Mindful Beginnings: Practices to Empower New & Budding Families
This article is for people thinking about starting a family, those that may be pregnant, postpartum, or have children 4 and under. It is a framework for using each new stage as an opportunity to find supportive yoga and mindfulness practices, and to overcome challenges in a way that works for you and may even result in personal growth. Sometimes it gets ugly before it gets pretty, so be really gentle and permissive with yourself as you embark on this journey. No need for perfection. You are exactly as you need to be right now!
For parents, a capital “M” mindfulness practice may be too formal to uphold. It can be daunting to have a 20-minute sit, in silence, every morning. Many feel they don’t have time or energy for that. Capital “M” mindfulness may not be for everyone.
Instead, this article focuses on little “m” mindfulness. To pay attention with loving curiosity to what is happening as life unfolds, to meet life’s beckoning call with your abundant awareness, and to have an attitude that whatever is happening is okay and not wrong. That is living lowercase “m” mindfulness.
At the heart of mindful beginnings is the knowledge that you can begin (again) at any moment. It is never too late to become mindful. To match each challenge with a personal practice is a recipe for success.
Take the pressure off of needing to commit to practices forever. Find what works for you through exploration and rinse and repeat as long as it’s working for you. These are not rules for how to live. They are guidance. Gentle, available-to-you at any moment ideas, practices, and opportunities for growth.
Chapter one: Pregnancy
Whether it was a long road to get there, an oops moment, or a whim, being pregnant comes with its challenges. Each pregnancy is a unique experience for the carrying mother and her support system. Mindfulness, mindset, and yogic practices can help you and your support system to be aware of what is actually happening now so everyone can respond appropriately. It won’t make the discomfort and anxiety disappear, but may provide some sweet relief.
Change and pregnancy are inextricably linked. There are entire books on the changes we can expect.
Some changes during pregnancy:
- The body shape and size
- Shifting energy levels
- Mental dialogue about what’s to come. Plan, plan, plan!
- An onslaught of advice, questions, and judgment
Pregnant or not, if you are quiet for a moment and sit still, you can sense your needs. When it comes to energy, listen to your body when it says you need to drink water, rest, or eat. Especially when pregnant, hear when your body’s wisdom tells you to seek medical advice, ask for help, or slow down. Do not demand of yourself to behave and accomplish as you always have. Some people will find abundant energy flowing and others will have barely a trickle. For some there is incredible ebb and flow, especially as it relates to feeling sexual. Set clear boundaries and pay attention to how they may need to change.
Empower Your Village To Support You
Pregnancy is such a wonderful opportunity to outsource. Find out who is onboard and in what ways, and then let yourself be supported. Ask for help. Call on the proverbial village. Delegate to your family and friends that have agreed to be there for you. Have specific asks that people don’t need a PhD to understand such as, “Would you be able to cook us dinner Tuesday? We love veggie burgers and usually eat at 7.” You are preparing for the ultimate moment in needing to be supported after all.
When it comes to childbirth, the trust you build with your village during your pregnancy will make you better equipped for the ultimate test in letting go. Can you let yourself be supported as you march toward becoming a mom? What steps will you take to create a support system that will advocate for your pregnancy, childbirth, and beyond? Even if it scares you to be supported, it will help you grow. And, it will take the pressure off of you having to do it all.
Practices for pregnancy:
- Get quiet and listen to your body
- Slow down when needed
- Practice asking for help
- Use of the mantra “I can let go”
- Eat lots of fiber
- Consume lots of water
- Attitude of “okayness” toward changes in the body
Yoga poses for pregnancy*
*With clearance from your doctor
- Partner supported squats – practice being supported
- Deep breathing
- Hip circles
- Wide leg lunges
Chapter Two: Postnatal/The Fourth Trimester
Now that baby has arrived, if you carried the pregnancy it means your body has to recover. There’s a chance you might be suffering from PPD, body image issues, pressure to breastfeed, struggles with breastfeeding, bonding issues, sleep deprivation, and more. If you did not, there is still plenty of acclimating to your normal life plus one. If you adopted or were not the carrying parent, you may be feeling a host of other emotions from yearning to have carried and wishing you could breastfeed, to relief you didn’t have to push a baby out of your body, to guilt that your co-parent did. Even if your village is there, you may feel more alone and isolated than ever. The fourth trimester is no longer a time for preparation, it’s a time for being with baby that can be simultaneously beautiful and isolating.
To compound the stress of welcoming a new baby, your changing relationship to work and money can be stressful. Maybe you are suddenly not working or earning money while you stay home with baby. Maybe you feel rushed back to work and didn’t get enough time with baby. Maybe you love being at work and feel guilty for not spending enough time with baby. Maybe another family member is caring for your baby while you work. Whatever your situation, we can all agree new parenting isn’t easy. There is lots of room to judge ourselves, be judged, and fall behind while doing it.
It’s tempting to wish for the life other new parents have. Whether they seem to have it all because they have more help, more money, cooler baby gear, or a cleaner home, they DO NOT have it all together. Almost all flounder in some way to welcome a new baby.
Rather than actively yearning for another person’s life, embrace the one you have. Recognize when you have an attitude of comparing, yearning, or longing. Meet it with acceptance. There is nothing wrong with feeling the way you do. Can you work to shift your attitude to one that accepts all you feel? This is the attitude of “okayness.” From there, use positive affirmation, gratitude, or any other strategy or philosophy to support coming back to embracing the life right here and now.
How can you learn and grow in this period?
- Relish the quiet moments
- Don’t compare your situation to others, the grass is not greener
- Put space between baby crying and your reaction to it. One deep breath
- Create one clean space in the home as your sanctuary
- Journal about one positive thing every single day
- Use your awareness to notice baby changing
- Reach out to your village and continue to ask for support
- Put down your cell phone!
Yoga practices for fourth trimester*
*When cleared for light exercise
- Humming and om-ing with baby
- Neck rolls
- Shoulder circles
- Gentle pelvic floor toning exercises
- Poses from the belly such as sphinx and cobra to gaze
- Inhale through nose, exhale long and gentle shhhh sound to calm you and help baby attune to your calm state
- Sit on a cushion, letting your knees descend toward the floor, straight spine (Don’t give into bad parenting posture!)
- If breast feeding, build a supportive throne. Don’t work extra!
Chapter 3: Infants and Toddlers
It can be a thrill to see baby changing from newborn to the person they are becoming. Using your awareness, you can begin to perceive what your child is asking for. If you simply observe your baby, you can learn a lot about their changing needs.
For the first 3 or 4 months, when they fuss, it’s most likely that they need a diaper change, something to eat, or to go to sleep. You can try those three things on rotation and usually make one work.
After that, it gets more complicated. This is where paying attention to how the baby is interacting can help you. Is the baby struggling? Maybe a change of position is needed. Is their head lifting up and over trying to see you? This may be a sign of wanting to connect. Position the baby so they can see you, others, or the world. Using the forearm or diaper seat hold can allow baby to be supported by you, feel your body’s warm connection, and have the opportunity to connect with the outside world. You could also lie baby on their tummy and lie down across from them so they can see you and move in sync with you. You can both practice using your spinal extensors to lift and lower your heads, your obliques to move side to side. You can have eye contact here and also use your voice to encourage baby to move along with you.
Ask yourself if baby needs more or less external stimulus. It can be easy to miss a baby’s need to turn in toward you and disconnect from the external. Sometimes the intimate feeling of being held facing toward your body will increase the calming effect.
If you observe your baby being uncomfortable and fussing from any position, you can calmly try another. There is no need to rush just because baby cries. Using little “m” mindfulness can put a space between the impulse and the action. As you hear the baby cry, you may feel stress and the urgency to act. Take a deep breath, stay attuned to baby. Instead of reacting, make a decision on how to respond appropriately. Continue to breathe and talk to baby about how you plan to help. They are developing language long before they are talking. And speaking to baby may help both of you feel safer.
Through your keen awareness, your observations of baby will help you attune to their needs. You will start to become less reactive when you can meet baby’s needs with less effort. It is not easy to do. Just as the thoughts in our heads, baby’s cries can make us want to react right away. We can truly slow down and demonstrate responsiveness over reactivity.
How can you learn and grow in this period?
- Pause for a breath between baby’s cry and your response
- Consider baby’s position. Do they need more or less stimulus?
- Speak calmly to baby
Yoga Practices with Baby
- Mountain pose position with core engagement while bouncing baby
- Tummy time mirroring the baby
- Forearm hold
- Diaper seat hold
- Yoga squat while baby plays on the floor
- Savasana with baby lying on or beside you
- Side lying savasana cuddle time
- Do bridge and supine spinal twist with baby on your body
The transition to toddlerhood is typically marked by more independent play, autonomy, an expansion of vocabulary comprehension, learning to speak the first words, eating mostly unassisted, walking, and perhaps acting up a lot more.
Toddlerhood is wrapped up in baby’s first ego crisis. This is a time that baby senses itself as a separate being, one just beginning to discover personal desires and needs. You may hear “I do!” and “Mine!” a lot. Your little one may swing from fierce indepence to needing to be held at all times. It is a real challenge to stay calm if your child is taking your whole house hostage, making demands of your attention, body, and time. This is the time when putting space between their behavior and your response is really important. The impulse to freak out or yell “shut up” may be there. Don’t judge yourself for it. With practice, you may be able to sit in silence as your child acts up. Without your reaction, they are likely to move onto the next thing soon. This is a trying inner struggle to manage. Be gentle with yourself. When you are tired and under-resourced, you may not be able to stay calm 100% of the time. That’s okay, too.
When you pick up on your toddler needing something, rather than reactively handing it over, talk to them about it. If they are yelling “baba, baba, baba!” instead of grabbing their bottle, you can first say, “It seems like you are getting hungry. Are you feeling hungry?” Even though they may not be capable of responding with the same articulate language skills, model them. Then say, “Would you like me to get you a snack?” Do not run to prepare it at their beckoning call. This will feed into the child’s sense of urgency which can cause the same inside of you. Instead, respond calmly whenever possible, narrate your course of action with simple language, and gesture or sign as well.
Rituals and Routines For Centered Families
Creating rituals and routines has been instrumental in helping my family start the day off feeling centered and connected. Every morning when my daughter gets up, she plays independently in bed. We listen to her blabber and as long as she’s calm, we don’t interfere. When she is ready for adult assistance, she calls for us loudly. When we enter her room, we open the blinds and say “Good morning Brooklyn.” Then we place her on the changing table and she takes big, deep breaths. She began doing deep breathing for her routine independently. ( Side note, it is worth it to model deep breathing as your children will copy you for better or for worse!) She then names all the words she knows as we change her. “Nose, eyes, shoes, socks, mama, dadda, buttons…” When I ask her for a kiss, she hugs me around the neck and gives kisses. This centering routine helps us all connect, be together, and feel a sense of predictability about our days that are otherwise very different.
How Can You Grow While Your Child is An Infant/Toddler
- Put space between baby’s demand and your response
- Improve your communication skills: Narrate and gesture
- Name the emotion the child may be feeling, “You seem frustrated.”
- Give yourself permission to feel ALL the emotions
- When your child is being independent, do something for yourself
- Create rituals and routines that feel centering for everybody
Yoga Practices with Baby and Toddler
- Let baby witness your own yoga practice
- When baby shows interest in your practices, share with them
- Ring a chime and deep breathe on a yoga mat together
- Toddlers love down dog
- Let baby catch you meditating