This article appears in the FocusOn Health & Wellbeing online magazine (mag.focusonhwb.org)
Pregnancy and Parenthood are times of great transformation when we need to be looking after ourselves, or reaching out for support if we are struggling, so that we can look after others and acknowledge that we matter too. It is often an exhausting time as a new or expectant parent, with little to no sleep, running on empty and running around after children or trying to juggle work, life and find that all elusive balance.
It is also a time filled with much joy and excitement, perhaps hope and wonder too, a time to celebrate what your amazing body and mind are doing, have done and continue to do to grow, nurture, nourish and love your baby or children.
It is easy to forget ourselves as mothers, as parents, as people. We care for others and look after their health and wellbeing as our top priority, and often we forget about doing this for ourselves, or we simply don’t have the time, energy, space or the brain power at the end of the day to recharge our own batteries.
Taking the time, whatever that time may look like for you, to honour and support your own holistic wellbeing is so important and should be a priority for all of us, no matter what stage of life we are in. It may be 2 minutes in the morning before the rest of the house awakes, it may be a moment of peace and calm after putting the kids to bed, it may be an hour after work in the evening which you can claim for your own, or perhaps you can reach out and ask a friend, family member, partner or neighbour to watch your baby or kids for half an hour whilst you nurture yourself.
Self-care is not selfish, it is how we keep going, how we find calm, it is a coping mechanism, it is fundamental to our wellbeing and health, it is how we keep our cups full, as we all know the saying all too well that ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’, so take a moment now to really think about how you can fill up your cup today. Not later on, not another time, not next week, but today. Who could help you, support you or how could you find this precious time and space for yourself? Write down options if that helps you to make it a priority, then promise yourself you will make it happen.
Next, take a moment to consider what wellbeing means for you and what practical activities you can realistically and easily do today that will nurture both your mind and body. Self-care and wellbeing does not have to mean luxury spas or treatments, though if this is what it means for you – go for it!, it may be meditation, chance to rest, close your eyes and just breathe for a few moments, a restorative nap, some yoga or pilates, a walk in nature, a drive playing your favourite tunes out loud, an uninterrupted bath, visiting your favourite place with time to soak it all in, listening to your favourite podcast, reading a book in peace and quiet, meeting up with a friend, enjoying your favourite food or drink…what would fill your cup up today, and feed your soul? What does your mind and body need?
Now you have considered how to get the time you need and what to do within that space, don’t put it off or get sucked back into not thinking you are important enough. You are, and your wellbeing matters. It’s a wonderful thing for children to see too, they learn through our doing and if we show them that health and wellbeing is important and a priority for you, they will mirror this in how they look after themselves, so focusing on your wellbeing is teaching them how to care for themselves too.
When short on time or quiet, my go-to technique for finding peace, calm and a moment of restorative wellbeing for myself is to just breathe. This sounds so simple, yet it is one of the most effective tools at your disposal for switching on your relaxation response and tuning into the parasympathetic nervous system which is where we find peace and calm and reduce stress and tension. Day to day breathing is usually shallow, perfunctory and short. It keeps us alive. Harnessing the power of our breath to make us feel more alive, to oxygenate our whole body, to release physical tension and allow our energy to flow, to send signals to the brain to slow down, calm down and quieten our busy minds, is where the path to holistic wellbeing begins. I hope this beautiful breathing practice nurtures and nourishes you too.
Take a few minutes to try this now:
Find a comfortable place to sit, lie down, mindfully walk or stand – it can be with children at your feet, in your arms, at your breast or bottle, or whilst walking with your baby or bump - this practice does not require total peace and quiet from the outside, as over time you will cultivate the practice to be able to create this state of relaxation and calm from within.
Roll your shoulders back and forwards a few times to release tension and open your mouth into a wide yawn a couple of times to stretch and release your jaw. The shoulders and jaw are two of the key places we hold onto tension, and we want a beautifully relaxed jaw in labour and to be able to release our shoulders to find a more comfortable, relaxed state in everyday life too, so this is a good habit to get into.
Close your eyes, even if just for a few moments, and take a deep breath in through your nose, filling up your belly for a count of 3 or 4 seconds if you can manage it. This is a deep, abdominal breath and is your life force and energy source. “Breathe in deeply to bring your mind home to your body.” (Thich Nhat Hanh)
Now, exhale through a soft, open mouth for a count of 6-8 seconds if you can, this is a long, slow and controlled breath out and is the switch that turns on the relaxation response in your brain, slowing your mind and body down. Exhalation purifies the body and spirit.
Repeat this for as many rounds as you have time and space for, ideally with your eyes closed if you can so you aren’t distracted by life going on around you – just doing this for 3 minutes can change your mindset, make you feel more energised, allow you time to re-set, reduce stress, release tension, and feel better able to cope with whatever unfolds for you that day. Inhale peace, exhale tension.
An ideal time to do this is early in the morning, during feeds or nap times, after nursery or school drop off, or before bed, but find whatever time and space you can and make this moment count for you today.
By focusing on your breath, slowly drawing the nurturing and nourishing energy of oxygen in, placing a hand on your belly or bump to feel your abdomen rising as you literally fill up your cup, and then allowing the breath to release out again slowly, gently and mindfully taking with it any anxiety, stress or tension that you don’t need, is like a little love note to yourself. It pushes any busyness, to-do lists and worries to the side. When pregnant, this breathing also helps to send more fresh oxygen to your baby, and is your superpower in birth to fuel the uterus to work as efficiently as possible and keep adrenaline and cortisol at bay which can interrupt the natural flow of labour. In parenthood, this deep breathing is a wonderful coping tool that can give you a few precious moments to regulate your emotions, perhaps disperse any feelings of anger or frustration that may be rising up through exhaustion or just needing a break, can give you much needed energy after a rough night, and it boosts feel-good endorphins and oxytocin which facilitate breastfeeding, aids bonding and make us feel loved and important too. “Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life” (Giovanni Papini)
The more you practice this, the more you will benefit, the quicker your mind and body will respond and the more relaxed, calm, peaceful and restored you will feel. Make this part of your daily routine and notice the change in how you feel, react, parent and connect with yourself.
Other powerfully simple wellbeing techniques you may want to try that are safe in pregnancy and will fill up your cup, boost oxytocin (the love hormone) and soothe and calm your mind and body together:
Treat your feet to a cold or warm soak in water scattered with herbs, petals or Epsom salts and maybe a few drops of your favourite essential oil (all you need is an old washing bowl or tub big enough to pop both of your feet into). Breathe in deeply to stimulate the senses and enjoy a few moments to relax, restore and revive your feet – can even be done whilst you sit and feed your baby.
Calm your nervous system wherever you are, by wrapping both arms around yourself in a hug and gently tapping your upper arms with your opposite hands. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, and you could combine with your deep breathing for a really restorative moment.
Give yourself a gentle, short hand massage. You can use a little coconut or sunflower oil for this if you wish or do it dry. Simply take one hand at a time and start by massaging small circles all over your palm with your opposite thumb. Activate the thumb valley pressure point to reduce stress and alleviate headaches, neck and shoulder tension. Apply a firm pressure to the skin between the thumb and the index finger by placing the opposite thumb on this point on the back of your hand, and the opposite index finger on this point on the palm side of your hand, for 10 seconds. Release, then trace down the palm side of your pinky finger with the opposite thumb until you reach the wrist joint in line with the little finger and apply a firm pressure here for 10 seconds. This is your wrist point 1 and can help to regulate your emotions and encourage feelings of relaxation and happiness. Take each finger one by one with your opposite thumb and index finger and smooth up from the base of the finger to the tops, gently squeezing the finger pads at the top, to release tension. Finally, lightly stroke along the back of the hand with your finger tips, along each finger and down to the wrist to boost endorphins. Repeat with the other hand.
"Self care is any act that nurtures your head, heart and body. Self care is health care." (Suzy Reading)