Caring for a baby and mental health (birth to 12 months)

Caring for a new baby is rewarding and it can also be hard work. Especially at first.  

For any parent raising a baby, there are likely to be new challenges and lots of times when you don’t quite know what to do. Remember, this is the same for everyone.  

It's important to be aware of your own mental health and to do what you can to support your wellbeing. This can help you care for your baby in the first 12 months.  

Bonding with your baby

Most parents expect to bond immediately with their baby. It doesn’t happen like that for all parents.  

The attachment can grow over a few days, weeks or months. It can happen as you care for your baby and begin to understand their needs. 

You can bond with your baby over everyday interactions. Soothe them to sleep, cuddle them at feeding and bathing times, and play with them. 

Find out more about bonding and attachment on the Raising Children Network website.

Getting enough sleep

If you have a new baby, it’s very likely that you will be sleep-deprived.  

Most newborns sleep in short bursts of 2 to 3 hours throughout the day and night. This can vary from baby to baby.  

A lack of sleep can leave you irritable, fatigued and feeling less able to cope with the new demands in your life.  

Visit the Raising Children website to learn about sleep routines for: 

It’s not always possible, but it’s worth finding ways to catch up on sleep. You can try: 

  • sleeping in for an hour or 2 
  • napping when your baby sleeps (it’s okay to let chores slide some of the time) 
  • asking for help with housework and cooking meals so you can use the time to sleep  
  • taking turns with your partner or a trusted person to watch the baby so you can nap or sleep in 
  • getting support with night feeds (if you’re breastfeeding, consider expressing and storing breast milk for this) 
  • trying to enhance the quality of your sleep by eating well and being active as best you can. 

Find sleep tips for new parents on the Sleep Health Foundation website.

Feeding

Newborns need to feed at least 6 to 12 times a day.  

Feeding your baby over this 24-hour cycle can leave you feeling tired.  

If your baby isn’t feeding or putting on weight as you expect, you might also feel worried or stressed. If so, it’s important to seek reassurance and help.  

Your maternal and child health nurse or GP can offer advice and support. 

For support with breastfeeding, contact the Australian Breastfeeding Association

Find breastfeeding and bottle-feeding information and support on the Raising Children Network website.

Crying

Crying is a normal part of your baby’s development. 

It’s how they let you know they’re hungry, want to be held or need a nappy change, among other things.  

It’s important to comfort a crying baby so they feel safe and nurtured. This also means that a crying baby who doesn’t settle can be distressing, tiring and confusing for parents. 

If your crying baby shows signs of illness or has a fever, seek medical attention.  

If your baby is healthy but you feel overwhelmed by their crying, remember 

  • all babies cry 
  • crying comes and goes 
  • it can stop as quickly as it began 
  • it’s okay to leave the baby in a safe place (a cot or baby seat, for example) and step away to calm yourself down 
  • you can call on your partner, or a friend or family member, for help. 

Understand why babies cry and how to soothe them on the Emerging Minds website.

I learned pretty quickly that you need to create a system that works for you and your family.

Read Roo's story of mental health.

Supporting your baby’s development

Your baby’s development is about more than physical growth. It’s also about: 

  • their emotions 
  • how they interact 
  • how they behave 
  • how they think.  

How babies develop socially and emotionally 

A baby develops through their attachment to the people who care for them.  

Eye contact and touch are important for a baby's development. You meet your baby’s need for safety and comfort when you cuddle them, make soothing noises and play with them. 

Your warm and responsive attention to your baby’s needs helps build their sense of trust in the world. 

Safety, comfort and nurture is good for your baby's mental health and wellbeing.

Seeking support for your baby

Babies learn and grow at different speeds.  

Your baby might take longer than you expected to develop certain skills (such as sitting or crawling). If you’re worried about their development, talk to a maternal and child health nurse, a GP or a paediatrician. 

Visit the Raising Children Network website to learn more about: 

What can affect your mental health as a new parent

Getting used to being a parent and caring for a new baby can be hard work even when things are going well. 

Throw in exhaustion or an unsettled baby, and you can soon find yourself stressed.  

Other factors that can impact your mental health include: 

  • a stressful or unplanned pregnancy 
  • obstetric complications in the past, including fertility problems 
  • a very long labour or complicated birth 
  • severe ‘baby blues’ after the birth 
  • difficulty with breastfeeding 
  • a premature baby or problems with your baby's health 
  • an unsettled baby 
  • ongoing lack of sleep or rest 
  • being a single parent 
  • being a teenage parent 
  • being the parent of more than one baby (that is, having twins or triplets) 
  • financial stress 
  • relationship difficulties. 

Caring for a baby can also feel more challenging if you have a pre-existing mental health condition, are prone to feelings of anxiety or tend to be self-critical.  

Talk to friends and family or contact a health practitioner for support. 

Find more tips to look after your emotional health on the COPE website. 

Find parent helplines and hotlines on the Raising Children Network website.

I’d wanted this child my whole life and now I had this perfect, healthy, delightful child and I saw him more as a chore than someone to be loved and nurtured.

Read about Sandi's experience with post-natal depression.

Postnatal depression and anxiety

Postnatal depression and anxiety is depression and anxiety that happens after giving birth to a child.  

It can develop between one month and up to one year after birth. 

The symptoms of depression and anxiety in early parenthood are the same as at any other time in our life. Yet, they are complicated by the task of raising a baby.  

Symptoms can be even harder to identify when you’re fatigued and sleep-deprived from looking after your baby. 

Get urgent support 

Seek help immediately or call 000 if you are having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself or your baby. 

Call the PANDA Helpline (1300 726 306)

Call Lifeline (13 11 14)

The baby blues or depression? 

Many people who’ve given birth get the ‘baby blues’ in the first few days after childbirth.  

Signs include being teary, feeling irritable or sensitive, and having mood changes.  

The baby blues are temporary. They usually diminish within a few days with some support and understanding. The baby blues are different to postnatal depression, which generally does not go away on its own.  

When symptoms persist and interfere with everyday life, it’s important to seek support. 

Visit the PANDA website to take the mental health checklists for: 

Signs and symptoms of postnatal depression 

Up to one in 6 women experience postnatal depression. 

Some common symptoms include: 

  • low mood or feeling numb 
  • feeling hopeless, helpless, empty or sad 
  • feelings of worthlessness 
  • feeling unmotivated and unable to cope with a daily routine 
  • fears about the baby, including being alone with the baby or the baby becoming unsettled 
  • often feeling close to tears 
  • being angry, irritable or resentful 
  • not being able to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping a lot 
  • having nightmares 
  • changes to appetite (not eating or over-eating) 
  • loss of interest in things that you would normally enjoy 
  • recurring negative thoughts 
  • withdrawing from social contact 
  • having thoughts about wanting to escape or get away from everything 
  • having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, or ending your life. 

Find out more about depression symptoms on the PANDA website. 

Signs and symptoms of postnatal anxiety 

Around one in 6 women also experience postnatal anxiety. 

Some signs to look for include: 

  • anxiety or fear that interrupts your thoughts and interferes with daily tasks 
  • panic attacks (outbursts of extreme fear and panic that are overwhelming and feel difficult to bring under control) 
  • anxiety and worries that keep coming into your mind and are difficult to stop or control 
  • constantly feeling irritable, restless or on edge 
  • having tense muscles, a tight chest and heart palpitations 
  • finding it difficult to relax 
  • taking a long time to fall asleep at night. 

Find out more about anxiety symptoms on the PANDA website. 

Postnatal depression and anxiety in dads 

Most people are aware that anxiety and depression can affect new mothers. Fathers are also at risk. 

Postnatal depression also affects about one in 10 new dads. And anxiety is likely to be just as common in new parents as depression. 

Some factors that might contribute are: 

  • having previous experiences of anxiety or depression before 
  • a partner with anxiety or depression 
  • a lack of practical, emotional or social support available 
  • financial stress 
  • supporting your partner through a difficult birth 
  • current or past issues with drugs or alcohol 
  • a baby with health issues 
  • relationship difficulties 
  • the reality of parenting being different from what you expected. 

Learn more about anxiety and depression in new dads on the PANDA website.

Looking after your mental health and wellbeing

The demands of caring for a baby can feel like they take over your daily life.  

Looking after your mental health and wellbeing is likely to require more consideration than it once did.  

If you’re unsettled or struggling with caring for your baby, seek support early.

You can talk to family, friends or a healthcare professional. 

Check your mental health

Learn more about looking after your mental health and wellbeing

Get mental health support.

Supporting someone caring for a baby

New parents aren’t just learning how to care for a baby.  

They’re also dealing with big changes to their relationships, routines, bodies and mental health and wellbeing. 

Your support and help can make a difference to their mental health. 

Tips for partners 

A new baby will change your relationship. Be guided by your partner on what sort of support they need.  

  • With all the attention and demands on the birth parent, you might feel left out. Talk to your partner about how you can become more involved.  
  • Come up with a plan for how to support each other during the times when the baby won’t stop crying or won’t sleep.  
  • A shorthand code for expressing feelings might come in helpful. For example, saying “I’m a 3 out of 10 today” takes less effort than trying to explain exactly how you’re feeling. 
  • Usually, renegotiating your sexual relationship after the birth of a baby takes time and care. How to do this will be unique to your relationship. Communication and patience can help.  
  • Look after your physical and emotional health. By supporting your own wellbeing and being present, you help your baby to feel safe and secure.  

Tips for family and friends 

  • Be available to talk, in person, over the phone or online. 
  • Make a meal or offer to help with grocery shopping, chores or housework. 
  • Offer to help look after, drop off or pick up older children 
  • Be aware that while new parents may need help, they may also need space. Check before visiting. You could also time your visits for when you can be most helpful. 
  • Be clear about how you're willing to help. Let them know if you can stay overnight or drive them to medical appointments.  

If there’s a new parent in your life who you’re worried about, it’s worth having a conversation. 

Use these tips to talk to someone you’re worried about.