How To Combat Parental Stress for Yourself and Your Kids with Dr. Erin Kinney
In today’s episode of The Gentle Parenting Show, Kim talked with one of her own personal doctors, Dr. Erin Kinney. Dr. Kinney specializes in parental stress and is a Naturopathic Doctor who helps patients improve their mood, balance their hormones and increase their energy. She is passionate about teaching her patients to understand why stress causes so many problems in the body and how to combat this stress. Today, Dr. Kinney and Kim are covering why parents are so stressed out, how it affects their body, what effect it has on kids and how to combat it.
What Happens to a Body During Parental Stress
Dr. Kinney believes it’s important to know what’s happening to your body when stress hits. Stress is being in fight or flight mode. Our bodies are conditioned to flight, but it’s the coming down from the flight that creates chronic stress.
When big, stressful, or scary things happen, the brain sends out signals like cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones cause the heart rate to go up, blood pressure to increase, digestion to stop, sex hormones to stop and if you’re breastfeeding, lactation to stop. Our body was created to do this for a good reason – to keep us safe!
But, what happens after the “flight” is important. After you feel safe, cortisol is supposed to go back to your brain to turn off stress hormones. Once you’re in a relaxed mode, lactation returns, blood pressure goes back to normal and all other hormones return to normal. If you stay stuck in a fight or flight mode (chronic parental stress), your body will wisen up and your brain won’t turn off the stress hormones as easily. This is when problems arise, hormones can get out of wack.
What to Do When You Face Parental Stress
If you think you’re in a cycle of chronic parental stress, you need to retrain your nervous system to relax. But, as a parent, you might be asking “how can I relax”? Especially with newborns, having a moment to sleep, relax, or even take time for yourself feels impossible.
Dr. Kinney recommends meditation. Meditation is beneficial because it upregulates the response of the brain’s “off” switch when it comes to stress hormones. The more you practice meditation, the easier it is for your body to come out of fight or flight mode.
If you don’t want to meditate, Dr. Kinney suggests laying down for 5-10 minutes a day. Get your body flat and relaxed. Doing this lowers blood pressure, stress hormones, everything. She suggests doing something once a day that calms your nervous system.
There are relaxing practices like meditation and prayer, and then there are things that bring joy. This could be dancing to your favorite music, eating your favorite foods, or doing something active. If it brings you joy, it can work as relaxation. Joy and happy hormones work to calm down the amygdala and the front of your brain, which is where that off switch is.
Doctor Recommendations for Stress
When patients come to Dr. Kinney with chronic parental stress, there are a few things she does for them. First, she reminds them that even though they are the caregiver, they need to prioritize their personal well-being. She evaluates a person’s diet and nutrition to make sure meals are being eaten. These meals should be protein-rich meals, which are important for keeping the nervous system calm. She also makes sure her patients are properly hydrated – drinking half their weight in ounces of water per day.
There are homeopathic recipes that Dr. Kinney uses to reduce parental stress. Something that she suggests to use that is over-the-counter is Hyland’s Calm, which is helpful for both moms and babies. She also suggests getting horizontal for 5-10 minutes a day, like mentioned above. You don’t have to sleep during this time! You can meditate, pray, or even daydream. Daydreaming can be a joyful practice. Kim shares a resource and previous podcast guest, Emily Fletcher of Ziva Meditation, to get started with meditation.
How Parental Stress Affects Babies and Children
Can a newborn baby pick up on stress? Yes! Babies are born with the ability to gauge if their caregiver is in fight or flight mode. They can look at their caregivers’ faces, they can pick up on what is going on.
This is why when a baby is put skin to skin on a relaxed human, they feel joy and happy hormones. This calms them down. In fact, many hospitals will place babies with low vital signs skin to skin with their parents so they can feel happy and turn on important hormones.
Because chronic parental stress can affect breastmilk production, it has a big effect on newborns. Personally, Dr. Kinney wasn’t making enough milk with her first child. Her child hated nursing because, during that skin-to-skin time, mom was stressed and anxious about her own milk supply. However, when she gave her daughter a bottle, she was much more relaxed and calm and her daughter enjoyed eating.
Reducing parental stress with children, but especially newborns can be tough. If the baby is struggling, the parent often struggles too. This makes it hard to get calm. Kim shares a great fact that the hormones our body produces after birth are to help us become more in tune and aware of our babies. If you can remember this, and remember that our children’s brain is rapidly developing, we can try to remain and return to calm.
How to Create a Calm Mind
Dr. Kinney says that “what we should be do going for our baby’s brains is creating a very low, non-stimuli environment that will be not only good for our baby, but good for us.” This is really hard to do sometimes, with things coming at us. We like to digest 10 different things at once. But, our babies’ new and forming brains pick up on everything. We don’t want them to absorb a busy, stressed-out mind.
So, what are you supposed to do? Dr. Kinney says “if you’re a new caregiver it is so important for you to be getting outside support.” It’s really important that you have somewhere to get your stressful things out on the table. Whether this is with a trusted therapist, friend, or partner, you need to be able to talk about your stress to someone. This is important for every parent, regardless of gender.
Remember that babies are like dogs, they can read and feel the energy. Think about it – does your baby always seem relaxed when they’re around someone who is generally calm and happy? Do they freak out when they’re being held by someone who is tense, angry, and stressed? Dr. Kinney says “supporting your baby in a relaxed state means you’ll get a better response from your baby”.
Be a Role Model
Parenthood can be so exhausting that finding calm moments almost feels impossible. This is where the small moments of calm come in. If you need to, find someone to help keep you accountable with this. Have a support system. Ask your support system how they calm down and find joy. A lot of times, you’ve been parenting so hard, you lose yourself. But, Dr. Kinney says that “we’re being role models to our children about how to be present and take care of ourselves.” Children pick up on everything – so try teaching them ways to calm down. Dr. Kinney suggests an app called Insight Timer to help kids reach a calm mind.
No matter where you find yourself in this journey of parenting, you can reset. Whether it’s resetting every hour, day, week, or month, you can find a way to calm the parental stress.