When you have a baby, especially your first baby, people want to help. They bring over what seems like hundreds of onesies, books on child-rearing, bottles they swear calm colic, piles of receiving blankets and So. Many. Tiny. Toys.
Most parents appreciate the gifts, but according to experts, what new parents really need in the first month of baby’s life can’t be found in stores: We need support—from ourselves, our loved ones and our communities.
This gathering of a village doesn’t only help ease the transition, but has also been shown to lessen rates of postpartum depression and anxiety.
Here are the four different types of support new parents need and how we can help each other get there.
Support from our partners
A co-parent is often our closest source of social and practical support as they are both the nearest shoulder to cry on and the nearest set of hands to take the baby or throw in a load of laundry.
To support one another, co-parents should work together to make sure both are getting enough sleep. And try (as hard as it is when you’re exhausted) to avoid criticizing each other’s parenting.
Sometimes, one parent just needs to vent. The other should be there to listen without judging.
Support from friends and family
Support provided by loved ones is best when provided without unsolicited input, says Carolyn Wagner, a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist at Linebarger & Associates.
“People want to help, but they often have their own ideas about how things should be done. Whether it's related to feeding, sleep, or even how to dress the baby, there will always be differing opinions about what is best,” she says. “However, new parents need people to follow their lead in caring for their baby. This is important because it impacts the new parents' confidence in their ability to care for their baby.”
Wagner’s advice to grandparents, aunts and uncles and BFFs is to do as directed by mom and dad.
“If mom asks grandma to dress the baby in the clothes she picked out, and grandma says ‘how about these instead?’ it sends a message to mom that her choice was wrong and grandma knows her baby better,” Wagner explains. “While grandma was just trying to help and share her knowledge from more years of childcare, the best thing to do is to follow mom's lead and do as she asked.”
Support from the community
Co-parents, friends and family can provide emotional and practical support. But local, expert-led groups for new moms or dads can be good places to find social and informational support, says Emma Levine, a licensed psychologist and the assistant director of Cognitive Therapy for Women.
According to Levine, informational support means access to reliable, accurate information that reminds her that help is available, such as a breastfeeding support group. And social support is best found in a group where the parent feels a sense of belonging among others who are in a similar life space, like in baby time at the library. Studies show such support groups can be a huge benefit to first time parents.
Support in the form of permission to ourselves
Support of all kinds is vital in the first month of parenthood. But experts say permission—from ourselves and others—is one of the most essential needs of new parents.
Julie Smith, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in parent coaching, says this means everything from permission to let the house get messy to permission to love and raise your child as you see fit.
New parents often push their own needs aside, which can leave them feeling isolated, depleted and depressed, explains Smith. That’s where it helps to have family and friends who validate new parents’ self-care efforts.
“One of the ways friends and family can help parents meet the need of permission is by accepting that every parent has a parenting philosophy, a life philosophy, that is unique to them,” Smith says. “The easiest way to show acceptance is to ask, ‘What do you need right now?’ That question is incredibly powerful as it shows the parents that you accept and trust them to make decisions not only for themselves but for their baby.”
To new parents: The first weeks and months with your baby should be about bonding, not feeling guilt. Remember to give yourself permission to be a parent—and also a human who need to eat, sleep and take breaks.
After all, people want to help. It just may mean letting them know support is an even greater gift than another onesie.