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Mental Health in Mothers: Parent and Infant Needs Are Not A Zero Sum Game

Updated: Apr 14

If you tuned into my stories in the last 24 hours, you might know I hit a bit of a wall recently.

I recognised that I was headed straight for burnout, and thankfully, I had the option to hit pause and disrupt this pattern before it got any worse. I gave myself permission to do the bare minimum, say no to things, and completely lowered my expectations of productivity (in the capitalist sense, that has zero regard for the mental or physical health of mothers).

What led to this state of mental health in mothers?

In December of last year, I quit my stable research coordinator job and went ALL IN on Infant Sleep Scientist. It's the best thing I've ever done, but I simply haven't come up for air since. I've been so busy supporting parents like you and envisioning everything I want to build, that I wasn't stopping to check in with myself. Many days I would get to the end of the day, feeling completely depleted and realise all I'd consumed was coffee.

Sound familiar?

Whether you're a stay at home parent, or working full or part time, this can happen to any of us. It is so easy to get caught up in all the "doing" and striving to meet all of the unrealistic expectations of others not regarding the mental health in mothers, as well as those we place on ourselves. Before you know it, you can't remember the last time you took a moment to just be. To step back, take stock, and fill your cup.

I know I'm lucky to have the support I do, but I also believe that mothers being resourced should be the norm, not the exception. It should not be a privilege to have a non judgmental support network ready to rally when the need arises. We were never meant to do this alone.

mental health in mothers: we need to be held

It got me thinking about the effects on mental health in parents

I didn’t hit a wall because I have a baby that doesn't "sleep through." I know though, if this was a couple of years ago, and I told the wrong person about my declining mental health, and even so much as mentioned my baby waking, they would blame that. They would take my admissions as an invitation to condemn my choices to support my baby day and night. They might make me feel like I didn't deserve to find it hard because I wasn't willing to do the hard work and sleep train. I'm not just speculating here either. This has happened to me, and I know it has happened to many of you.

Mental health in mothers: A societal-wide issue

As a culture, we have normalised shifting our (very real) adult problems onto the shoulders of babies. Instead of questioning the systems and structures that have led to unprecedented levels of ill mental health in parenthood, we expect babies to change their needs so we can meet ours. What is baffling to me is how we can't see the absolute illogic of expecting a baby to subvert their needs when we - supposedly fully equipped adults - struggle with this very thing.

Infant mental health matters

Infant mental health is inextricably linked to caregiver mental health. This is one argument you see "for" behavioural sleep training methods; if the parent is healthier then the baby will be too. This sounds great, in theory, but the evidence isn't really there. First, many parents find sleep training is distressing and that it worsens their mental health, and second, we can't just assume that any means of improving parent mental health will benefit the baby. Sometimes, I can't help but wonder if the rampant rates of mental health issues we see in adults today has a little to do with the fact that many of us were not necessarily well-supported or co-regulated with as babies and young children. Something neurodevelopmental science tells us is essential in developing healthy emotion regulation skills and lifelong emotional resilience.

Mental health in mothers and in babies - It's not one or the other!

I came across a saying a while ago and it's one I repeat often. When it comes to parent and infant needs, sleep, and mental health instead of "me first" we need to advocate for and emphasise "me too."

We don't need to pit parents and babies' against each other! As if meeting the needs of one is only possible by sacrificing the needs of the other. This idea holds us back, and frankly, only functions to line the pockets of the sleep training industry and perpetuate patriarchal structures that do not serve us - no matter your gender.

mental health in mothers

Breaking cycles

The pathway to a healthy and emotionally resilient humanity starts with us. It starts with us standing up and saying we aren't going to keep repeating cycles of generations past. Cycles that perpetuate emotional ill health in all of us and uphold systems and institutions that do not serve us. The only way to do this is to get real, take responsibility and accountability, and do it differently.

I don't know about you, but I have pathways laid in my brain, probably from before a time I even have explicit memories, that don't exactly epitomise health or emotional resilience. But something that comforts me is research into neurodevelopment and neuroplasticity, which tells us a few things:

Firstly, each time we use a pathway, it gets deeper, more automatic. Whether that's a healthy pattern, or an unhealthy one. Think, your reaction to something that irritates you. Is your well-trodden pathway to go from 0 to 100 and REACT, or is it to pause, consider, take a deep breath, and respond? Chances are you have done both, at different times, but it's highly likely you err on the side of one vs the other, because of these pathways.

There is hope though, because second, neuroplasticity research has shown us you can change these pathways. Forge new ones, with intentionality and time. And going back to the first point, each time you practice that new, healthier pattern, that pathway will get deeper. Isn't that amazing? Doesn't that fill you with hope? I know it does for me.

Final thoughts

Phew. Still with me? We're almost there. I really didn't plan out where this was going or how to end it, to be honest. But this seems like a good place to start talking about your mental health, whether you're a mother, father, or other caregiver. If you have been feeling depleted, agitated, or like things are building up, please take this as a sign.

Not that you need my permission, but if it helps, here it is. Hit pause on anything you concievably can. Reduce your expectations. Surrender and do what works today without fear for tomorrow. Take a moment to congratulate yourself for the hard, thankless, work you are doing. Not just caring for your baby or children, but deep, hard work. Parenting with intentionality. Breaking cycles. Forging new pathways. Helping your baby build a healthy brain. You deserve a break. And if you aren't in a position to take one right now, I see you too. Acknowledge that what you're doing is more than anyone should or was ever meant to shoulder alone.

As always, if there is anything I can do to support you in this season, reach out and let me know. Book a call or use the contact form at the bottom of this page

Jess xx

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