourself and taking time to nurture your needs.

I know, I know; that's so much easier said than done. But the experts say it all starts with the basics: Eating and drinking well, exercising, sleeping when possible (which often means going to bed early), and seeking help if needed.

If you're really feeling frazzled, or are worried your 'burnout' may be something more concerning, such as depression or anxiety, see your GP.

If you have a partner, Lindsay also recommends talking to him or her about your feelings. "The rationale of this is, of course, so the partner can pick up the slack and support the mum." It can also help to let your good friends and family know how you're feeling so they can offer support.

You also need to change how you talk to yourself, says Bouse. So instead of telling yourself you "should be able to cope on your own", remind yourself it's normal to ask for help.

Then, try to find more balance in your life, says Bouse. Brainstorm ways you can give to yourself, such as taking time out alone to do activities you enjoy and that make you feel more like 'you'.

The good news is that while these measures can help 'treat' burnout, they can also prevent it, says Lindsay. Start small, by putting aside a little bit of time for yourself every day, and slowly increase the amount until you find the balance tip in your favour. Then, try to maintain that balance to prevent feeling burnt out again. As Lindsay is quick to point out, "An ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure."