Got a crying baby? First, take a deep breath…

Why new parents could do with some mindfulness …

All parents experience some level of worry after the birth of a baby. In the first 16 weeks, your baby’s crying is at its peak. This puts your poor nervous system into involuntary overdrive. When we hear a cry, our heart beats faster, our blood pressure rises and our breathing quickens. If we then struggle to soothe the crying infant, we can start feeling desperate.

For many parents things can seem overwhelming. The mind thinks unhappy thoughts like “I’m a failure” or “I’m obviously not doing this right” or “My baby isn’t getting enough sleep and this is going to harm us both”. Psychologists call this ‘negative self-talk’.

The power of positive thinking

Sometimes, challenging these negative stories and replacing them with positive ones might help. Deliberately cultivating gratitude is another popular strategy that is worthwhile practising. For example, you might tell yourself:

  • “I may not feel terrific, but I still have good days and I love my baby. I will get through this.”
  • “The more I strive for better sleep, the worse my sleep will be, so I’m letting go. Enough sleep is not about the number of hours I’ve had.”
  • “The baby’s crying really isn’t doing harm and will pass in 16 weeks.”
  • “I have a loving partner, I have a sister who cares about me. I’m lucky to have four months’ paid maternity leave. When I was working I longed to be able to spend days at home like this!”

These psychological approaches try to get rid of upset stories and feelings by disputing them or replacing them and, if that works for you, great! If you’ve already tried positive thinking but still feel overwhelmed and out of control, this is quite normal. Very often, these techniques simply won’t stop the brain churning.

How mindfulness might help

Fortunately, there are some powerful new techniques to help us when we are faced with the painful gap between what we had hoped life with the baby would be like and what it has turned out to be. These skills come from a modern form of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). ACT is proving to be very effective for a whole range of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

What is acceptance and commitment therapy?

ACT argues that mental health problems often arise, paradoxically, out of the frantic attempt to eliminate negative thoughts and feelings (either by internal struggle or by engaging in distractions and addictions). If we fight with our frightened and despairing thoughts and our miserable, exhausted feelings, the struggle itself consumes us. We panic because the baby is distressed, and then we panic about our panicking. It’s the struggle itself that places us at psychological risk.

The best way to change our relationship with anxious thoughts is to practice a set of skills called mindfulness. To be mindful is to pay attention to and be curious about the moment in which you find yourself. Research shows that to be most effective in improving our mental health, mindfulness needs three equally important steps.

Step 1: Becoming aware of our unhelpful thoughts and feelings

Stand back and ‘watch’ the memories, imaginings and stories that play through your head. Pay attention to the emotions, urges and sensations that rise and fall through your body without panicking or trying to push them away. In the crying period of a baby’s first four months, a story that plays endlessly through your mind might be true (‘I am bone tired’) or it might be false (‘My baby will be psychologically scarred by the crying’). It’s not the veracity of the story that matters – it’s whether or not the story helps you live a satisfying and meaningful life.

Step 2: Defusing from our unhelpful thoughts and feelings

Awareness alone is not enough to get you through. It’s also vital to know how to stop being pushed around by these unhelpful thoughts and feelings. To ‘defuse’ from our thoughts, we might imagine they are playing in the background like a radio or traffic. We might allow our distressed feelings to come and go like the weather. The simple act of slow, deep breathing is a surprisingly powerful way of turning down your sympathetic nervous system. More than that, deep breathing anchors us in our bodies, regardless of the feelings raging inside us. As we breathe, we might imagine that our breath is surrounding the painful feelings and permeating them and quietly making space around them. They may not go away, but our breath makes the space for them to simply sit alongside the many other sensations available to us in that moment.

Step 3: Expanding our attention

A powerful way to help defuse from our unhelpful thoughts is to expand our awareness by directing our attention to the many other things that are going on in the present moment. Switch off the struggle switch and watch your emotions and thoughts ebb and flow. Expand your attention to other pleasant feelings, like the breeze on your face, the aroma of coffee, the sound of a kookaburra laughing or a car passing by. Baby-time is a rare and precious opportunity to unplug, to ground yourself in sensation, to return to the landscape of the body. Baby-time won’t last long. By the end of 16 weeks, the most intense first immersion in baby physicality is over; by the end of the first year, everything has changed.

We have only the briefest of opportunities in the span of our lives to come home to our bodies in quite this way, to immerse ourselves in physicality, to give the abstract realm of the brain a break. We can let this embodied attention to the new child become its own rare kind of physical joy, we can cultivate the pleasure of it, we can deliberately seek it out, we can revel in it whenever the opportunity opens up.

When your baby cries, bravely practice mindfulness – noticing your thoughts and feelings as you do what you can, knowing that this is not a catastrophe. Gently bring your attention back into the present moment, over and over. Expand your attention from those painful thoughts and your baby’s distress to notice the environment around you. Notice your thoughts and feelings as you wait and hold, wait and hold, allowing a deep kindness to yourself.

As ever, please talk to your GP or other health professional if you feel like your anxiety or depression is overwhelming you. There are plenty of wonderful resources available to you so please don’t struggle along alone.

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