After giving birth

Beyond baby blues: coping in early parenthood

8 min read

Sleep deprivation, looking after a new baby and your hormones on a roller coaster ride – the first few weeks after birth are often filled with conflicting emotions. Read our advice on what to expect and where to find support as a new parent.

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It’s completely normal for new mothers to have confusing and sometimes difficult feelings in the early days with a baby and while recovering from pregnancy and birth. We explain why you’re likely to feel as though your world has turned upside down and offer different strategies to help you cope – including where and when to look for support if you need it.

Baby blues

Your body goes through very sudden hormonal and chemical changes as it makes the switch from pregnancy to motherhood. While some women don’t notice this happening, the majority of new mothers are affected by mood changes to some extent in the first couple of weeks after birth; what’s often known as ‘baby blues’.

If you’re experiencing baby blues, you may:

  • feel emotional or overwhelmed
  • experience anxiety or restlessness
  • feel irritable or touchy
  • burst into tears for no apparent reason.

Baby blues usually come on very suddenly a few days after the birth, and stop by the time your baby’s around ten days old. While there is no need to seek treatment for baby blues, you might find it reassuring to talk to your midwife about the way you’re feeling either on the phone or at your postnatal appointments

“I found the hormone crash a few days after my daughter was born incredibly difficult. I didn’t feel at all like I expected; I was overwhelmed, more anxious than I’d ever felt in my life and really scared that we’d made a terrible mistake.”

Recovering from birth

Whether you had a vaginal birth or are recovering from a c-section, your body goes through an incredibly tiring process when giving birth. At any other time in your life, you’d expect to rest and recover after such an event, but after giving birth you have a baby to look after.

The impact of birth combined with the intense job of looking after a newborn around the clock can make you feel less than great, especially if you’re sleep deprived.

While there is no easy fix for this, you can try to make sure you get rest whenever possible by making the most of your partner’s paternity leave and ensuring any visitors only come when you feel up for it. You should also accept offers from family or friends if they can assist in ways that are helpful to you.

Read more about your physical recovery after a vaginal birth and what to expect after a caesarean section.

“I had days where everything hurt: breasts full of milk, sore nipples, haemorrhoids and a vaginal tear. These days soon passed, but it was really tough.”

Expectations vs reality

It can feel like there’s a lot of pressure on new mothers to fall headlessly in love with their baby at first sight, ‘bounce back’ to their pre-pregnancy body, find breastfeeding easy (or not bother with it at all) and jump back into social life as soon as possible. But this might not be the case for you, and that’s absolutely OK.

While it’s completely understandable to feel down if you experience problems with breastfeeding or struggle to get out to the shops, let alone meet up with friends, putting extra pressure on yourself or setting deadlines is not going to help.

Having a baby is a big change and everyone’s experience will be different, so it’s important to avoid making comparisons with others. You will get into the swing of things at a pace that’s right for you and your baby, so try not to worry and give yourself time to adjust to this new way of life.

Feeding and sleeping

There are many theories and experts around to tell you how much your newborn baby should be sleeping and how often they should be eating, but it’s often very far removed from the reality for many new parents.

Your baby may not want to sleep anywhere but on you for weeks – and certainly not through the night – and that’s completely normal, biologically speaking. Likewise, your baby might want to breastfeed every hour around the clock – this is also normal (although obviously very tiring for you).

Your baby is unique and hasn’t read a manual – so you may find that you’re best off throwing all ideas of a routine out the window for the first few months while you get to know each other.

Read our guide to getting started with breastfeeding.

“The first few weeks were a struggle. We tried to work out a routine but it was impossible because the baby was feeding on demand in the night and slept most of the day. On the other hand, we were able to squeeze in a few movies during the days!”

Bonding with your baby

As well as expectations around feeding and sleeping, it can be tricky to deal with expectations of how you should be feeling about your baby, for example the idea that you should fall in love with your child as soon as they’re born.

Some new parents do experience a rush of love when they first meet their baby, but it’s just as normal for it to take weeks or even months before you feel like you really love them. After all, they’re a whole new person for you to get to know – it’s not at all strange if you don’t fall head over heels straight away.

“My hormones were all over the place and things that didn’t bother me before had me breaking down in tears. My maternal instincts were there, but I had to remind myself that it’s OK that there isn’t a bond initially.”

If you’re a new parent and don’t yet feel like you love your baby – try to relax and remember that it can take time. There are also things you can do to boost the hormones that help bonding, for example:

  • Having skin-to-skin cuddles with your baby
  • Giving your baby a massage
  • Looking into your baby’s eyes while feeding them
  • Talking, singing and dancing with your baby

Finding a support network

While you don’t necessarily need a whole village to raise a child, it definitely helps to have people around who you can turn to or rely on in the early days.

You may be lucky enough to have family or friends living nearby who can offer emotional and practical support, or you may be missing a local network of other parents you can turn to. Either way, it’s not unusual to feel lonely when you’re home all day with a baby or during night feeds when it seems like no-one else is around.

This can often be exaggerated if one parent goes back to work after a couple of weeks of paternity leave; when the parent staying home with the baby can feel isolated.

Don’t underestimate the value of building your own support network. Take a look at what is going on in your area and start to get to know other new parents in a similar situation. Here are a few ideas:

  • Baby classes: Your local children’s centre may run sensory classes, baby massage or rhyming sessions – talk to your health visitor for more information about what’s available in your local area.
  • Activities for new parents: In many areas, there are baby-friendly cinema screenings or exercise classes which you can take your baby to – a great chance to get out and do something you enjoy as well as meeting people.
  • Meet-ups: NCT, La Leche League and other local organisations often organise meet-ups for new parents and babies. These are perfect for those early days where your baby will often sleep for a little while when you’re enjoying a coffee and a chat.
  • Apps for parents: There are apps, for example Mush, that you can use to locate parents in your surroundings who are looking to connect to other parents. So if you’re in the park, you can seek out other mums and dads also out with their children.

How do I know if I need professional help?

Many women recover well within a few weeks of giving birth, but some new mothers have problems which last longer, either physically or emotionally.

More than one-in-ten new mums develop mental health conditions like postnatal depression or post-traumatic stress disorder that need treatment. A lot of women are also affected by birth trauma after a difficult delivery, or need additional treatment for injuries sustained during birth.

There isn’t a hard and fast line between what’s normal changes after birth and what could be symptoms of something more serious, so the best thing to do is be honest with yourself about how you’re feeling and if you’re unsure, get a second opinion.

You may want to seek help if you find that:

  • you’re still affected by ‘baby blues’ weeks after your baby’s birth
  • you feel detached or resentful towards your baby a few weeks after the birth
  • you’re having flashbacks or intrusive thoughts related to the birth
  • the way you’re feeling affects your relationship with those close to you
  • you have physical pain, incontinence or discomforts from the birth that don’t improve with time.

It’s important to note that these are just examples. If you feel worried or anxious about the way you’re feeling, it’s always best to mention it to your midwife, health visitor or GP, who can assess you and find the help you need.

More from Which?

  • Child benefit: Use our child benefit calculator to find out how much child benefit you’ll be paid, and how to claim it.
  • Manage your budget: Follow our four steps to ensure your spending remains under control with a new baby in the house.
  • Best baby car seats: Babies need specific protection in a baby car seat. Find out what to look for to help keep your littlest one safe when travelling.
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