Taking care of children is no easy task. Parents of young infants often suffer the physical and emotional side effects of chronic sleep deprivation, and life doesn’t get much easier in the toddler years. Young children are fast and fearless. The unrelenting task of keeping toddlers safe from themselves is emotionally draining. If you’re a parent who sometimes feels like you’re losing your mind, take heart—you are not alone! All parents have moments (or years) in which they feel like they might not survive. I often felt this way when my kids were young, and sometimes I still do, now that they’re older. Luckily, steps can be taken in each stage of child rearing to protect your mental health. Below I’ve listed some concrete strategies parents can employ to maintain their sanity.
Tips for Staying Sane in the Baby Stage:
1. Get as much as sleep as possible. Being well rested in the baby stage (or any stage) is the number-one thing parents can do to boost their mental health. How does a new parent achieve this elusive goal? Sleep train the baby early (see post #12 in this blog for detailed instructions). If possible, share nighttime feeding responsibilities with your partner. Pump some breast milk and have your partner feed the milk to the baby with a bottle or syringe. Some of the best parent-child bonding occurs between 3-4 a.m., in the wee hours of the night when emotional vulnerability is peaking. Sharing the tough stuff equally between both partners benefits everyone in the long term. Don’t feel obligated to shoulder the night shifts alone. If your partner works and you’re staying home with the baby, remind yourself that you’re now the one with the full-time job.
2. If your supply of breast milk is limited, supplement with formula. It’s okay. Don’t feel guilty. And remember a few things. Breastfeeding isn’t for everyone. Many women have anatomic or medical conditions that make 100% breastfeeding impossible. No one breastfeeds forever. Your baby will love you just as much if you need to supplement with formula.
3. During the daytime, don’t worry about cleaning the house or doing the dishes. Let things get messy. When the baby is sleeping, feel free to nap.
4. If you have time, try to exercise regularly. Exercise increases endorphins and relieves stress.
5. Spend some time outside the house, every day, even if you’re just taking little walks in the neighborhood. Getting sunshine and fresh air are important for maintaining mental health.
6. Ask grandparents or other family members for help. They will love taking care of the baby, and you will benefit from some much-needed breaks.
7. Let your obstetrician/PCP/pediatrician know if you are suffering from postpartum depression, or depression that arises when you are out of the newborn period.
Tips for Staying Sane in the Toddler Stage:
1. Don’t raise a 20-pound tyrant (see post #1 in this blog for detailed instructions). Provide clear and consistent discipline with the help of your partner. Children grow to respect parents who don’t put up with bad behavior.
2. Get out of the house with your child as much as possible. Spending 12 hours a day at home with a crabby, bossy toddler is enough to make anyone lose their mind. The antidote to death by drudgery? Engage in stimulating activities for distraction purposes. Go for walks in the neighborhood. Spend a few hours at the playground. Hit the library for story time. Do laps around the mall with the stroller in winter time.
3. When the baby is old enough, take inexpensive classes at the local park and rec or elsewhere. Make one investment and enroll your child toddler in swim lessons at around age two. (see post #30, The Life-Saving Gift of Swim Lessons).
4. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider hiring a mother’s helper (for example, a responsible teenager in the neighborhood), to assist in watching your toddler while you get things done at home. Cultivate a reliable team of babysitters as your child grows.
5. Place an exersaucer or bouncy chair in your master bathroom. This way you can take a shower and watch the baby simultaneously.
6. Join a support group for new parents. Commiserate with other adults who are raising young children.
7. Spend time outside the home working. Your day job might feel like a vacation. Engage in lots of adult conversation at work.
8. In whatever free time you have, start a hobby, like dancing, tennis, writing, cooking, beading, or anything that brings joy to your soul. Focusing on the self, at least a little bit, is imperative for preserving mental health. When the baby is older, you can spend solid time developing hobbies you’ve already started. Hobbies that require physical exertion are particularly useful, because you’re killing two birds with one stone—having fun and getting exercise.
9. Leave the house and give your partner a chance to watch the baby without you. Your partner and the baby will enjoy bonding with one another.
10. Keep the lines of communication open with your partner. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, speak up and ask for assistance. If you’re feeling resentful, discuss the issues with your partner. Bad feelings can’t fester once they’re out in the open. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to provide what you need to feel emotionally supported. This is important both for raising children and for maintaining healthy adult relationships.
Tips for Staying Sane During the School Years
1. Create a job wheel. Put your kids to work doing household chores. This is going to feel so good!
2. Continue to cultivate your favorite hobbies.
3. Require cheerfulness and kindness at home.
4. Set aside time to spend with your partner. Rediscover the reasons why the two of you fell in love in the first place.
5. Take a vacation and go somewhere with a friend for a few days.
6. Spend quality time with your children. Do something fun together that everyone will enjoy. If you’re working and your children are in school, days may go by in which you hardly see your kids. You might start to miss them.
7. Remember that no child or parent is perfect. Forgive yourself for all the things in life that will inevitably go wrong. Cherish the moments in which things go right!