by Katie Madden, RN, BSN, IBCLC
Having a moment? As the mother of a young baby or child, you may find those moments of frustration hitting you with greater frequency or greater intensity than ever before. Before you freak out, HALT and check in with yourself.
HALT is an acronym that is often used in mental health, especially in recovery from addiction. HALT is a way to remind ourselves to be self-aware so we can give ourselves self-care.
Self-Aware: identifying what you personally need in a given moment. Another way to describe this is the idea of mindfulness (a very played-out but nevertheless impactful and important concept).
Self-Care: taking care of your basic personal needs so you can in turn care for others.
Being self-aware means knowing your body and the physical signs that you are losing it.
Your heart is beating faster. You might feel a little dizzy or light headed. Maybe you are literally shaking. You are having trouble resisting the urge to scream or cry or both. Perhaps you can feel the scream creeping up into your throat. You might suddenly feel hot and start sweating more than usual (Heaven knows postpartum women are sweaty at baseline, but this is even more sweat than usual). You might notice the physical signs of freak out in your stomach—cramping, the urgency to poop, or butterflies.
When I think of mindful, or self-awareness, I think of all of the figures of speech we tend to use:
“There’s a lump in my throat.”
“I have butterflies in my stomach.”
“My stomach is tied up in knots.”
“My heart is racing.”
Being self-aware also means knowing your mind and the emotional or mental signs that you are about to lose it.
Your thoughts may be spinning out of control, crash landing into the ever-so-familiar and painful “I am a terrible mother.”
We know plenty of these figures of speech:
“My head is spinning.”
“I’m blowing things out of proportion.”
“I can’t think straight.”
Once you have identified that you quickly losing your shit, then you HALT. You stop and ask yourself if your basic needs are being met both physically and emotionally.
Am I Hungry (or thirsty)?
Am I Angry?
Am I Lonely?
Am I Tired?
Chances are, you just gave four wholehearted YESes. New moms are in a state of HALT most of the time. Certainly, they are tired at any given moment.
The next step is self-care—making yourself a priority in the moment so you can then care for others. I am not talking about a yoga class here. I am talking about meeting the basic needs that are so easily neglected when caring for a very demanding little person.
Hungry (or Thirsty):
You are sure to feed the baby every two to three hours, but when was the last time you fed yourself?
This is always my first go-to. If I am shaking and lightheaded, I need to eat and drink. I find my body responds the most quickly if protein is part of the food I am quickly shoving into my face. Cheese stick to the rescue. If you are lactose intolerant or otherwise dairy-free, you may be thinking, “Cheese is a great protein if you want me to puke on you.” A spoonful of peanut butter is also a good option. A serving of hummus. There are a number of good, quick proteins that you can keep in your cabinet or fridge for situations where you need to eat something quickly.
Resist the urge to only eat sweets. Your body probably thinks it wants it. Do yourself a favor and eat a balanced snack (protein, complex carb, and healthy fat) before eating the cookie. I’m not judging. Eat the cookie, just don’t expect a cookie alone to stabilize your blood sugar.
I’d like to also add thirsty to the hungry category because if you are a new mom, chances are you need to drink more water (at least 64 ounces a day, or half your weight in ounces). If water isn’t your thing, drink juice or decaf tea or milk. Just stay hydrated.
Keep in mind that you will likely need to eat in the middle of the night. You are up making milk at 2:00 am. You need fuel to that!
Hunger is a quick and easy fix. When in doubt, eat a cheese stick. That’s my motto. Now we can move on to the ALT—these ones are a little more tricky.
Anger is a normal emotion. New mothers often feel this as resentment, jealousy, or frustration. My first suggestion is to be okay with the feeling you are having. As women and mothers, we have this silly habit of saying out loud or to ourselves, “I shouldn’t feel angry (at my baby, at my husband, at my mother in law).”
Why are you not allowed to feel your feelings?
Guess what? You can’t control how you feel, so telling yourself that you shouldn’t feel what you are feeling will only make you feel guilty for having the feeling. Here’s that self-awareness again.
Say to yourself or aloud, “I feel (insert emotion here).”
Anger/jealous/frustration are often felt as a high energy emotion. Muscles tense, jaw clenches. You may find yourself pacing or fidgeting. You may notice you feel impatient.
The trouble is, a lot of the time new mothers don’t have time to deal with what they are feeling in ways that they used to. They often can’t go for a walk or run, take a bath, or start a yoga practice at the exact moment they need it.
Often times we are alone with the baby when the anger starts to erupt.
So, your first defense to anger/frustration/resentment/jealousy is to get baby to a safe place. Put the baby down in a safe place like a crib or strapped into a carseat. He will probably cry. That is okay. He is safe.
Walk away and start to breathe. Count your breath on the inhale and exhale, then try to double it. At first, you may be breathing in for one and out for one. Slow it to “in for two and out for two.” Can you breathe in for four and out for four? Now breathe in for four and out for eight. If you haven’t had anything to eat or drink, go do that now. Keep breathing.
Baby screaming in the room where you safely left him? Can’t relax with the screaming? Put earbuds in and listen to something that calms you. Listen to your baby’s white noise app! It works for him!
Once you have gotten yourself to the point where your breathing is regulated, your heart rate has slowed, grab a piece of paper or the notes section of your phone and write the following:
I feel _____ when _____ because _____.
I would like _____.
Don’t add a caveat here: “I shouldn’t feel this way because _____.” That’s not what this exercise is about. It’s about recognizing why you feel the way you do and considering how to address the root cause of it.
If you can’t get yourself calm enough to slow your breathing and your heart rate and you feel like you are getting worse, not better, call for help. Leave the baby in a safe place and call the person who is most likely to come the most quickly to help you.
If you were able to write down the “I feel” statement, put a pin in it and go get your baby. It is time to pull up your panties and get back to the business of mothering. Don’t forget to return to your I feel statement, though. Chances are there is something in there that needs to be addressed with your partner, your baby, or yourself.
Contrast anger with loneliness. Ask yourself, “Do I feel lonely?” Surprisingly, despite our social media, texting, Facetiming culture, we still can feel profoundly and pervasively alone.
You, mama, probably feel lonely at least once a day. Funny, since you are never truly alone. But newborns, toddlers, even tweens don’t fill the social stimulation we need to feel connected and in community with others. They don’t normalize our feelings of inadequacy or incompetence (in fact, they often escalate those feelings).
If anger is a high energy feeling, loneliness is a low energy feeling. Your body may feel heavy or achy. You lack motivation to do much of anything, especially if it involves the complicated and risky task of taking a new baby out into public.
I am sorry to say, the best treatment for loneliness is to get out of your house and around amazing mamas ASAP.
That is why we have support group at The Birth Center. You should absolutely reach out to trusted friends via text or (gasp!) phone call. You should log onto trusted private Facebook groups where you know people will be loving and welcoming, not mean and judgmental.
Missing your partner? Schedule a date night in or out. You know how to pump for an occasional bottle, right? And how to teach your childcare provider to properly bottlefeed your breastfed baby? Good! Now you have no excuses.
Perhaps you are missing yourself. Do you remember what you used to enjoy before having kids? When is the last time you did that? What fills your cup? Make a plan to do that.
Once you identify what you need to help with a sinking feeling of loneliness, take action immediately, even if you can’t do what it is you want to do right at that moment (this isn’t your 20s, before your had kids!). Text your partner and tell him you want a date night and he needs to schedule that please and thank you. Look at the schedule at the art museum and register yourself for Saturday’s painting class. Text your bestie and make plans.
You won’t remember in 15 minutes or tomorrow. Do it now.
Ah. Tired. Aren’t we all? Can you identify when you are exhausted? Physically, your whole body may ache. You may develop a headache. Emotionally, you may feel fragile, teary eyed, or quick to lose your temper.
If you feel exhausted, ask for help so you can nap. Pump for an occasional bottle so you can get an uninterrupted four to six hours of sleep. Seriously. A chunk of sleep can be game changing.
Are you one of those people who “can’t nap?” Well, then, just lay down and rest your body. Stop running around and doing things all the time. The dishes and the laundry can wait. Your body needs you to listen to it and care for it.
Need more motivation to rest? You are much more likely to develop mastitis if your body is run down. For the sake of your own health and the relative ease of your breastfeeding relationship, you need to take it easy from time to time.
So, next time you are feeling flustered, your emotions are running high (or low), you can’t seem to take control of the situation, HALT. Take inventory of your needs and meet them as best you’re able in that moment. After the crisis is averted and you are feeling calm, reflect a bit on what led you to feeling out of control. During a low-intensity time, try to identify the underlying causes and talk them over with those who best support you. Practicing self-awareness and self-care during moments of freak-out and moments of calm will make you better able to care for those around you. This blog was originally featured on BalancedBreastfeeding.com The Birth Center provides pregnancy, labor, birth, postpartum, and GYN services to women from adolescence through menopause. Postpartum services include free support groups, lactation services, and classes.