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Why your emotional health really matters.

Reflections from our Specialist Health Visitor (Perinatal/Infant Mental Health), Mandy, on her experience of supporting parents.

The Impact of having a baby

No one can ever truly be prepared for the impact of having a baby. Our experience of pregnancy, our birth experience, and without doubt previous life experiences all play a significant part in how we adjust to the early weeks months and years of motherhood.  How we ourselves were parented, whether recalled or not, will play its part in how we slip into the role of parenting ourselves.

Add to that our expectations of what motherhood ‘should’ feel like. US perinatal mental health psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks, reminds us of this with her powerful words that ‘when a baby is born, so is a mother, each uncertain in their way . . . .’

But I didn’t expect to feel like this?

Yet so many mothers carry such guilt and shame when brave enough to admit that the experience of motherhood has fallen short of their expectations. Most of us may feel we are well prepared for the sleepless nights, the  dramatic change of role, the impact on relationships. But did we expect to feel like this? It’s different for all of us of course and for some of us it might be a role we slip into a little like a new pair of shoes – takes getting used to but becomes more comfortable day by day.

For others of us we may be feel completely thrown by the enormity of the transition to motherhood. Ashamed that we don’t feel as happy as we imagined we would – and how others expected us to be. Mothers that have gone through lengthy and exhausting trials and challenges of getting pregnant in the first place, maybe having to resort to assisted fertility measures such as IVF have expressed the isolation they experience when unable to open up about their struggles. Of coping with the well-meaning but insensitive comments of friends and family members  commenting on their surprise that the long awaited arrival of their baby has not provided the much anticipated pleasure they expected.

We are all unique

Each and every one of us experience motherhood in our own unique way. And for those of us that struggle more, then all the more do we need understanding and sensitivity to support is through our journey. We all carry our bag of life experiences along with us. Important to be aware that the doors to the past well and truly open throughout pregnancy and after our little ones arrive. It’s a fact. All the more so if we have experienced a difficult pregnancy or challenging delivery. So important that we learn to accept ourselves without judgement or condemnation.

Self compassion is not an indulgence  but an essential human need if we are to be able to meet the needs of another (or more) little human being!

Our primitive survival response. What does that mean?

When we are stressed, anxious or depressed, recovering from a traumatic delivery or simply battling to make the new mum adjustment – our primitive survival response is activated. What does that mean? The part of our brain that we share with other animals, (intended to protect us, to keep us safe – of greatest use to us in the days we faced predators such as woolly mammoths and less so today!) prepares us for one or more actions. Fight, flight or freeze. We may find ourselves feeling consumed with unpleasant and certainly unwanted strong emotions such as fear, anxiety -maybe resulting in panic attacks. It may result in strong emotions such as irritability and even anger (fight). Or leave us feeling a desperate urge to escape (flee) our situation . Some of us may even feel frozen. Struggling to get out of bed. Leaving the house suddenly feels an unimaginable challenge.  And with a baby to care for as well as managing these strong feelings it can leave us feeling overwhelmed.

This applies of course to dads (and non-birthing partners) too – its long been recognized that dads, not surprisingly, can also experience mental health problems in the postnatal period.

DadPad might be a good place to start.

DadPad is is free to download from your app store with using your post code (living in West Sussex or Brighton and Hove)

A calm body leads to calm mind. Really?

It may help to remember that a calm body leads to calm mind. When feeling flooded by strong emotions our cognitive capacity (our ability to think straight) may be impaired. So focus on things that help lower our emotional arousal. Exercise helps release the trapped stress hormones and to replace them instead with feel good hormones such as endorphins. This doesn’t have to mean a gym work out. A strenuous buggy walk can be just as effective.

The Sussex Wellbeing and Exercise in Pregnancy Programme (WEPP) has some great ideas:

Sussex WEPP | All you need to know

Relaxation is another great body -soother. Mindfulness apps can help or just focusing on breathing

Apps for mental health and wellbeing

A soak in a bath infused with lavender –  anything that soothes us. When our baby cries we try to soothe them. Well we need soothing too! And when we do, its not just us that stands to benefit but our babies too – and everyone else around us.

Your Inner Critic

Finally, recognise that inner critic.  vital that you do. Otherwise it’s a double whammy. Not only are we struggling in the first place, we are adding layers of additional suffering. Pay attention to your self-talk.  Would we really say that to a good friend? When we give ourselves critical messages we actually release a splash of stress hormones. We don’t need that!  We are always told about the importance of good nutrition – how what we put into our mouths affects our bodies. Same applies to our thoughts. We can think ourselves well or think ourselves unwell. There is no blame here. Our brains have an annoying default position of looking out for the negative (yes, still thinking it’s protecting us!) It even trawls back through our memories, pattern matching to past negative experiences that it wants us to avoid in future. Like an old friend who, trying to be helpful brings up past events we would rather not have to deal with right now! For some of us, it may be that there is unresolved past trauma that we may, at the right time, need help to deal with, to reframe in a more manageable way.

The safe road to recovery

In the meantime there is one sure way we can all pick ourselves up and get back on the safe road to recovery. The road to self-compassion. Bringing ourselves to the here and now, where we are not looking in the rear-view mirror ruminating about past events. Nor gazing ahead into an imaginary fearful future. The self-compassion root is the comfortable one. The route with the fewest roadblocks. And who is responsible for creating that route? Why, you are! And it becomes easier the more often you choose to travel it.

How? Choose to be ‘mindful’ rather than ‘mind full’. Notice the thoughts that pop into your heads. You may not be able to control them but you can control how you engage with them. Is it that ‘fear thought’ that’s bothering you again? Simply be pleased that you have observed it. No need to analyse nor judge it. Just as easily as you put the rubbish out of the door each night, let the unwanted thought slip away. Pay attention to where you are placing your attention (yes, really).

True that not all of us may struggle to the same extent but there is little more painful than feeling that we can’t be honest about our feelings and our struggles. Reaching out for support is considered a strength, not a weakness.

And there is support out there.

If you need help contact your health visitor team.
By phone or text Parentline (our confidential and anonymous texting service) for support

Brighton and Hove
Phone: 01273 266000
Parentline: 07507 331296

West Sussex
Phone: 01273 242 004
Parentline: 07312 277163

Here are a few of the local services:

If you live in Brighton and Hove

Time for me

6 week topic based emotional wellbeing support group for mothers of one or more.
To book contact the Brighton and Hove Health Visitor team.

Time for Dads and non birthing partners: Monthly support group for dads supporting partners with emotional health issues and/or struggling themselves

Time for Dads

Brighton & Hove Wellbeing Service (Free NHS Talking therapies service. Self-referral)

If you live in West Sussex

Looking After Me

6 week group for mothers. This is run from local venues and also virtually.
To book contact the West Sussex Health Visitor team.

West Sussex Time to Talk (Free NHS Talking Therapies service. Self-referral)

ParentLine logo

Sussex Community NHS Foundation Trust runs a confidential secure text messaging service for parents of children aged 0-5 years called ParentLine. The service operates Monday to Friday between 9.30am and 4.30pm in Brighton & Hove and Monday to Friday between 9am to 4.30pm in West Sussex, excluding bank holidays. All texts will be responded to by a health visitor within 24 hours. Outside of the service working hours, you’ll receive a message back to inform you that your text will be responded to once the line reopens.

Should you require urgent health advice in the meantime, please contact your GP, visit an NHS walk-in centre or call NHS 111. For emergencies, dial 999 or visit A&E.

This page was last reviewed on 22-12-2023

This page will be next reviewed on 22-12-2026