Self-care isn't selfish: 5 ways to preserve your mental health and build your baby’s brain before birth

pregnant woman enjoying a tea outside

When you think about mental health what comes to mind? Do you picture someone who is dealing with anxiety, depression or another mental illness? Do you think maybe this topic doesn’t apply to you?

Mental health is not about living without a mental illness—people can live with a mental illness and still be mentally healthy, and those who don’t have a mental illness may not have mental health. Being mentally healthy means you are able to feel, think, and act in ways that allow you to enjoy life and deal with challenges that come your way. And since having a baby can be both joyful and challenging, we hope you will agree that now is a great time to be thinking about your own mental health.

Did you know that your mental health affects your baby?

You may already know that poor mental health can affect your body, mind, and quality of life. But did you know that your mental health affects your baby too? Science tells us that the environment we live in and the experiences we have create chemical messages in our body. These chemical messages are shared with an unborn baby during pregnancy—and affect how the baby’s brain is built. A healthy environment and positive experiences (such as good mental health) help build strong brain architecture for your baby. This is important for their future health, learning and behaviour.

After your baby is born, he or she will rely on face-to-face interactions with at least one key caregiver for healthy brain development to continue. Babies need someone who can tune in and figure out what they need when they need it. If you are struggling with your mental health, you may not be able to do this as much as your baby needs you to.
Taking care of your mental health before, during and after pregnancy is important for you...and your baby.

Self-care is how you get your power

Self-care is important for everyone’s mental health (not just when treating a mental illness). It’s about looking after yourself, so you can be the best version of you—which also means being the best version of you for your baby. Self-care is a simple idea—nutrition, exercise, sleep, time for self and support (NESTS). It’s the follow-through that can be hard! We understand that it will take some extra effort to fit self-care into your daily routine as you fight through pregnancy and postpartum exhaustion and caring for a new baby, but the payoff for you and your baby is worth it.
NESTS image

So how do you get started? First, it might help to take a look at the self-care section in ‘Coping with depression during pregnancy and following the birth’ (PDF). Each of the self-care areas from NESTS are explained, key questions are asked and tips for making positive changes are provided. These questions and tips can be used by anyone who is looking to make positive changes for their mental health―not just people who are coping with depression. You might just find you are already doing some things that are positive (go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back!) and maybe there are one or two fairly easy changes you could make to get you going down a healthier path. As you start working on making some changes, remember to be patient with yourself. Change takes time.

Self-care Spotlight:

Making (and taking) time for yourself is about doing something you find relaxing or enjoyable—and even better if it helps quiet your mind too. What if you could reduce stress, improve focus, boost memory and help relationships in just 5-10 minutes a day? According to research, that’s what mindfulness can help you accomplish. And it can be super helpful when you’re in labour too!  

Learning mindfulness takes practice. When you first start your mindfulness journey, your mind will wander.  It will take some work to focus on being in the moment without your thoughts being clouded by the busyness that is life. But with time (oh yeah, and practise—did we already mention that?), you’ll find yourself getting better at it!

Here are some resources to get you started:

Sometimes treatment may be necessary

 Many new moms experience the baby blues in the first couple of weeks after their baby is born. Feeling exhausted, cranky, overwhelmed, or emotional (even crying for no obvious reason at times) are very common reactions as your body deals with shifting hormones, lack of sleep, and getting used to caring for a tiny human. These feelings typically go away within two weeks as hormones start to settle and you become more familiar with your baby.
However, 1 in 5 women will experience more intense and longer lasting symptoms of depression or anxiety during pregnancy or in the first year after the baby is born. In fact, perinatal mood and anxiety disorders are the most common complication of childbirth—and, unfortunately, many people suffer in silence because either nobody asks or they don’t tell. And yes, depression or anxiety can happen to partners too.
Today we ask you (whether you are the pregnant person or the partner) to please talk to someone if you feel depressed, anxious or don't feel like yourself. And if you’re worried about your loved one’s mental health but they aren’t saying anything about it, ASK! Be open to hearing what they have to say without passing judgement. Sharing some specific examples of things you’ve noticed in them can also help them see the concern through your eyes. You may need to open this conversation more than once before your loved one is ready to get on board with it though—try to be patient but firm.
It might also help for you to book the first appointment or for you to go with them to see their healthcare provider, but always ask first. It’s only helpful if it’s something your loved one wants your help with. However, if you think they might hurt themselves, the baby, or someone else then you need to make sure they get help right away. Call HERE 24/7 for crisis support.
The next step is to find professionals and support services in your community to help you on your journey to recovery. The sooner you get the help you need, the sooner you will start feeling like yourself again. Some people need medication, some need counselling and some need both. Here are some supports and services you can connect with:
  • Your healthcare provider: If you don’t have a healthcare provider, call HERE 24/7 to ask where to get support near you.      
  • HERE 24/7: Call 1-844-437-3247 anytime to access addictions, mental health and crisis support.
  • Let’s Talk Parenting: Call 1-800-265-7293 ext. 3616 Monday to Friday 9:00 am to 4:00 pm to speak with a public health nurse.  
  • Postpartum mood disorder support group: It can be helpful to meet with others who understand what you’re going through. Look for a group near you.
  • Mother Matters: This is an 8-week online support group for mothers who are feeling sad, alone, or anxious after having a new baby. Registration for the summer session opens in May.   
  • Up and Running Guelph: A walking program for moms that focuses on building a sense of community and improving mental health. Open to all mothers.
Before we sign off, we want to leave you with this final thought. Taking care of your mental health isn’t selfish or a ‘nice-to-do’. It’s as important as the oxygen you breathe.  If you’re on an airplane in an emergency, you put your own oxygen mask on first, so you can better take care of those around you. Not only do you deserve to be mentally healthy, but your new baby is counting on it too.

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Want more stage and age-specific information? Visit our website to read about your child’s development and get more activities and healthy living tips:

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