The first thousand days: The (well) parent’s survival guide
The first thousand days of parenthood, from conception right up until your baby turns two, can be both challenging and exciting. We discuss why these first thousand days are important to help you and bub stay well on your journey.
While your energy can at times be low due to sleepless nights, your focus is required to be at its peak. And as you pore over books, websites and advice from well-meaning experts trying to find the ‘perfect’ way to parent it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really important, you and your baby.
So why is the first thousand days so important?
Dr Tim Moore, a developmental psychologist and senior research fellow from The Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, says that the first thousand days, from conception up until baby turns two, is important for a child’s brain development, and that our early experiences determine whether our developing brain can provide a strong or weak foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health.
“Pregnancy and the first two years of life is when the human organism is at it’s most vulnerable,” he explains. “It’s subject to all sorts of external influences that can disturb development and have lifelong consequences. Mum’s wellbeing including her personal circumstances, stress and nutrition play a significant role in shaping the development of the baby, so their health is intimately linked to one another.”
It makes sense. Adult conditions like coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer were once regarded as products of adult behaviour and lifestyles, but are now they’re being linked to processes and experiences that occur in pregnancy and infancy. In other words, our futures are shaped long before we start taking care of ourselves.
“During pregnancy, the mother’s experiences cross the blood-brain barrier and can affect the [foetus],” Moore says. “50 years ago we were told we could drink and smoke during pregnancy because the baby would be protected by the placenta, but we now know that’s not the case. We’ve learned that this period is vital in setting you up for the rest of your life.”
So, what can we do about it? A few things play a big part in how well mums and bubs cope with the first thousand days, and because parental wellbeing is just as important as baby’s, it should be a major focus.
Staying well during pregnancy and the early days
Dr Moore says that in some ways becoming a parent is something you can’t prepare for, but that pregnancy is a critical opportunity to start things off on the right foot.
“During pregnancy watch for the things that shape the health of your baby in the womb - your mental state, your diet and nutrition as well as how much you sleep for example,” he explains. “It’s not just mothers, the health and lifestyle of both partners even prior to conception make a difference to your baby’s start in life. Taking [illicit] drugs, drinking [alcohol], not exercising, eating badly, coming from a stressful situation - they all have an effect.”
Keeping an eye on both parents’ wellbeing throughout the early days is vital, and this is especially important for mums and new mums in particular.
“Mums often have to care for the little one, so if she isn’t being cared for by someone that will be much harder to do and sustain,” Moore says. “The essence of good care for a baby is looking after their nutrition, clothing and safety, and responding to the child or being attuned to them. Mums can’t give those things if someone’s not giving them to her.”
So, it’s important that mum has a mini support team too, whether it’s your partner, close friends or family make sure you ask and accept help when it’s offered. Even if it is just a close friend who offers to take baby for quick walk around the block so you can grab five minutes of ‘me time’ to have a shower or a cat nap.
Try not to be too hard on yourself, you’re extremely busy and it doesn’t matter if the laundry is out of control, or if you haven’t perfectly folded the towels or if the floor is a bit dirty. You’re doing the best that you can and that is all that matters.
Don’t forget, what’s good for you is good for baby. Eating well, getting some sleep, exercising moderately, getting outdoors and into nature when you can, staying connected and having lots of cuddles - all of these can help lead to a healthier life for you, and the best possible start for baby.