Parents and mental health: a guide for new mums and dads

By Sushmita Kanthan, Registered Psychologist

Parenting can be both a blissful and rewarding time. It’s also stressful, daunting and overwhelming. It’s impossible to do alone. With the right help, resources and support, you can navigate pregnancy then parenting. By prioritising your mental health, reducing stress, practicing self-care and connecting to others, you can face the challenges ahead as you nurture your child.

Past mental health issues can impact new parents

If you’ve had mental health issues in the past, they may return and cause new problems. For some people, not feeling ready to be a parent causes a lot of stress. For others, the trauma surrounding past fertility issues or miscarriages might resurface. Even the thought of what’s ahead may be too much to bear. It’s important to recognise when you are struggling and need help to improve your mental health.

Even if you’ve never experienced mental illness, there is a high risk of developing a mental illness during pregnancy or as a parent. The most common mental illnesses developed before, during and after having a child include antenatal and postnatal depression, attachment issues, and anxiety, including separation anxiety.

Common challenges for parents and mental health

Pregnancy can cause a lot of stress in all aspects of your life – impacting you financially, physically and emotionally. Physical changes to the body are the first things we often think of, yet there are major emotional and mental changes that happen. A planned pregnancy will create many surprises, even if this is not your first pregnancy or child. An unplanned pregnancy can be even more daunting and challenging.

The actual labour and birth can be a traumatic event – for the person giving birth, partners and support people. Old, untreated mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or trauma can be easily triggered. New trauma can be pushed to the side while a parent is plunged into a sleepless haze of feeds and nappy changes.

It’s important to recognise when you’re under stress or have experienced trauma. There are many people and services who can help you to process what you have been through or what life is like right now.

Having kids changes your identity and relationships

Becoming a parent profoundly impacts your identity, ability to earn money and career. These shifts can’t be underestimated, in terms of their impact on mental health and relationships. The transition from worker to stay-at-home parent is a major change. For couples, moving to one income creates major financial stress.

Raising a child is a major change to your lifestyle. You may not be able to move around, see people and do things like you used to. There may be changes to your mood, motivation and overall mental health and wellbeing.

You and your partner may take a different approach to discipline, which could cause conflict and arguments. Ongoing tensions might harm the relationship. If your child has a medical condition or disability, this can create a lot of stress and pressure. Anxiety or mood disorders might result, as you and your partner learn how to support your child and their development. It is devastating if you feel like you don’t have support or the skills to be a ‘good’ parent.

There are counselling and support groups available to support parents with their mental health

All parents need help and support – often from outside their own family. Thankfully there is lots of help available in Australia, including subsidised mental health sessions with a psychologist. You can receive a rebate on up to 20 psychology sessions each year under the Australian Government’s Better Access initiative. To claim these sessions, see your GP, who will assess your current mental health. They can refer you to a registered psychologist.

If you are currently pregnant, or have been in the last 12 months, you can receive an extra three sessions through Medicare, called non-directive pregnancy support counselling services. The sessions can be run by a GP, psychologist, social worker or mental health nurse who has had specialised training. If your GP hasn’t had the training, they can refer you to someone who has.

Feeling like you are struggling is normal. Sharing stories and listening to others can help parents realise that raising a child is a tough job. Parenting support groups, often referred to as mother’s groups, are run in most local neighbourhoods. Initial catch-ups are often in places like community health or neighbourhood centres, however, since the COVID-19 pandemic many groups have shifted online.

A maternal and child health nurse will visit parents in the weeks after birth and can pass on the contact details of any groups or services in your area. Beyond Blue runs online parenting groups and there are many communities on social media, particularly Facebook. Joining any parenting group might help you to feel less alone and can give you a place to share your experiences and emotions.

Good mental health means taking time for self-care, including sleeping and leaving the house

If your mental health is struggling, it will interfere with your ability to care for your child and your relationships. You may find yourself angry over small things, or easily swept up in negative emotions. You may doubt your abilities or worry about everything you do.

The practice of self-care is essential. Self-care means taking time out from your daily life to do things that help your mental health and wellbeing. It should be practiced and prioritised by all parents and can even be done as a whole family. Having a newborn can make taking breaks or taking ‘time out’ seem impossible. However, self-care can help make the parenting process more manageable and enjoyable.

Rest and sleep is difficult, especially in the early days with a newborn. A lack of sleep has a huge impact on mental health. It is recommended that the mother or the main caregiver who feeds and looks after the baby, should rest and attempt to takes naps when their baby sleeps. This can seem impossible to achieve. Parents may need to call on help from others outside the immediate family unit. Grandparents, aunties or uncles, friends, neighbours, nannies, doulas or other support people might be needed to care for bub, cook meals, do laundry or all these things while the main caregiver rests or sleeps.

Staying healthy and good personal hygiene practices are important. Brushing your teeth, showering, combing your hair and getting dressed are musts. It’s also important to maintain a healthy diet. Avoiding alcohol and eating healthy foods are good for the gut and brain – both influence mental health and energy levels. Getting fresh air and exercise is essential for all parents. Going for walks, simple weight exercises, yoga and meditation are all common self-care practices that can help you to be calm and recharge.

Special treats or time with loved ones can also be part of self-care. Some parents feel most refreshed after a beauty treatment, like a haircut, massage or manicure. Others might crave a date with a partner or long brunch with friends, while someone babysits. Do whatever self-care means to you.

Ditch the guilt, and find your village

Pregnancy and parenting require courage and strength. Be kind to yourself and remember that you are doing the best that you can. Ask for help when you need it. You may feel guilty for leaving your baby with someone else. But, you can’t raise a child alone or if your mental or physical health is suffering.

As the old saying goes, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Your ‘village’ will look different to the next person’s. Surround yourself with people who can help you to face the challenging, yet rewarding, times ahead. You might need a new mental health team and to join parenting communities. Australia has excellent psychologists, counsellors, support groups and mental health support services.

If you don’t know where to start, book time an appointment with your GP – they can connect you to mental health professionals, groups and services. You can also talk to us here at Spencer Health. We have a team of psychologists, many who specialise in parents and mental health.

Parents and mental health: useful links

A collection of Australian websites that might help you on your pregnancy, birth and parenting journey.

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