Pregnancy was the healthiest time in my life. With baby on board, I finally found the motivation I needed to eat right, get enough rest and exercise. But the minute I delivered my son, my focus shifted entirely to him. I wanted the best for him, 24/7, and put myself entirely at his service. What new mom wouldn't?
Somewhere around the six-month mark, however, I realized I might have gone a little overboard on making it all about him. He was thriving, yes, but I wasn't sleeping. I wasn't bathing. I wasn't getting out of the house. I was flabby and exhausted, and—worst of all—bursting into tears four times a day. I was, in short, a mess.
With 20/20 hindsight, I can see that I'd have been a better mother in those early months if I'd taken a little time out to attend to my own needs. Experts agree. Here's their advice for staying happy and healthy.
Put Yourself on a Feeding Schedule
The most important thing you can do to maintain your energy is to eat well, says Eileen Behan, R.D., author of Eat Well, Lose Weight While Breastfeeding (Ballantine Books). "You need to remember to feed yourself; if you don't, you'll run out of energy and make poor food choices that you regret later," she says. To get what you need, aim to make 90 percent of your food choices nutritious ones. "Put yourself on a feeding schedule that's not too different from the one you'll want to move your child to—three meals a day, plus a couple of snacks," Behan says.
Share the Sleep Burden
New moms should take care to schedule sleep for themselves at night. "A few uninterrupted hours of sleep at night will help keep the brain chemistry steady and the biorhythms on track," says Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., author of Postpartum Depression for Dummies (For Dummies). Sleep with the baby close to you, or in a bedside bassinet, so you can nurse in bed. Or, pump in advance and let your partner handle late-night bottle feedings so you can sleep in shifts.
Beat the Baby Blues
Postpartum depression will strike 1 in 7 new mothers, says Bennett. And, it can happen later than you think, sometimes up to one year after delivery. Ask a friend or your partner to help you watch for the signs. "If you're angry all the time, if you don't have an appetite, if you feel hopeless or anxious, or if you're taking it personally that the baby's not eating well, these are signs that you may be depressed," she says. "Normal baby blues should be gone within two weeks of the birth." Antidepressants can be a safe option, but they're not the only answer. "Many moms are afraid to come forward because they don't want to take medication," Bennett says. "Sometimes support, education and good nutrition are all that's needed."
Sneak in Exercise
It takes stamina to care for a baby—and the demands only grow once your child is on the move. "You can get energy and relieve emotional and physical stress with exercise," says LaReine Chabut, author of Lose That Baby Fat!(M. Evans & Co.). "But it's unrealistic to plan workouts every day of the week; you'll set yourself up for failure that way. Instead, do it on the fly—fit in 10 minutes twice a day if you can." The best way? Join other moms on stroller walks with your baby (see "Rock and Stroll" as well as a post-baby abdominal workout below).
Join a New Moms Group—or Not!
It sounds a little selfish, but in the early days of motherhood you should do whatever makes you feel best. Join a new moms group, take a bubble bath, make a date with daddy—these are all good ideas, but only if they make you feel better and not like one more addition to your to-do list. Because when it comes to really feeling good, it's all about you.