Sunday, October 3, 2010

And Baby Makes Three, How Couples Become Parents Part 1

For those of you living through those exhausting first days and weeks of parenting a newborn, it must be unimaginable to think of yourselves 20 years from now reminiscing about the magic of that first year. “Magic?” you say aloud, “you’ve got to be kidding.” You wonder how I can think that the excruciating fog of unrelenting sleep deprivation, the confusion, the stress, and the overwhelming weight of responsibility can be “magic” for new parents. But I can, and not just because those days are so far behind me. That same first year is filled with exquisite moments that enrich, thrill, strengthen, and change you forever. That first year also has a powerful influence on the “couple” that now must become “parents.” So far, we haven’t talked much about relationships between parents, but we need to, because the relationship that parents have with each other has a strong influence on baby behavior. In this series, we’ll take a closer look at the evolution of couples into their new roles. In this installment, we’ll talk about the influence of parents’ relationship on babies’ lives. Next time, we’ll talk about how parents’ relationships tend to reorganize in the first few weeks and months. After that, we’ll share what’s known about the challenges couples face during the transition to parenthood, and we’ll finish up with what is known about how the process affects men and women differently. In a future series, we’ll take a look at the transition for single parents.

Three’s a Crowd
These days, it is not uncommon for couples to have lived together several years before they have a baby together. This early "pre-baby" time together can help each partner to mature and to grow more secure in themselves and in each other. With or without "pre-baby" time, most couples build routines and expectations based on what they’ve learned about each other and many become set in their ways. And then baby comes along with overwhelming needs and built-in stress inducers such as their ability to cry and their lack of ability to sleep very long. Few first-time parents are prepared for the effort required in those first few weeks and many parents feel that their partner just isn't doing enough to help. Communication breaks down, stress and exhaustion take over; intimacy flies out the window. Any relationship will be tested under such a strain. It is not surprising that many couples find themselves feeling out of control, isolated, misunderstood, and angry (at least some of the time) at each other.

Unfortunately, these feelings may play out in each parent's relationship with the new baby. Without a sense of support, parents may find that they can’t keep up with the baby’s demands and they may even withdraw. Without careful attention to early cues, parents won’t pick up on what the baby is trying to tell them and the baby will escalate the cues or give confusing signals, further frustrating parents. Babies become increasingly stressed, cry more, are unable to maintain their moods or control their response to their environment, and the cycle continues. While this scenario is a bit extreme, something like this happens to many families, even if only once in awhile.

Taking Care of Number One (and Two)
So what can be done to prevent this cycle from starting in the first place? Preparation is an important way to keep “the couple” from imploding. Keep in mind that no matter what anyone else says, you both are likely dealing with the greatest stress in your lives. Neither of you will be at your best or as sensitive as you may have been to each others' needs for at least a few months. Setting up and taking advantage of a support group can have a huge effect on the biggest stressors (lack of sleep, feeling overwhelmed, and social isolation). Friends and family can share the load, do the dishes, let you nap, let you go out together, reassure and nurture you. You can always “pay it forward” for other families or share your expertise in baby behavior to return the favors – favors that you should accept quickly and with gratitude! Parenting is not one of those things in life that should be done without support. One last piece of advice, talk to each other, right from the start. Don’t let anything fester. If you think you change more diapers, or get less sleep, forgive first, get the facts, and plan to work together to find solutions. Keeping peace between you will keep all 3 of you calmer and more secure and will help your baby grow and learn in a positive and nurturing environment.

Next time: And Baby Makes Three Part 2- Parents' Early Relationships: Chaos, Retreat, and Reorganization
Deave T, et al. Transition to parenthood: the needs of parents in pregnancy and early parenthood. BMC Preg Child 2008; 8:30.

Lutz KF, et al. Furthering the understanding of parent-child relationships: A nursing scholarship series. Part 2. Grasping the early parenting experience - the insider view. J Spec Pediatr Nurs 2009; 14: 262-283.

Gunnar MR, et al. Brain and behavior interface: stress and the developing brain. Inf Ment Health J 24: 195-211.

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