The beginning of your parenthood journey can feel like a chaotic roller coaster, especially when it comes to your postpartum emotions. You might feel euphoric excitement, deep disappointment, seething frustration, painful guilt, and blissful love all within a few minutes.
If you feel this way, you are not alone, and it may be comforting to know that there are logical biological explanations for your emotional fluctuations. Feeling dysregulated in postpartum is more common than you may think and, using a simple technique called NESTS, something you can manage.
The Real Role Hormones Play After Birth
While we want to avoid blaming hormones for all your postpartum challenges because this may seem to invalidate your distress, hormone fluctuations really do play a significant role in mood regulation in the early postpartum period.
For example, high levels of progesterone that are sustained throughout pregnancy plummet immediately after giving birth, leaving mothers in a drastically imbalanced hormonal state. Disproportionate progesterone and estrogen may lead to irritability, low mood, and anxiety, which makes your postpartum days much more challenging — and maybe not so fun.
According to Dr. Sarah J. Buckley, MD, prolactin — the hormone that promotes breastfeeding, also known as the “mothering hormone” — also plays a role in emotional dysregulation in postpartum. Prolactin release affects dopamine levels, our feel-good hormone, so it is no surprise that less dopamine leads to moodiness and low energy.
On the positive side, we have oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, that is released during snuggles with baby to counteract the effects of other imbalanced hormones! But the fact remains that these hormone releases have a direct impact on your mood!
The Foundational Role of Nutrition and Sleep in Regulating Postpartum Emotions
In the wake of childbirth, it is easy to neglect your own basic human needs, as you are so wrapped up in caring for your infant. Forgetting to eat and neglecting sleep seem to be rites of passage for parents of newborns — but also may make the process harder than it needs to be.
It’s very common for new parents to not meet their basic nutritional needs. As a result, being “hangry” is sometimes a reality of parenthood. But a little focus on your nutrition can go a long way.
I remember my midwife telling me, “a sandwich can make a life-saving, easy and nutritious dinner” and this is so true: grabbing a healthy snack or easy meal restores energy, elevates mood, and helps you to feel nourished and more balanced.
And then there’s the lack of sleep, which may be a bit harder to address. As we all know, babies typically take a while to sleep in long stretches, and parents are often left sleep deprived and beyond exhausted. Lack of sleep leads to irritability, frustration, and mood fluctuations that can seem out of control.
You might notice your ability to cope with the challenges of the day is vastly improved by just a little more sleep. Trading off nighttime feedings with a partner, hiring a postpartum doula to help at night, or taking a rest during the day can be game changers in your ability to make it through the day without losing your cool.
The Power of Short Breaks
Parents are on the clock 24/7 without much in the way of restorative breaks, which also contributes to overwhelming emotions. It may seem that your time is no longer your own, and that every waking (and sleeping) moment is absorbed by the needs of your child.
You might have a hard time entrusting someone else with the care of your little one — even your co-parent — and you may feel guilty for even wanting time away.
The reality is that time to yourself, even in very small doses, has amazingly rejuvenating effects for parents. According to Erica Djossa, the mama behind an impressive line-up of supportive resources (including the Happy as a Mother Podcast, Mother Up group coaching program, and invaluable parenting workshops), support is an absolutely necessary factor in parenting.
We have all heard the saying “it takes a village to raise a child,” but it takes a village to raise a parent as well. Having support during this critical time can help you feel more regulated and in control of your emotions. A support network allows you to talk about it when you are struggling, and to not feel so alone.
Delegating tasks to your village members, or simply asking for a break, aids in feeling centred, calm, and less emotional as you face the daily challenges of parenting.
Using NESTS to Check-In on Your Postpartum Emotions
With the busyness of parenthood, it can be hard to take care of your needs, as they just don’t feel like a priority. But your needs matter too, and taking care of yourself allows you to parent in a way that aligns with your values.
The trick to doing so, however, is to have a tool that helps you check in when you feel the heat of impatience or frustration rising. That’s exactly what a multidisciplinary group of psychiatrists, nurse clinicians, psychologists, counsellors, dieticians, social workers and researchers with the BC Reproductive Mental Health Program built as they created a guide to help improve women’s reproductive mental health and wellbeing.
The group created what it called NESTS to help mother’s see if their needs are being met — and it’s a powerful tool you can use to check-in with yourself. Chances are, you are lacking something on this list, and this self-insight can help you to seek out exactly what you need.
Use this checklist when frustration, overwhelm, or anxiety comes up to assess your needs, deepen your self-awareness and figure out how to give yourself what you need.
Nutrition: eat nutritious foods throughout the day to refuel
Exercise: get some exercise (even a few minutes here and there) to reduce stress
Sleep/rest: create a bedtime routine to support getting enough sleep, and take rests when you can
Time to yourself: take some alone time every now and then to recharge your energy
Support: build a network of support and ask for help when you need it
Becoming more aware of your NESTS needs will help your body and mind to cope more effectively with postpartum emotions when they arise, and to feel more centered on your parenting journey.