Being a parent is hard. Really hard. You don’t get to switch off from being a parent – it’s a 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year job. And, even when you do get some time off with the help of a babysitter, worries about your children are still taking up headspace. In the age of social media, parenting can be even harder when faced with beautiful images of carefree families having buckets of fun, whilst you are wrestling with a toddler who won’t brush her teeth, a baby that won’t sleep no matter how many times you rock him, or a school aged child who just doesn’t seem to “get” phonics.
Yes, being a parent is draining, both physically and mentally, and as parents, we often put our children’s needs above anything else. The problem is that if we neglect our own needs, then our mental and physical health starts to suffer, and in turn, that can have a negative effect on our ability to be a parent. That’s why it’s important to remember to look after ourselves, so that we can be better equipped to look after the small people who depend on us. That being said, finding time to put ourselves first can be a near impossible task, especially if you have a very clingy baby or toddler, or a busy schedule of after school activities, plus work and household chores to do. You might not have the funds, or the time to book a spa day, but you can take small steps to improve your own physical and mental health.
1. Fuel Your Body
It’s so easy to reach for the chocolate or biscuits when you’re a busy Mum. But whilst that delicious morsel might give you an initial high, it won’t do anything to sustain your energy levels, and when the sugar hit runs out you will just feel tired again.
Get in some healthy snacks, such as nuts and seeds, that have slow releasing energy that will keep you going for hours and help reduce those sugar cravings. You can set a good example to your children by reaching for the carrot sticks rather than the crisps when you feel like you need a snack. Check out Change4Life for more ways to get healthy food into your diet.
2. Step Away from Social Media
Social media has some fantastic benefits. It’s allowed old friends to reconnect, and it’s a handy way of updating those closest to you with important events from your life, such as the birth of your children. In times of crisis, social media has been invaluable in spreading crucial information and mobilising groups of volunteers very quickly.
On the other hand, social media has been linked by a number of studies to poor mental health, with evidence of it causing depression, anxiety, and sleep problems. Social media is generally used to show only our positive moments. For example, we might see a picture of a child who is taking their first steps, but we rarely see a picture of a child hitting a sibling because of an argument over a toy. We might see images of a beautifully prepared meal that someone is proud to have cooked, but we probably won’t see images of burnt fishfingers and baked beans. People tend to only share the things they proud of, so for their followers, it might seem as though they have the perfect lifestyle, whereas the reality can be far different.
It’s often said that comparison is the thief of joy, and you might find this to be the case when faced with a barrage of carefully curated images of happy, seemingly perfect families on social media. In that case, maybe it’s time to step away for a while. Taking a break every now and again will give you the chance to enjoy what you have, rather than wish for whatever someone else has.
3. Turn Off Your Phone & Tablet in the Evening
Getting enough sleep is hard when you have a child who wakes up at various points throughout the night. However, you can make your sleep a little better by switching off your phone, tablet, or computer a couple of hours before you go to bed. The blue light emitted by these devices can inhibit the production of melatonin – the sleep hormone – keeping you awake for longer. Refraining from using the device before you go to bed can give your body the chance to produce more melatonin, making it more likely that you will settle down quickly at bed time and go to sleep.
If you have to use a device in the evening, then see if it has a night mode that reduces the amount of blue light emitted. And, when your baby wakes you up at 3am for a feed, try to avoid the temptation of checking your phone whilst you are feeding your child, as the blue light will probably wake both of you up even further, making getting back to sleep harder.
4. Move More
When you have so much to do for your family it can seem a little selfish to take time out to exercise, but the truth is that this isn’t an act of self-indulgence, it’s essential for your health and well-being. Sign up to an evening class when the kids have gone to bed, do a couch to 5K running programme, or simply set aside 30-minutes a day to go for a brisk walk, which is something that the whole family can do.
Exercise releases feel good hormones, and if you’re happy then your happiness will spread to your children. Even if you can’t get out of the house for whatever reason, there are plenty of fitness videos on YouTube that are aimed at beginners.
5. Make Time For Other Relationships
”Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!” is usually what we hear whenever we try and chat to grown-ups when the children are around. Your child might be the most precious person in the world to you, but that doesn’t mean that you should neglect other relationships. Parents often report that loneliness is an issue, especially in those early days, and if you have a good support network around you, the tough times can be easier to manage. Even if you can’t meet up with a friend, take a few minutes out every now and again to send them a text to see how they are. Even better, agree a time to meet up once a month or so.
Your relationship with your partner has probably changed significantly since you became parents, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of largely ignoring each other’s needs in favour of the children’s. If you can, try and have a dedicated date night when a grandparent or friend can babysit once a month. If that’s not possible, then agree that each one of you will do something nice for the other person once a week, whether it be cooking their favourite meal, running them a bath, or simply writing a note to say thank you for their love and support.
6. Know The Signs Of Stress & Depression
If you are feeling tired all the time, are quick to lose your temper, and are experiencing from a lot of headaches, then there is a good chance that you are suffering from stress. It’s important to recognise the signs of both stress and depression so that you can seek help from a medical professional early on. Ignoring the symptoms will simply allow the problem to fester, and potentially impact on your health in the long-term.
Other signs to look out for include an upset stomach, tense muscles, insomnia, a rapid heartbeat, feeling overwhelmed, avoiding people or situations, a lack of focus, appetite changes, and a lack of interest in activities you previously enjoyed. You can find further information on the signs of stress and depression on the NHS website and if you have any concerns about your health you should arrange an appointment with your GP.
7. Take Up A Hobby
It might be reading a book, jogging, yoga, knitting, or gardening, but having a hobby is a way that you can get some much needed “me time” and reclaim some of your pre-children identity. Reading is a particularly good hobby for parents to pick up, as it is something that can be fitted in those rare moments of calm, just before bed time, during your child’s nap times, or on your lunch break at work.
It gives you an opportunity to escape into another reality, and it sets a good example for your own children. Your hobby doesn’t have to be expensive (yoga videos are readily available on YouTube for example), nor does it have to be time consuming, but it is another way you can treat yourself to some down time.
8. Be Mindful
Mindfulness is a meditation technique that simply gets us to focus on the present moment and all the sensations it can bring. As a parent, you are probably used to having a thousand thoughts running through your head at any one time: “What can I cook for tea tonight? Where is Ella’s book bag? I need to book that dentist appointment,” and so on.
We can easily get lost in our thoughts, and this is never more apparent when you realise that your child has been repeating the same question for the last couple of minutes, getting increasingly frustrated with your lack of answer. Mindfulness helps us to focus on the here and now. What we can see, hear, touch and smell. It encourages us to focus on the world around us and on the sensations we experience in our bodies.
You can find out more about mindfulness on the NHS website but a simple way to start is when you are going to bed. Lying in your bed, focus your thoughts outwards, identifying everything you can hear, see, smell, and touch. Think about how the duvet feels on your skin. Acknowledge any painful niggles you might have. Identify which child you can hear snoring in the next room. There is a lot of evidence to show that mindfulness can help with a range of mental health problems, including stress and anxiety. Best of all, it is a practice that can be done at any time, including in the shower, on the bus, or even when cooking dinner.
9. Get Outside
It has been scientifically proven that spending time outside is good for you. Not only does it give you access to that vital Vitamin D (which is an essential nutrient for your overall health and well-being), but it has also been shown to reduce stress levels, improve brain function, and encourage weight loss and exercise.
It’s also good for the kids, especially when they’ve been indoors at home for a few hours and things are starting to get a little frazzled. Even if it’s raining outside, 20 minutes spent splashing in the puddles or going for a brisk walk will help you to feel energised and refreshed. Aim to spend some time outdoors every day and you will soon notice the difference.
10. Make Time For You
Mums often fall into the trap of putting everyone around them first, with their own needs being left by the wayside. If you are feeling stressed, fatigued, overwhelmed, or even depressed, then it’s time to start putting yourself first for a change. And, if you are generally bumbling along OK, it still isn’t selfish to treat yourself to some “me time” every now and again to ensure that you don’t become burnt out.
Tell your partner it’s their turn to put the kids to bed and take a long bath. Ditch the housework for a day in favour of curling up on the sofa with a good book. Use flexi-time or annual leave to take an afternoon off work to head to the beach or the woods for a walk. You won’t regret it.