It’s no secret that having a baby can be hard on a relationship. In fact, brain scientist, author, and father John Medina shares in his book Brain Rules for Baby that “conflict between couples after becoming new parents is so prevalent that 80 percent experience a significant drop in marital satisfaction.”
The truth is that your relationship with your partner has far greater and more lasting effects on the mental and physical health of your baby than you might think. According to Medina’s book, babies know when their parents are stressed. They can sense tension in their environment and increases in their caregivers’ heart rates. Basically, babies are stressed when their parents are stressed. And while some stress is normal, chronic stress has damaging effects.
Marriages or committed relationships are the most fragile after a baby arrives, which also happens to be when the development of your baby is the most fragile. This doesn’t mean your relationship has to be perfect or that you can’t argue. But how you argue, how often, and how you resolve conflict plays a large role in your child’s ability to properly learn and grow. Children thrive in safe, stable, and loving environments.
In Brain Rules for Baby, Medina covers how babies’ brains develop and what we can do as parents to best nurture positive growth. His chapter on relationships is particularly eye-opening and a must-read for new parents. Here are a few key takeaways.
Why Having a Baby is Hard on Relationships
Here are the four main reasons that new parents fight according to Medina’s book—none of which will probably be surprising to new parents out there—as well as potential solutions.
Newborn babies do not understand the difference between day and night, let alone have a consistent sleep schedule. They likely won’t have a predictable routine until they are three months old, and many won’t sleep through the night until much later.
The solution: Come up with a plan together to help each other through these long nights and ask for help. It’s tough to think clearly and solve problems when you’re exhausted and irritable. Keep in mind that your partner is also learning how to be a parent and likely exhausted as well. Give each other empathy and grace.
When couples become new parents, their friendships often get placed on the back-burner. Sleep deprivation can deplete the energy it takes to maintain friendships. Because of this, Medina says 80 percent of new parents report experiencing loneliness, and loneliness can lead to clinical depression. These feelings do not add up to marital bliss or a joyful environment to raise children.
So what can you do about it? Talk! Talk to your partner about your feelings, talk to your friends, do your best to maintain close relationships. Spend time with people who are a source of strength for you. If you can’t get together in person as regularly as you’d like, phone calls and texts can go a long way for your mental health.
A stay-at-home mom or dad works roughly 95 hours a week; if they were paid for their work, they would make over $117,000 a year, according to Medina’s book. Whatever your roles are in parenting and at work, approach all tasks as a team and remember that you are stronger when you work together. Your mentality and the way you communicate with your partner greatly affects your baby’s health.
So instead of the “it’s your turn to do dishes,” or “I changed the last diaper” mentality, try looking for things to say thank you for: “Thank you for putting gas in the car,” or “Thanks for remembering diaper cream at the store.” Even if the act of service is expected, verbalizing your appreciation will encourage its repetition. Feeling appreciated and showing your appreciation is a powerful way to nurture your relationship with your partner.
According to Office On Women’s Health, one in nine mothers experience postpartum depression. Treatment requires medical support, and if left untreated, the long-term consequences for mom and baby are significant. Symptoms of postpartum depression can include feeling empty, with little affection for your baby. Feeling sad for a week or so could be “baby blues”, which is very common. Postpartum depression lasts for longer than a couple weeks and is a serious mental illness that affects a mother’s ability to take care of her family.
“Dads or partners are twice as likely to become depressed if mom is experiencing these challenges,” says Medina in his book. Work closely with your doctor and communicate honestly with your partner about your feelings. Be as transparent as possible when seeking help and solutions. If you need more resources, check out Postpartum Support International.
Postpartum anxiety and depression can feel isolating, but you shouldn’t have to feel as though you’re going through it alone. Please reach out to your doctor, a therapist, or another trusted professional for support.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions, please get help immediately.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
Crisis Textline: Text CONNECT to 741741
How to Nurture Your Relationship During the Baby Stage
Make Preparations Together
Knowing and discussing the difficulties you may face prior to the arrival of your baby will help you to be more mindful of your actions and the way you communicate. Create a plan to distribute the workload: If mom is breastfeeding, maybe dad is in charge of changing diapers? Or if the baby is being bottle-fed, take turns with feedings. Decide who will shop for groceries and cook meals. The more you can prepare for your baby’s arrival and for potential areas of conflict, the less stressed you and your partner will be. If your baby is already here and you’re experiencing some of the challenges discussed above, it’s never too late to change course, improve your marriage, and model the type of relationship you hope your child will have someday.
Practice the Empathy Reflex
This simply consists of describing the emotion you see in your partner and making a guess about what’s causing it. For example, “You seem stressed. Was it a tough day at work?” Or, “You look overwhelmed. Was today a difficult day with the baby?”
This practice will help you become more attuned to how your partner is feeling so you can better understand their perspective. It will also provoke healing conversations and take the steam out of growing hostility. “Choosing to empathize, at its heart, is simply a choice,” says Medina. “It’s so powerful, it can change the developing nervous systems of infants whose parents choose to regularly practice it.”
Reconcile in Front of Your Children
The final piece of advice is to reconcile in front of your children. Children too often witness their parents arguing without witnessing an apology or compromise. It’s important that children of all ages see their parents solving conflict and moving forward. This is hugely beneficial for their brain development, and it will also help them have healthier relationships as adults.
A final positive note from Medina: “Couples who have solid relationships defined by empathy and who prepare for the transition to parenthood… create the best domestic ecology for the child’s healthy brain development… They enjoy the highest probability for raising smart, happy, morally aware kids.”