4 Total Force Fitness strategies to navigate the transition to parenthood

Military couples are used to frequent transitions and having to adapt to new situations and circumstances. But the transition to parenthood is a one-of-a-kind adjustment that affects all areas of health and fitness—sometimes permanently. And while many of the changes a new baby can bring are positive and exciting, preparing for the challenges you’ll face is an important part of maintaining your Total Force Fitness in the long run.

The birth of an infant impacts every area of your health and your life. Of course, there are physical changes associated with both pregnancy and birth, including hormonal changes for both men and women that can also affect mood, mental health, and your ability to maintain a healthy weight or exercise. There are brain changes that help you respond to your baby’s needs as well. The transition to parenthood also means there will be changes to your relationships, daily routines, and your ability to balance all your new responsibilities with your duties or job.

The dramatic life change as well as some of the physical changes of pregnancy and birth can impact your mental fitness too. While a new baby can bring happiness and satisfaction, the experience can also be one of incredible or chronic stress. Adjusting to parenthood can sometimes contribute to depression or other mental health disorders. In fact, many women experience their first episode of major depression shortly after the birth of a child. Mood changes are one of the most common medical complaints in the postpartum period. And of course, sleep loss and even sleep deprivation are one of the hallmarks of parenting newborns, babies, and even toddlers. Sleep loss can make it difficult to focus and impact your ability to complete tasks when you return to work, while also affecting your physical well-being. Added stress and sleep loss also can make it harder to regulate your emotions and interact positively with your partner, team members, or others.

Many of those mental fitness challenges can impact your physical fitness too, and vice versa. Sleep loss and stress can impact weight loss and weight retention, making it more difficult for women to recover after pregnancy (about half of new mothers remain above their pre-pregnancy weight a year after birth) or for fathers to escape the “fatherhood fourteen” (since fathers tend to be about 14 pounds heavier than non-fathers of the same age). Your nutrition choices also can shift, as some research suggests that new mothers consume more sugary drinks and saturated fats. In general, new parents spend less time exercising and do less vigorous exercise as well. Finally, all the changes your body makes to prepare for a new baby are physically taxing. For example, your body releases more cortisol—also a stress hormone (in both men and women)—to prepare for birth. Chronic stress (whether hormonal or situational) can also increase inflammation and affect immune function. All of these factors can make it difficult to perform at your best—whether you’re on duty, at work, or at home.

Beyond these individual factors, your relationships and interactions with others (at home and at work) will all change too. So it’s particularly important to stay aware of how transitioning to parenthood affects your social fitness. While many parents experience improved relationship quality and even get better at conflict resolution, it’s often a process to get there. It’s not uncommon for couple relationships to struggle after the birth of a child. And while it’s not that parents tend to struggle more in their couple relationships over time, it’s that declines in relationship satisfaction happen more rapidly (and then flatten out) because of the stress and transitions that adjusting to parenthood can bring.

Becoming a new parent means new demands for both your time and your emotional attention. Many couples struggle with taking on this new role and still meeting the emotional needs of their partner. It can also be difficult to navigate how you two will work together, and often couples have to work to reassign tasks at home. And you’ll have to do all of this while functioning on very little sleep, under stress, and physically changing or recovering.

Your sexual relationship and levels of sexual satisfaction will likely go through some changes too. Beyond an initial period of recovery for birth mothers, you and your partner might have different levels of sexual desire as you balance caring for your newborn. Changes in intimacy can also impact how satisfied you feel in your relationship in general too. Finally, you might be struggling with new financial obligations and navigating the costs of raising a baby. Financial strain is a top stressor for couples, so it can add another challenge to the list.

Total Force Fitness strategies to help navigate the transition to parenthood

  1. Set realistic expectations and adjust your mindset. While there might be no avoiding the stress and challenges that can accompany the transition to parenthood, adjusting how you think about those challenges can make them more manageable and increase your resilience. Keep in mind that it will be difficult and that’s normal! You and your partner might disagree or fight, and that’s common too. It’s also normal to feel confused, unsure, and even out of control. Accepting difficult or uncomfortable emotions can often make them easier to manage, so remember this might be one of the toughest adjustments you’ll go through—and avoid negative judgments on your reactions. If you’re concerned about your mental health or well-being, be sure and contact your healthcare provider.
  2. Be prepared. You certainly won’t be able to learn everything about raising an infant right away (or ever). But taking some time to be prepared with basic knowledge about infant care will help you get through the adjustment. Also, get acquainted with your (or your partner’s) service branch-specific policies on parental leave.
  3. Make small changes where you can. While you might not be able to avoid sleep deprivation or any of the above challenges, make small adjustments in your daily routine where you can to help support your well-being. For example, consider short strategic naps (even those lasting 20 minutes) to help combat sleep debt. And try adjusting your couple-sleep setup so you and your partner are maximizing your rest when you get it. Make smart snacking choices and be sure to keep nutritious foods in the house over less ideal food choices. Also, consider having serious and purposeful discussions with your partner about finances, sex, and plans for returning to work or duty.
  4. Get help. It’s important that your support system is intact and ready to go to keep you afloat while you adapt to parenthood. Those supporting you not only can help relieve some of your stress through tactical help (child care, laundry, cooking, etc.) but your community, healthcare providers, friends, and even online connections can help you get valuable information to keep yourself and your baby healthy.  Keep in mind that there are military programs, such as the New Parent Support Program, to help you navigate your parenthood journey too.

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References

Barimani, M., Vikström, A., Rosander, M., Forslund Frykedal, K., & Berlin, A. (2017). Facilitating and inhibiting factors in transition to parenthood - ways in which health professionals can support parents. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences, 31(3), 537–546. doi:10.1111/scs.12367

Bennett, C. T., Buchan, J. L., Letourneau, N., Shanker, S. G., Fenwick, A., Smith-Chant, B., & Gilmer, C. (2017). A realist synthesis of social connectivity interventions during transition to parenthood: The value of relationships. Applied Nursing Research, 34, 12–23. doi:10.1016/j.apnr.2016.11.004

Doss, B. D., & Rhoades, G. K. (2017). The transition to parenthood: Impact on couples’ romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 25–28. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2016.04.003

Rosen, N. O., Dawson, S. J., Leonhardt, N. D., Vannier, S. A., & Impett, E. A. (2020). Trajectories of sexual well-being among couples in the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology. doi:10.1037/fam0000689

Saxbe, D., Rossin-Slater, M., & Goldenberg, D. (2018). The transition to parenthood as a critical window for adult health. American Psychologist, 73(9), 1190. doi:10.31234/osf.io/64f37