The happy-go-lucky mom, always smiling and dealing with the toughest situations like Superwoman, is a myth. The reality of life with a small baby is going to be stressful, at least some of the time.

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Stress has been implicated as a risk factor in health problems ranging from headaches and insomnia to high blood pressure and cardiac disease. New mothers are especially vulnerable because they're already undergoing major physiological changes related to weight gain and loss, fluctuating hormone levels and sleep deprivation.

Mothers who are overwhelmed may have difficulty sleeping, making decisions or just maintaining daily activities. These moms may find it harder to read their baby's cues that they're tired, hungry or need to be held. Babies may become more fussy, mothers feel more anxious, and it can turn into a vicious cycle. As a new parent, it's not realistic to think you can eliminate stress completely from your life, but you can and should minimize it.

So, how do you cut down feeling stressed?

Tips to help reduce stress:

  • Exercise is the absolute best aid to take away tension. Walking with your baby in the stroller for 10 to 20 minutes a day is a good start. Maybe your partner or a friend will get into the routine with you.
  • Joining a "Mommy and Me" exercise class makes fitness fun and social, and you don't need a sitter.
  • Yoga is soothing and impact-free (many studios offer classes especially for new mothers).
  • Meditate. There are many different practices you can choose from, but even just sitting for 15 minutes in a quiet place with your eyes closed will help clear your mind and relax your body.
  • Get out! Plan a regular activity that gets you out of the house. Have your partner, a relative or a sitter watch your baby and join a book or cooking club or swim laps with a friend at the local pool.
  • Pamper yourself! In childbirth rituals around the world, new mothers are celebrated and pampered. Since celebrations in the western world mainly revolve around the baby, you need to remember to pamper yourself. Try to find a few moments (or hours) to have a hot bath or give yourself a pedicure. If you can get childcare for a couple of hours, get yourself a well-earned massage, a facial or (for a low-cost alternative) hit your favorite make-up counter where sales reps will be happy to give you a free makeover. A pampered mom is going to be more relaxed and better able to pamper her baby.
  • Eat well. Poor nutrition can sap your energy level and increase stress. You or your partner should spend time each evening loading the fridge with individual servings of nutritious foods and cold drinks that are easy to grab while you are taking care of your baby. Sandwiches are ideal because they can be eaten one-handed while nursing or giving a bottle. If you feel like you can't make it out of the nursery, plug in a mini-fridge to store snacks as well as pumped breast milk or leftover formula.

Although post-pregnancy weight can be a source of stress, experts urge nursing moms to avoid dieting, which can compromise the quality of your breast milk. Eating right and exercising should slim you down, or you can talk to a healthcare professional about ways to cut calories safely.

  • Date night – home or away. Sure it's more fun to go out to a nice restaurant or movie with your partner, but sometimes it doesn't work out. Instead, commit to one "date" a week, whether you leave the house or not. If you rent a movie, choose a comedy – laughter reduces stress and can boost your immune system.
  • Get help! If you feel overwhelmed by stress, consider professional counseling. Women sometimes don't seek support because they're afraid that it makes them a bad mom if they feel stressed or depressed after childbirth. Instead, think of it as getting the help you need to be as great a parent as you can possibly be.
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