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The early days: adjusting to parenthood

Becoming a parent is a magical time – but it can also be really challenging. Psychologist Dr Nicole Highet shares some tips for looking after yourself emotionally and mentally.

Cute little baby in his mother's arms. Woman at home carrying her newborn baby.

A new baby can bring huge changes – to your daily life, your identity and sense of purpose. How can this impact people?

It is true that becoming a parent impacts all aspects of your life – physical, psychological, emotional and social. Your home life, relationships, work life and social life can all be impacted as you adjust to the many changes that lie ahead when a new baby comes into your life.

In addition, becoming a parent also brings a change to your identity as you go from being an individual and/or couple, to a parent and family. Whilst we don’t often acknowledge it, this is also a great psychological shift as we form a new identity as a parent – not to mention the new responsibilities that come with this.

What are some things new parents often struggle with when adjusting to this change?

There are many challenges that can come along the way to parenthood, some of which we may never have expected, and many of which are often not spoken about openly.

Mental health problems commonly arise in pregnancy, with up to one in five women experiencing anxiety and one in 10 women experiencing depression. For many, the birth of their baby may not have gone to plan, leaving them feeling emotionally raw and vulnerable, and again at increased risk of mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and/or depression.

The postnatal period is also commonly filled with many emotional and mental health adjustments. Coping with things like sleep deprivation, changing relationship dynamics, breast-feeding challenges and unhelpful or unwanted advice from others can all be emotionally challenging, and as a result increase a woman’s likelihood of developing mental health conditions at this time.

“Coping with things like sleep deprivation, changing relationship dynamics, breast-feeding challenges and unhelpful or unwanted advice from others can all be emotionally challenging.”

Can you share some tips for making the transition easier?

The biggest tip is to be empowered with quality information about the realities of parenthood and to have realistic expectations. Often consciously and unconsciously, we form our expectations of what parenthood is supposed to be like, based upon images that we see and hear in the media or from others. This is completely natural – we are like sponges, taking it all in as we begin to try to imagine what being a parent is going to be like, and try to formulate our new identities.

But often these images are not based in reality. Ultimately this can leave many women and men feeling unprepared and disappointed. This can also leave you feeling like you are failing, as your expectations may have not been realistic. Ultimately this can increase our vulnerability and risk of developing emotional and mental health conditions.

How common are postnatal depression and anxiety? What are some signs to keep an eye out for?

Postnatal anxiety affects one in five women and postnatal depression affects one in 10. Unfortunately however, often the early signs of these conditions are missed as they are put down to being all just part of having a baby.

For example, signs of depression such as feeling sad or down, teary or emotional, are often mistaken for the baby blues. Similarly, anxiety disorders can leave a parent feeling constantly on edge or worried (often about their baby) – but again this may just be considered normal and part of being a protective parent.

If not identified or treated, these symptoms can begin to take over and greatly impact upon you and your parenting experience. So it’s important to be aware of the signs and seek help early – just as you would if you had low blood pressure in pregnancy or mastitis after having your baby.

Where can you go for help and support?

COPE: Centre of Perinatal Excellence is Australia’s peak body in emotional and mental health when having a baby. We have an extensive website which provides quality information on each stage of parenthood, the various emotional challenges, mental health conditions that may arise, how to identify and treat these conditions and where and how to access help.

Get more help and support at COPE: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.

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