Planning Ahead Helps New Parents Make the Transition

From the WebMD Archives

May 17, 2000 -- Let?s face it: Impending parenthood is scary. Sleep deprivation, postpartum depression, disrupted schedules, dirty diapers, and diminished intimacy are just some of the many stresses new parents face.

So how do first-time parents deal successfully with these inevitable but temporary frustrations? It's simple, according to the findings of a recent study: Be mentally prepared.

The 18-month study, conducted at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, reinforces the common-sense notion that advance preparation is the best ally of parents-to-be. Both mothers and fathers who educate themselves on all aspects of pregnancy, birth, and care of newborns -- and who try to anticipate exactly how the baby will affect their daily lives -- find the transition goes much more smoothly, the study suggests.

"Bingo!" says Jane Honikman, founder of Postpartum Education for Parents, who reviewed the study for WebMD. Berkeley, Calif.-based Honikman, who has three kids and a master's degree in psychology, says that arming couples -- especially first-time moms -- with knowledge is the best way to counteract the emotional downside of childbearing.

The Wilfrid Laurier study's findings were especially true for women, though new fathers also benefited from thinking ahead. Surprisingly, age was not a significant factor. Whether they were teens or in their forties, first-time parents who planned ahead made the adjustment far more easily than those who did not.

"Men and women who are not prepared for the changes in their relationship that a baby will bring and their responsibilities as parents can quickly find themselves in very, very dangerous problems in their marriage," Gayle Peterson, MSSW, PhD, tells WebMD. Peterson, a San Francisco-area family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development and the author of "An Easier Childbirth," also reviewed the study for WebMD.

For the study, which was published in the Journal of Personality, researchers tracked 69 Ontario-area couples who were expecting their first child. Each parent-to-be was given a detailed questionnaire at the beginning of the third trimester and again six months after birth.

The results showed that couples who had thought carefully about all the details of physically having a baby -- from choosing a doctor to weighing the risks involved -- and had contemplated all of their new responsibilities as parents were much more adept at rolling with the punches than those whose expectations about parenthood were too simplistic or overly romantic.

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"There is what I call the fantasy of fatherhood that causes all kinds of unrealistic expectations," Honikman says. "This study supports what we?ve been saying all along. A successful adjustment -- and this study is about adjustment -- is more likely if you have realistic expectations."

It also helps if you stay low key, the study found. Couples who reported relatively low stress levels before the baby's birth, yet indicated they were thinking attentively about the future, seemed to fare better at handling or warding off postpartum depression, anxiety and stress.

"Generally, the more stress a person experiences prenatally, the more difficult it is to make the postnatal transition," Mark Pancer, PhD, co-author of the study, tells WebMD. "But when there is a quality of thinking ahead of time about what it means to be a parent, that transition tends to go much better." Pancer is a professor in the department of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier.

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