Adjusting to parenthood

It’s 4am and you’ve been up five times already. Up to your elbows in dirty nappies and baby vomit, you ask yourself – again – how a tiny body can make so much noise.

Sound familiar?

Being a parent is hugely rewarding, but it’s also hard work – especially at first. Dealing with changes in your everyday routine and sleepless nights as you learn to look after your baby can take lots of energy, emotional commitment and patience. There will be lots of times when you don’t quite know what to do, but try and remember that it’s the same for everyone – you’re learning on the job. Adjusting to parenting is a process of trial and error, good days and bad, and it’s common to take a while to feel comfortable and confident in your new role.

I had always thought when the time came I would just know what to do, but I felt completely out of my depth in a way I never had.

Do I need support?

Most new parents need a bit of extra support from family and friends, especially at the beginning. This could include practical stuff like helping with household chores or watching the baby or other children to give you a break, or emotional support – just being there to listen. Think about what would be most useful for you, communicate this to the people around you, and make sure you accept any offers! 

This is particularly true if you’re a single parent. Having a network of friends, other parents, neighbours and relatives you can call on to help out can make a massive difference – you don’t have to go it alone.

If you’re experiencing ongoing distress that doesn’t go away on its own and begins to affect your ability to function day-to-day, or you’re not feeling close or connected to your baby after a few weeks, it’s important to talk to your health professional. This may be a sign that you are experiencing anxiety, depression or another mental health condition.

Dealing with mixed emotions

For many people, becoming a parent means that their hopes and dreams have come true. They love holding, touching, watching and smelling their baby. A couple may also experience a deepening sense of love and connection between each other and their baby.

For others, emotions are mixed with feelings of frustration and regret at losing their old life – things like financial independence, career, spontaneity, and time with their partner and friends. Some people also feel trapped by the huge change that has completely taken over their life and sense of self. They might panic that their identity as an individual has been replaced by that of ‘parent’.

Coupled with fears about whether you’re doing a good job or not, these doubts and negative thoughts can cause huge feelings of guilt for new parents. 

It’s important to bear in mind that these experiences are normal and part of the adjustment process – not a sign that you don’t want or love your baby.

Great expectations?

Try to be realistic about what you expect of parenthood. Remember, it can be messier, tiring and more stressful than any of your friends, relatives or celebrity parents are likely to admit!

Keep in mind that…

  • Every parent will have good and bad days. There are lots of big changes to adjust to and many parents will feel they aren’t coping at times.
  • Parenting is a skill you learn. You will get more confident with your baby over time. Different phases are harder for different parents, but it’s common to find the first 6–8 weeks the hardest.
  • Feeding your baby is also something you’ll need to learn about and may be different from, and harder than what you expected.
  • Parenting can be very intense, and at times challenging and unrelenting. Make sure you take time out to have a break and do something fun or see a friend. This can be hard to do and you may need to get creative about how you make it happen. 
  • Try and develop a local network you can call on when you need to, especially if you’re a single parent.
  • Finding time for household chores or doing things you used to enjoy can be tough while you’re also caring for a newborn. Be prepared to let some things go for a while – things don’t have to be perfect.
It’s important to remember that some babies are easier to settle and comfort than others. If your baby continues to be unsettled, ask your health professional or call an advice line. At times, you may have negative feelings towards your child – this doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. But if these feelings are intense, keep coming back or continue, you should talk to a health professional.

Adjusting to change

Parenthood is a time of great change. For women, pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding involve many physical changes, which can affect your body image and relationship with your partner. It can take a while to recover from pregnancy and childbirth – even six months or longer after the birth, it’s common not to feel ‘back to normal’ physically or emotionally. Be patient and gentle with yourself – and don’t worry… you will have sex again!

Pregnancy, birth and parenting can affect your sex life and intimacy with your partner, including:

  • Physical recovery after childbirth – for example, tiredness, pain, fear of pain, breastfeeding, loss of libido
  • Lifestyle changes after the birth – this might include loss of time as a couple or time to yourself
  • Relationships and sex – almost all couples have less sex after having a baby and many feel less intimate with their partner
  • Body image – changes to body image can be either positive or negative depending on the individual.

Information for new mums

Changes in hormone levels can keep affecting your emotions, even after the ‘baby blues’ have passed. Equally, caring for a new baby and changes to your lifestyle can leave you feeling fatigued, isolated or overwhelmed. All of this newness and change means your emotions are likely to vary a lot at this time.

You might find that you cry more easily after you’ve had a baby, and feel quite miserable, anxious and irritable. 

Many things can make you feel this way:

  • disappointment that the birth wasn’t as you’d planned
  • worrying about the baby’s health or how you’re coping as a parent
  • feeling upset if your baby is unsettled
  • disappointment if you find breastfeeding difficult, which is made worse by guilt or a sense of failure for bottle feeding your baby
  • feeling that you aren’t having the ideal baby experience you imagined
  • reduced income, coping with the loss of freedom and changes to your roles and lifestyle that happen after having a baby
  • worrying that you will be seen as not coping or incompetent and therefore will be judged as a bad parent
  • lack of emotional and financial support from your partner or other family members and friends (this is more likely for young or single mothers, or those whose partners work away from home)
  • feeling guilty and sad that you’re not with your baby if you return to work
  • coping with physical illness or complications that affect you and/or the baby. 

Information for dads and partners 

Unlike the birth mother, dads and partners don’t go through all the physical changes of pregnancy and giving birth, so they may not begin to adjust to parenthood until the baby is born. Becoming a new parent can be an important milestone in your life and often marks a change in your relationship with your partner and other members of your family. While some people believe that having a child will make their relationship better or fix underlying issues, most find a new baby brings extra stress. It’s important to recognise that our expectations of what it will be like to become a parent can be quite different – and a lot harder, messier and more tiring – from the reality. 

“I felt such an overwhelming mixture of pride, wonder and protectiveness towards my baby. It has made me want to make the world a better place for her.” 

You may see your partner as being preoccupied with the baby’s needs and you might feel left out, unloved or not important. You may want to be more involved or hands-on but not quite know how. Many people find it hard to juggle work and new family demands, and it can seem difficult to find time to do things you enjoy individually and as a couple. It’s important to raise these issues, talk about specific things you can do and how you can work as a team.

It’s helpful to acknowledge the changes that are happening to you, your relationship and lifestyle, and the effect this has on the way you feel. Tiredness, pain and breastfeeding can all affect how much you and your partner feel like having sex, and most new parents find they have sex less often – at least at first. It’s a good idea to talk to each other about what you’re feeling and try to support one another as you both adjust.

And remember…

It can take time to adjust to becoming a parent. There’s no ‘right’ way of doing it, so don’t be too harsh on yourself if things work out differently from how you’d planned. Value your role as a parent – it’s a very important job.

Everyone’s experience of pregnancy, birth and parenting is unique and brings different rewards and challenges. Try not to compare yourself with others. Instead, seek support from the people around you and if you need professional advice or support, contact your health professional as early as possible.

Above all, remember that looking after your new baby during the first year of life is a constant and demanding job. Lots of people need a bit of extra support at this time. There’s no shame in asking for help, if and when you need it. 

Getting support

If you’re feeling confused or unhappy, talk to someone you trust about your feelings. You can also speak to your general practitioner (GP) or obstetrician about a referral to a counsellor – it’s helpful to share your concerns and talk things through.

Find out about support options

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