The Physical and Emotional Balance of Having a Baby

Taking Care of Your Postpartum Body and Your Mind

African American woman sleeping with her baby

Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision/Getty Images

 

When you have a baby, you may feel like you should take all of your focus and aim it at your new baby. After all, your newborn is entirely dependent on you for food, comfort, shelter, and so much more. But putting all your focus on baby and not paying attention to your own health and wellness would be a mistake. Having a baby doesn’t turn you into a magical superhero without needs.

You’ll be recovering physically from childbirth. For example, you may have aches and pains from the hard work of labor. You may have perineum stitches or an incision from a Cesarean birth. Because your body has spent the past 40 weeks giving your baby nutrients to grow, you’ll also be recovering from the pregnancy. If you’re breastfeeding, this comes with its own set of challenges.

You’ll be recovering emotionally—having a baby is a huge life changer. Even if this is your second or third or sixth baby, you have an additional person to take care of. Roles change; routines are shifted (or turned upside down). Your daily life will be strongly affected.

Paying attention to both your physical and emotional health is essential. Your physical wellness will impact your emotions and vice versa. Both affect your ability to care for and interact with your baby.

How do you take care of your complete self?

Childbirth Recovery and the Early Postpartum Days

Step one to taking care of your complete self is to understand what’s going on with your body and mind. There’s a lot going on those first postpartum days, weeks, and months, too!

In the early days postpartum, your physical recovery and challenges may include...

  • General aches and pains from the hard work of labor and delivery
  • Incision pain, if you had a cesarean section
  • Afterpains, which are uterine contractions that occur in the first few days after birth (these can be really painful, too!)
  • Lochia, or vaginal postpartum bleeding. The bleeding itself isn’t painful, but needing to wear huge menstrual pads can be uncomfortable. 
  • Episiotomy or vaginal tear pain. The area can be sore, and sometimes just sitting hurts.
  • Hemorrhoids, especially if you had a vaginal delivery. They can be itchy and painful. 
  • Nipple sensitivity and pain, especially if you struggle with getting your newborn to latch properly
  • Breast engorgement, especially if you’re not breastfeeding
  • Fatigue or exhaustion, from both the physical and emotional work of childbirth and the new challenge of taking care of a baby in the middle of the night

In the early days postpartum, your emotional recovery and challenges may include...

  • The “baby blues,” which is a popularized term for mood swings, sadness, or anxiety you may feel just after having a baby.
  • Lack of confidence in your ability to care for the newborn, even if it’s not your first baby
  • Uncertainty about your new daily routines and how you’re “going to do it all” (Hint: you should not try to “do it all!”)
  • Disappointment or feelings of shame if the birth didn’t go the way you hoped
  • Worry that you’re not bonding with your baby “the way you should”

Postpartum Physical and Mental Health in the First Weeks

What about in the early weeks of recovery and life with your baby?

Physical challenges or discomforts you may experience in the early months postpartum include...

  • Fatigue or exhaustion, from disrupted sleep patterns. It can be made worse by postpartum anemia or vitamin deficiencies.
  • Continued postpartum vaginal bleeding and spotting, which can last for a month or a little longer (though it should slow down after the first week)
  • Back pain and other body aches, from holding and caring for your baby
  • Feeling extra hungry or thirsty, especially when breastfeeding
  • Being more susceptible to colds and illnesses, and possibly taking longer to recover when you do get sick
  • Painful intercourse, whenever you’re cleared to have sex again

Emotional challenges or discomforts you may experience in the early months postpartum include...

  • Feeling overwhelmed by caring for your baby, yourself, the rest of your family, and your life in general
  • Continued baby blues (if it lasts longer than a couple of weeks, talk to your doctor. You may be experiencing postpartum depression, which affects 1 in 9 mothers. )
  • Feeling isolated and alone, especially after the first couple of weeks when fewer friends and family are dropping by to see the new baby
  • Feeling abandoned or even angry if there are people who you think should be helping you but aren’t stepping up
  • Questioning whether you’ve made the right decision, whether it was to return to work or stay at home with your baby.
  • Worry about financial challenges and the expenses newborns can bring, especially if you’re missing income due to missed work
  • Relationship tension between you and your partner, and even between you and your other children
  • Worry that you’re “not a good enough mom” or that you’re making mistakes or that you will make a mistake
  • Worry that you don’t “love motherhood” or that you’re not “bonding enough” with your new baby

Taking Care of Your Physical and Emotional Health

As you can see from the lists above, you have a lot going on in these first days and weeks!

In fact, your emotional wellbeing has a direct effect on your physical health. And your physical health has a direct effect on your emotional health.

For example, if you’re sleep-deprived, this is a physical health issue. Lack of sleep increases your odds of catching an illness, for example. But lack of sleep is an emotional issue too. People who are sleep deprived may have difficulty concentrating, may feel sad or anxious, or may feel irritable.

Your emotional health can also affect your physical health. For example, if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, you may have difficulty getting everyday things done. You may not have the energy to cook healthy meals for yourself. This will, in turn, impact your physical health.

8 Things to Do to Take Care of Your Complete Self

Taking care of yourself in addition to your baby can feel overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to feel that way. There are several actions you can take that will enable you to care for both your physical and emotional wellbeing at the same time.  

Take things one day—or even one hour—at a time.

Yes, there is a lot to do, both for you and your baby. Thinking about all of it will likely cause you to feel overwhelmed. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said: “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

For the sake of your mental health, try to take things one day at a time. Or, better yet, one hour at a time. Even one moment at a time. 

Instead of thinking about your day’s schedule and to-do’s, consider what is the one thing you need or should do right now. Maybe it’s getting yourself a glass of water. Perhaps it’s changing a diaper. Maybe it’s merely taking a few deep breaths.

Considering only what you need to do at this moment is a form of mindfulness. It’s easier said than done, but with practice, mindfulness can bring more peace into your day. This will ease both your physical and emotional stress.

Do whatever you can to get some sleep.

We know, we know—everyone tells you to get more sleep. But how can you sleep when your baby is crying in the night? Or you’re feeding your newborn every couple of hours? Or you have so many other things to do?

Getting sleep is hard when you’re a new mom. It’s also one of the most important things you can do for your emotional and physical health. So, what’s the key to getting some sleep? (Besides the well-known saying, “Sleep when your baby sleeps.”)

One of the best ways to get more sleep requires the help of someone else. That may be your partner, or it can be a friend or relative. A babysitter or a postpartum doula are also options.

Choose a set of hours where you will prioritize getting rest and sleep. At least four hours in a row is ideal. If you can do this every day, even better. But less than four is better than none, and a few times a week (or even once a week) is better than none.

This should be a time when you have a helper. Your helper’s job is to take complete care of your newborn, to the extent possible. This helper will change diapers, listen for cries, rock the baby, play with the baby, and feed and burp the baby.

If you’re exclusively breastfeeding, the helper’s job is to bring the baby to you, help with latch, stay in the room while you're breastfeeding, and then take the baby as soon as they finish nursing. They do the diaper change, burping, rocking, etc. You just offer your breast!

These dedicated-sleep hours don’t need to be at nighttime. If the only time your partner or sister or babysitter is available is between 9 am and 1 pm, take it.

You’ll still be tired, of course. But you’ll have a few hours every day (or every week) when you can rest. Even if you can’t fall asleep, you can at least lie down with your eyes closed and not worry (as much) about whether your baby is okay or needs you.  

“Baby” your body.

New mothers can feel all sorts of feelings towards their postpartum bodies, including anger, disappointment, shame, or frustration. Just as you lovingly care for your newborn, lovingly take care of the body that carried and birthed that baby.

Remind yourself that this body of yours made a little human being. That’s amazing. And hard work. Your body deserves some babying, too. 

You may lovingly “baby” your postpartum body by...

  • Giving it healthy snacks, like fresh veggies or fruits.
  • Drinking water when you’re thirsty. Drop a slice of lemon or orange in there to make it extra special.
  • Taking a vitamin, possibly your prenatal vitamins, to help restore your nutrient levels post-pregnancy. (Talk to your doctor about the best choice for you.)
  • Using the sitz bath to care for your sore bottom. (You should have received one, with instructions, when you left the hospital. If not, you can buy them at a pharmacy. You can also just use your bathtub, filling it up with only a few inches of warm water.)
  • Using a peri-bottle after using the bathroom, to care for your perineum. They also make pain relief sprays for this area.
  • Taking doctor-approved paid relievers. Even if you’re breastfeeding, you can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Don’t wait until the pain is really bad before you take something, as waiting until the pain is intense actually makes the medication less effective. Talk to your care provider about how often and what dosages are safe for you.
  • Not pushing your body too hard, too fast. You shouldn’t be “your old self” a few weeks post-childbirth. Recovery takes time.

Move your body—gently.

In the first six weeks after giving birth, postpartum mothers are at risk for blood clots forming in the legs or lungs. Your risk is even higher if you had a cesarean section.

One of the best ways to reduce your risk of forming a blood clot is to get up and move around, whether it’s walking around the hospital hallways, your living room, or around the block. Put your baby in a baby carrier or stroller, and take a little walk.

Moving your body won’t only help reduce your risk of this postpartum complication. Staying active—even with an easy walk around the block—can boost your mental health. This is even better if you can walk outside and see some trees and sky. 

Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support.

One of the most harmful myths of new motherhood is that you should be able to do everything on your own. This is not true.

Think about it: even conceiving your baby took more than one person. We aren’t meant to raise children alone.

Who might you call on for practical support or questions?

  • A friend
  • A family member
  • Your partner, if you have one
  • Your pediatrician’s office
  • Your OB/GYN’s office
  • A health helpline (Some insurance companies have a number you can call to ask health questions, for free.)
  • A professional counselor
  • A support group (for new moms, for postpartum depression, etc.)
  • A certified lactation consultant
  • A babysitter or a daycare
  • A cleaning service or private housecleaner
  • A delivery service for groceries

You’ll notice that the list above includes all sorts of support resources. Because when you’re trying to take care of a baby and your postpartum body, you will need support in any way you can get it. This list is just a start.

Make time for social connection.

New moms often feel isolated, especially after the first few weeks postpartum. In the early days, you may find yourself overwhelmed by visitors, or you may even tell people not to visit so you can have space with your new family.

But after this burst of visitor activity disappears, you may find yourself on the opposite end—feeling lonely. This is a common emotional challenge for mothers of newborns.

Making time for social connection—whether it means texting someone, calling them on the phone, video chatting, joining a new mom social group, or walking over to your neighbor's house—is vital for your emotional and physical support.

Research has found that people who report feeling lonely or isolated are at higher risk for illnesses and postpartum depression. Making time for social connection is essential for your physical and emotional health. 

Don’t feel guilty putting your oxygen mask on first.

Do you know why they tell you on the airplane to put your oxygen mask on first? Because if you don’t, you may pass out before you can help your child.

In the context of postpartum life, putting your oxygen mask on first might mean buying the less expensive crib so you can put money towards a postpartum doula or a grocery delivery. This might mean returning baby gifts you don’t want or need and using that money for things you need for your own physical or emotional health.

Taking care of you is a priority because your baby needs you to be healthy in both mind and body.

Practice self-forgiveness.

You’re going to make mistakes. You’ll push your body too hard, too soon. You’ll forget the pacifier at home. You’ll let your baby cry two minutes longer than you think is “acceptable.”

Striving to be the “perfect mother” won’t make you a perfect mother—it’ll make you a stressed out and physically exhausted mother.

When you find yourself judging yourself harshly, think about what you'd say to a friend in the same situation. You'd likely judge your friend with much more compassion than you are judging yourself. Offer yourself some self-forgiveness.

A Word From Verywell

Taking care of a baby is hard work! But taking care of a new mother is also hard work, and the one taking care of the new mother is usually also the one taking care of the new baby. (Hint: It’s you. You’re the one taking care of you and the baby!) You won’t be able to do it all, but the good news is you don’t have to. You need to do just enough. Remember that the time invested in caring for your physical and mental wellbeing will help you care for your baby.

If you’re struggling to care for you or your baby, reach out for help. Consider talking to your healthcare provider, your pediatrician, a social worker, or a loved one. You don’t need to do this alone.

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Article Sources

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