- New parents need more flexibility, affirmation, information, and support in order to thrive. Tweet This
- Maternal exhaustion puts mothers at “high risk” of developing postpartum depression, posing significant harm to both mother and child and putting stress on fathers and older kids. Tweet This
- Why do we burden new mothers with rigid expectations but offer no flexible advice and very little meaningful support? Tweet This
Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that one in five new mothers in the United States experiences a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder. American women love and enjoy their babies, but the truth is that caring for a newborn is very hard. Even an “easy” baby will put his parents through the wringer in the first year, creating physically and personally stressful situations that increase risks to both mother and baby. Unfortunately, help is hard to come by in today’s parenting culture, especially for lower-income moms. New parents need more flexibility, affirmation, information, and support in order to thrive. This is especially true in two crucial areas: mother and infant sleep and breastfeeding.
It is relatively normal for new mothers to wake to breastfeed for 45 minutes or so every two hours throughout the night. A mother may be surprised to find that although she goes to bed at 9 PM and gets up at 7 AM, she still only gets a few hours of actual (broken) sleep.
This is healthy for a very young baby, and it is also fine for the mother for a little while. Taking care of a baby involves sacrifice. But getting only six or so hours of interrupted sleep starts to wear on a person after a few weeks, not to mention months. If a baby’s sleep does not naturally improve after the newborn period, it leads, at best, to an exhausted mom just not noticing that she is wearing mismatched socks. At worst, however, it leads to depression, anxiety, misery, and fear of having another child. If she has a colicky baby, or experiences something like Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex (D-MER), or her little one has special needs, things can quickly become extremely difficult and personally damaging.
The reality is that no matter how perfectly she follows all the expert advice, after a few months of inadequate sleep due to limited options, a new mom may find herself—for lack of a better term—really starting to lose it. So, what, then, are new parents supposed to do? Just fall apart?
The research is clear that maternal exhaustion puts mothers at “high risk” of developing postpartum depression, which is well-known to significantly harm both mother and child and also puts significant stress on fathers and older children. Experience underlines these findings. In my own 10 years of conceiving, birthing, and breastfeeding my beloved babies, I never slept more than an hour or two total during my hospital stay, starting after the marathon of giving birth (“don’t fall asleep with the baby in your arms! But also, we have no nursery to take the baby for you!”). After returning home, I quickly found myself struggling with anxiety, depression, and sometimes even clinical insomnia as I tried to manage a newborn and care for my other children, while my husband worked a job that offered no paternity leave.
In response, although I am a mother, I became like the 84% of American dads who don’t follow all three of the American Academy of Pediatrics “Safe Sleep” recommendations. Instead, I began to rely on the research of places like the Mother-Baby Sleep Lab at the University of Notre Dame in order to find safe ways of increasing both my sleep and my baby's sleep. Other mothers may find that sleep training or the development of a flexible daily routine may be necessary in order for everyone in the family to attain adequate levels of sleep. A little adjusting of sleep habits will no more hurt a baby than nursing him to sleep in your arms will.
For any particular mother-baby pair, one sleep technique may work better than another, or a combined approach may work best. And that is not just acceptable: it is, in fact, to be expected. Parents need to know that there is no universal “magic formula” of mother-baby sleep, and that they can look for solutions that are both safe and fit the sleep needs of their families.
Cultural problems surrounding feeding a newborn baby also loom large in terms of new parent stress. Although we know breastfeeding is best for babies, new mothers still stop breastfeeding early and high rates cease the practice before the end of the first year (often quite a bit earlier).
Why? Ours is a culture that instructs women to breastfeed but does not tell them how or give them the space and time they need to do it. Mothers who work outside the home often find that pumping is difficult and under supported, and that their babies have a tendency to reverse-cycle, waking them numerous times per night. Even worse, many employed mothers do not qualify for maternity leave. And whether or not she works outside of the home, figuring out how to make things easier or how to address breastfeeding problems can be overwhelming.
Getting a newborn baby’s limiting tongue-tie revised promptly (in time for breastfeeding to continue normally) or identifying the reasons behind painful nursing can be quite difficult, especially for an inexperienced mother, or one who is also caring for older children. I, for example, had no idea that an oversupply of milk was making my baby miserable, even after seeing three lactation consultants (one of whom told me I had an undersupply). I only figured it out after the birth of my second child. Why do we burden new mothers with rigid expectations but offer no flexible advice and very little meaningful support?
The Freedom to Seek Support
Perhaps the most concerning problem of all is that when a mother’s situation moves beyond stress to clinical mental illness, for whatever reason, the pathways to identify and address her situation are not well-defined or easily accessible. New mothers themselves may not be able to distinguish between stress and depression or, even worse, postpartum psychosis. American culture surrounding new parenting often proscribes and prohibits, but rarely encourages, adjusts, or supports, and so struggling families often think they have no options available or that something is just plain wrong with them. This demanding approach to new parenthood creates life-altering problems over time—problems that are then significantly compounded by the other elephant in the room of new parenthood: the lack of local extended family support.
Thus, if we want both babies and mothers to thrive, we need to help new parents feel empowered to make reasonable risk-benefit analyses that help them make safe and healthy choices to support the well-being of both parts of the mother-baby dyad (and the whole family). We need to stop merely placing demands on them and start helping them consider a variety of solutions and options.
So, new mothers, take it from someone who’s been there: prudence and sacrifice are both good, but perfectionism patently is not. Get help when you can, and give yourself permission to take care of yourself and your baby so that you both can thrive. It is time to leave fear behind.
Dixie Dillon Lane is an American historian and essayist living in Virginia. Her writing can be found at Hearth & Field, Current, and Front Porch Republic, among other publications, as well as at her newsletter, TheHollow.substack.com.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.