As I have two young daughters I have been asked to share my thoughts on health advice for new parents. Memories of the early days of parenthood are a horrific blur of not sleeping much and surviving on a diet of bacon sandwiches and wine – we should bear in mind the adage ‘Do as I say not as I do….’
Most new parents are lucky enough to be fit and well, if you happen to have a long term illness it is important not to neglect it – ensure you are attending appointments, taking medication and having any monitoring that is required.
Below are a few health and lifestyle issues that can easily fall by the wayside in the all-consuming chaos of trying to grow a person….
Poor sleep is of course par for the course, everyone knows this. Nonetheless people will ask you ‘How’s the sleep then, eh? Ha ha ha’ at every opportunity. It can be difficult to share in this hilarity. It is also common for friends with similarly aged children to smugly tell you theirs have ‘slept through’ from day 1. This will make you feel very happy for them.
Chronic sleep deprivation is bad for our health, it is linked to low mood, weight gain and chronic diseases. Good sleep hygiene will improve things for most people, this involves avoiding caffeine and alcohol, having a set bedtime, getting up at a reasonable time in the morning and not napping in the day. Having a ‘winding down’ routine works for babies, and can work for you too, try a hot bath and some reading to help you relax. Avoid looking at any phone or tablet screens for at least an hour before bed, as the light that they produce can interfere with production of melatonin – the hormone that helps you drop off to sleep.
After a day of work and/or childcare the temptation to eat something comforting is strong. This might be a takeaway – no washing up being an added bonus – or cooking something stodgy. This is the body’s response to tiredness and giving in is sometimes inevitable and we shouldn’t feel bad about it. However we should try to eat healthily most of the time. Cooking with fresh ingredients is best, but not always possible. Try making big batches of things like bolognaise, soups etc and freeze them in portions. As children get older it is good for them to help with preparing food, and to eat together at the table when possible.
Stress and tiredness can lead to increased alcohol intake, especially as we reward ourselves after a tough day once the kids are in bed. Adults in the UK are advised not to drink more than 14 units per week (a bottle of wine is around 10 units) and to try to have several consecutive days without alcohol per week to allow the liver to recover.
It’s a no-brainer, smoking is terrible for your health and will affect your baby. Parents who ‘only smoke outside’ carry harmful levels of smoke in their clothing, hair and skin for several hours, and their children are at increased risk of respiratory illnesses such as asthma. If you are a smoker please consider seeing a GP to discuss help with quitting.
Regular exercise is good for our mental as well as physical health. Babies and small children thrive on routine, and having a regular schedule will also make it easier for you to stick to your exercise plans. While any exercise is better than none, an 30-60 minutes of fairly strenuous activity 3-4 times a week would be a good target to aim for.
Mood changes such as anxiety and depression may be exacerbated by lack of sleep and stress. If you are struggling please do speak to a GP about treatment options, and make use of support from family, friends and health visitors. This is especially relevant to new Mums in the first few months.
Having a new baby inevitably places strain on relationships. Try to make time to spend with your partner. Sex is often a tricky area, both parties can be emotionally affected by the change a new baby brings, and not wanting to have sex is normal. Ladies who are exclusively breastfeeding and have not had a period are 98% likely not to conceive in the first six months, after which they should discuss contraception with a GP. Ladies who are not breastfeeding may fall pregnant within weeks of delivery unless contraception is used.
As before, if you have a longstanding illness such as diabetes or asthma, make sure that it is being well controlled and you are having appropriate monitoring with your GP or nurse. Consider having an annual flu jab. Ladies should arrange cervical smear tests when invited. If you are invited for a smear when you are pregnant, it is usual to delay it until 3 months after delivery. You may wish to consider a personal health check to look at things such as blood pressure and cholesterol.
It is highly unlikely, but sadly the worst can occasionally happen. Life insurance is cheap if you are young and healthy, and you should be able to financially secure your family for £20 per month or so. If you are self-employed it is also sensible to look into income protection to replace your earnings in the event of serious illness or disability.
I hope you find this helpful.
Dr Marcus Gleave