New Mom Exhaustion: How to Cope

Three weeks ago I gave birth to my first baby. I am tired all the time. My little guy nurses nonstop and I never seem to get any rest. Nobody prepared me for this. How long will this exhaustion last and are there ways to make life with a new baby easier?

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Welcome to parenthood! This is the most challenging, rewarding job you'll ever hold. You are in the midst of many changes and adjustments right now. Your life has changed drastically and irrevocably. You will experience more love, exhaustion, confusion and wonder than you ever thought possible. At times you will wonder why you decided to become a parent and at other times you will wonder why you didn't do this earlier.

1. Go slow. We live in a fast paced world. Babies move on a very different pace, as do new parents. Give yourself permission to move on "baby time." Your whole morning may be spent on the living room floor with a cup of tea and the baby. You may observe him, nurse him, talk to him, snooze with him. This is precious time. What looks like simple hanging out together is really a rich and complex process of developing a common language and getting to know one another. Whenever possible, limit your other obligations. You will only be a new parent for a few months of your whole life. Think about how you can make the most of it.

2. Respond to his crying as communication. As new parents, we are appropriately ready to respond to any crying our baby does. This is important, as baby needs to learn that the world is a trustworthy and reliable place. His sense of trust in the world is an essential building block for all other learning he will do. The question is, "How should we respond to the crying?" Most new parents feel it is their responsibility to stop the crying. The problem with just stopping the crying is that we may figure out ways to "plug" a baby up without really addressing the need the baby is expressing. Pacifiers, bottles and even nursing can all be used to "quiet" a baby who isn’t necessarily hungry. It is important to listen as best we can to the crying and to try a variety of solutions to figure out what will really help the baby, as well as what will stop the crying. Furthermore, there may be times when nothing seems to help and you may just need to stay close, relaxed and supportive until your baby is done crying.

3. Alternatives to nonstop nursing. In the first few weeks, as you are working out your signals, you may find yourself nursing all the time. If you know your baby is healthy and gaining weight well, when it has been less than an hour since he last nursed, you could try some other responses to his requests. You could change his position, talk or sing to him, play music for him, wrap him snuggly in his blanket, walk with him outside, gently massage his body. You can do other more obvious things like checking his diaper. However, unless they have a rash or are cold, most young babies could care less if their diaper is wet or poopy. They haven't yet developed adult sensibilities about such things.

4. Keep your expectations to a minimum. Many parents who work outside the home before they have a baby expect that being home with baby will afford them many opportunities to get things done around the house. If you can keep your expectations to a minimum, you may feel less overwhelmed and unsuccessful. Figure out which projects can wait.

5. Accept offers of help. For many reasons, some of us have a hard time accepting help from others. If people are offering to do something that would be truly helpful, graciously accept their help. You will be giving them the gift of feeling included and helpful and you will be giving yourself the gift of help. If people offer things that don't seem helpful, you may be able to redirect them to something that might be more useful. "You know, I've decided not to use a baby swing for him, but if you would like to do something else, a month of diaper service would be wonderful."

6. Ask for help. Many people around you might be interested in helping, but may not know how or what to offer. You can gently inquire if they would be interested. "I’ve been thinking about trying to take 30 minutes to work out a couple of times a week and you are one of the people I thought to ask if you would be interested in caring for him." Or, "I’ve been thinking that I could really use some help in the afternoons when he gets cranky. Could you help me think of some possible resources?"

7. Sleep whenever you can. This is easier for some people than others. Try to rest whenever baby is asleep or being cared for by someone else. Rest can sometimes feel like a waste of time when there is so much to do, but keeping yourself as refreshed as possible will make everything else easier.

8. Nurture yourself. You are putting out an enormous amount of energy. It is important to recharge your batteries. Sometimes, we are afraid to even think about what would help us feel better, because getting away for a week by ourselves is out of the question. However, even a 30 minute hot bath, a short read, or a walk with a friend could help to rejuvenate you. Think about two or three things you could do in less than an hour to nurture yourself and start by arranging one of them.

9. Get together with other new parents. One of the hardest things about being a new parent is believing you are the only one feeling overwhelmed and confused. It can be very supportive to spend time with other new parents. Look for new parent support or activity groups through your local hospital, community college, adult education school or other community group.

10. Expect lots of feelings. Bringing a new baby into your life changes you forever. You become vulnerable in new ways. Your feelings are simultaneously deepened and closer to the surface. You might find yourself wet with tears or spontaneously elated at a moment's notice. If you know that this rich emotional life is a natural part of being a new parent, you may be able to relax, tolerate and even relish these new feelings.

You, your baby and the rest of the family are on a major learning curve. Physically, emotionally and intellectually you are a different person. Your body is going through postpartum changes, you are learning to nurse and experiencing life with interrupted (at best) sleep. You are having feelings you never had before. All of your attention seems to be going to the baby. You may wonder how one little person could need so much of your time and energy. There may be days when getting your hair combed feels like a major achievement.

You are developing an entirely new system of communication. Your baby is doing his best to tell you what he needs, but as a newborn, he doesn't know yet, himself, what is going on with him. He will cry and startle and you get to figure out what will help. He makes funny little faces and you get to try to understand if he is communicating something to you or if he is just moving naturaly. You are learning about his body, feelings and his needs all at the same time as he is. He seems so little and vulnerable, you may wonder if he will break.

You are faced with an awesome sense of responsibility. All of a sudden you are responsible for the life, safety, health, teaching and well being of another person. Even when you are putting your full attention on the task, the question of how to keep him safe and healthy may not always be easy to figure out.

Many new major decisions face you each day. When he cries, should you pick him up, feed him, change him, talk to him, turn him over, cover him up, sing to him or what? He has some weird bumps on his cheeks. Should you call the doctor? Should you put something on them? Should you just wait and watch?

All of your other relationships shift now that this new person is here. If your are parenting with a partner, that relationship changes dramatically. Now you get to learn about your partner as a parent. You have much less time, energy and focus for each other than you have ever had before. You are both faced with feelings of awe, exhaustion and confusion. Everyone's job description has changed and expanded. Relationships with other relatives and friends will shift also. Your parents are now grandparents with ideas, expectations, hopes and fears of their own. Friends with kids may be full of support, advice and even criticism or differences of opinion. Friends without kids may wonder why you can't spontaneously meet them for a cup of tea or talk to them on the phone for a few minutes or listen to how things are going for them at work.

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