3 Ways to Manage Life with a New Baby

Flexible, realistic strategies to help parents with life after a new baby.

Posted May 28, 2020

It is often recommended to new parents, “Sleep when the baby sleeps,” or “Get on the baby’s schedule,” and “Don’t worry – the dishes can wait.” Although allowances for sleep and acceptance of an imperfect home are understandable, strategies to support parents during the postpartum period aren’t one size fits all.

An element of cognitive-behavioral therapy, known as behavioral activation, is a flexible, evidence-based approach to coping with this new phase of life. Behavioral activation is basically engaging in behaviors to enhance one’s mood. Here are three applications of behavioral activation to the postpartum period:

1. Balancing sleep with self-care. How do you know if you’re sleeping too much? I would say if sleep is interfering with your ability to take care of yourself, like shower and eat, then it may be too much. I often recommend setting a list of “bare minimum” daily behaviors in which one should engage to maintain behavioral activation and reduce vulnerability to depression

For some, this might mean showering every day and having breakfast by noon. For others, it might be brushing one’s teeth at some point. It takes some time and may vary by your baby’s developmental phase, but try to be flexible and figure out what your “bare minimum” behaviors can be.

One helpful tip might be using a newborn’s nap schedule to your advantage. This might mean using one nap as a “relaxing nap,” filled with brainless television and lots of baby cuddles, and one nap as a “productive nap,” in which one accomplishes “bare minimum” behaviors.

2. Do something for yourself. This is a broad recommendation probably all new parents have heard. Again, this will vary based on what’s workable for you and your baby. An easy way to approach this is by enhancing activities in which you already engage. That could be as simple as getting a nice body or face wash. Since you’ll probably wash-up at some point, why not make the experience a bit more enjoyable and luxurious?

Other “self-care” activities might be things to help increase a sense of control or accomplishment.  Such activities might be organizing clothes, washing bottles, or making that call you’ve been putting off. It might sound silly, but these tasks help to provide a concrete sign of accomplishment new parenthood doesn’t provide naturally.

3. Beware of the “shoulds.” “I should write those thank you notes,” or “I should do that laundry,” or “I should answer those emails.” The “shoulds” are a slippery slope from helpful behavioral activation to vulnerability to depression. Sometimes these “shoulds” seem like they are doable, but given the resources you have at the time, they may not actually be. 

So how to get around this? I recommend focusing on daily accomplishments, no matter how small they seem. It’s also important to remember that there were barriers to doing more than you did. Did Baby not sleep? Did you not sleep? Did some issue arise that needed your attention more than the activity you had planned? Cut yourself some slack. If you’re able to do your bare minimum behaviors today, maybe you’ll be able to do even more tomorrow. Focus on your accomplishments rather than your yet-to-be-accomplished.

So how does this fit with all the generous recommendations that started this entry? It all goes back to balance. Sleep when you can. Take care of yourself when you can. Do something when you can. Odds are, eventually, you’ll find what works for you, and maybe you can sleep when the baby sleeps.