Before I had my first baby, I always imagined maternity leave to be a blissful retreat – a break from the daily grind - filled with baby snuggles, sweatpants, carefree nursing sessions, naps, and light housework. Sure, there would be some poop duty involved, but the cute baby snuggles would make it all worth it.
That’s the dream, am I right?
Then I had a baby and reality set in: there I was at home, mostly alone, responsible for a small human who I didn’t yet understand, and with no confidence in my ability to care for her. I was sleep-deprived and navigating breastfeeding and supply challenges that left me with a constant worry that my baby wasn’t getting enough food. Anytime something brushed against my chest it felt like razor blades against my nipples. The house was a growing mess. And I was just so tired, all the time. My blissful retreat instead felt like a sleep-deprived nightmare some days.
Does this ring true for any of you?
After the first six weeks, my experience started to slowly improve, but I felt a constant ticking of the clock, knowing that I would eventually return to work and need to integrate baby life into my normal daily work rhythms. That anxiety crept in day after day and took away from my daily enjoyment with my daughter. It felt like there was more to learn than was humanly possible, and I didn’t want to return to work feeling like such a mess.
In retrospect, I wish I could have stopped trying to learn ALL the things and just focused on a few. I wish I could have worried less and enjoyed more time with my daughter. But I just didn’t know where to start.
Today, after experiencing three maternity leaves, I can now identify the practices that actually helped me get sleep, prioritize myself, become a more confident parent, and set myself up for a more stable, sustainable return to work experience.
Here are my “5 essential maternity leave practices” to help you cut through the noise, focus on a few key things that can prepare you for a more confident return to work, and then ENJOY and let the rest go:
- Bond with your baby however that looks for you. I didn’t instantaneously bond with each of my babies. It took me time to discover them and lean into that newborn motherhood experience. I always found it easier to bond with my babies after the first few weeks, once they could sustain longer awake times and they started to showcase a bit of personality. You may have a completely different experience – it’s all so personal, and it’s important to give yourself space for that bonding, however and whenever it happens. In those first few weeks, bonding may be skin-to-skin time and feedings. Once the baby moves beyond the sleepy newborn weeks, it may feel easier to bond with them through playtime. Be patient with the process and don’t feel pressure to play with your baby a certain way. Do what works for you.
- Find a sleeping arrangement that works for you, and prioritize sleep learning for you and your baby. This one is huge. Sleep had the biggest impact on my life (both positive and negative) during maternity leave and once I returned to work. When it’s good, you can function in your daily life, and when sleep is bad, it impedes everything. I recommend first identifying a sleeping arrangement that works for your family – room sharing, safe co-sleeping, baby sleeping in its own room – whatever works best for you in your physical space. Experiment and figure out what’s ideal for your family. Secondly, educate yourself on infant sleeping and implement a sleep system that works for you. Our favorite infant sleep approaches are Precious Little Sleep and Taking Cara Babies. Read the books and/or take the virtual courses – it’s worth the time to build your knowledge and confidence so you can navigate sleep challenges and get everyone in the family sleeping as best as possible with a sustainable approach. There are also great Facebook groups centered around infant sleep. These groups are great resources for crowd-sourced trouble shooting and encouragement. I really can’t emphasize enough how beneficial this one can be. Don’t settle for poor sleep – there are effective ways to help your baby (and you) sleep better.
- Identify a baby feeding approach that's sustainable for your family. Whether it’s breastmilk, formula, or a combination, that’s great. Whether it’s nursing, pumping, or both, that’s great. The critical thing is finding a system that is sustainable for your family over time. Maternity leave is a great time to experiment with different feeding methods and learn about your body and your baby’s feeding preferences so you can make the best decision about how to continue in your feeding journey when it comes time to return to work. And remember, your approach may need to adjust over time. What works during the first six weeks may not be ideal once you return to work. Give yourself (and your baby) flexibility to adjust your approach along the way. If you need help navigating the feeding journey at any point, reach out to a lactation consultant or find a lactation support group virtually or in real life.
- Get into the habit of doing one small thing for yourself each day. This could be taking a walk outside, taking a shower, or talking to a friend on the phone – anything that makes you feel whole. I realize this might feel impossible initially, but it doesn’t need to take up a lot of time. This “you” time may initially be only 10 minutes a day, but it’s critical for your mental and physical health during a very challenging season. Get your partner or whoever is supporting you to help you prioritize this daily ritual so you can always count on that “you” time away from care responsibilities.
- Identify your support people and the support systems that your family can lean on. This will look different for everyone, and will evolve over time, but it’s important to identify a support network, even if it’s small. Consider family, friends, daycare, babysitters, neighbors, doulas, night nannies, and parent support groups. None of us can navigate parenthood without a lot of help, so identifying some support systems early on will help you get the support you need once you return to work and introduce an additional complexity into your daily life.
Now let the rest go. In time, you’ll do more and learn more, but with these few habits, you’ve set a solid foundation on which to return to your work life.
And remember that you don’t have to figure it all out, ever, because you never figure it all out in parenting. It’s a constant learning process. The best you can do is to pick a few key targets, filter out all the rest, and try to enjoy your journey.
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