The Healthy Mind Platter for Optimal Brain Matter. Copyright © 2011 David Rock and Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
There is no doubt that becoming a parent makes it challenging to look after your own physical and emotional wellbeing. It is difficult to find time for yourself when you have a dependent little person who needs you. You might forget to eat, or just grab whatever is convenient. You might struggle to find time to shower. Sitting down for a few minutes to have a cup of tea by yourself may now be a luxury.
But, as much as your baby needs you to love and care for her, she also needs you to be healthy so you can be there for her – taking care of yourself is taking care of your baby. After all, if you fall apart, where does that leave your family?
You know the airline rule about putting on your own breathing mask first before helping others when there is an emergency? It applies here. You need to take care of yourself so you can be available to meet the demands of your family. Your baby’s wellbeing depends on your ability to love and care for her. Taking care of yourself allows you to be at your parenting best.
What are the ways we might take care of ourselves emotionally while balancing the demands of parenting a baby?
We know that a balanced diet where we choose from a range of food groups will optimise our physical health. In the same way, we need a range of daily experiences for emotional wellbeing and a healthy mind. Dr Daniel Siegel (clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA school of Medicine) and Dr David Rock (a leading figure in the field of organisational consulting) developed the Healthy Mind Platter to describe experiences that we need to maintain healthy relationships and a healthy mind.
Healthy Mind Platter
Dr Siegel proposes that a healthy mind can be achieved as a result of ‘integration’ – connections between different parts of our brain and experiences, as well as connections through relationships and with our community. According to Dr Siegel and Dr Rock’s concept the Healthy Mind Platter, the seven essential mental activities described below encourage and strengthen this integration process. By engaging in these activities every day, we can maintain healthy relationships and integrate your brain.
Here are the seven essential mental activities and examples of how you may be able to incorporate them into your daily life as a new parent.
- Focus time – when we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, we take on challenges that make deep connections in the brain.
Yes, we have a lots of things on our “to do” list as a parent. But multi-tasking is not always time saving nor helpful for our busy mind. Perhaps you can try by choosing a certain task (e.g., doing dishes) and focus on actually completing it? Stop to savour the sense of achievement before you move on to other activities. Babies can be a great source of focus. Allow yourself small amounts of time throughout the day, if possible, to focus fully on your baby, observing with detail how she looks, what she sees, the sounds she’s making – be with her, present and attending.
- Play time – when we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, we help make new connections in the brain.
You will observe that as your baby grows, he starts to notices the world around him with wonder. For him, many things he encounters everyday are new and that is how his brain is developing, by making new connections through new experiences. Adult brains also have this potential and having a playful moment with your baby could be what you need to make your day a little more special and exciting. Dance with your baby to a new song (it doesn’t have to be a children’s song!), try a new route for a daily walk, or even just to explore your garden with your baby, and try to see things through his eyes. Can you see things a little differently? Can you share the joy of that moment with your baby?
- Connecting time – when we connect with other people, ideally in person, and when we take time to appreciate our connection to the natural world around us, we activate and reinforce the brain’s relational circuitry.
Many new mothers report that social isolation is a challenge in the early months. We are social beings, and as research consistently indicates, our relationships are a key contributor of psychological health. So it is important to schedule regular connecting time with people with whom you share a positive relationship. Connecting time can also be with nature. You could visit a local park, lie down under a tree and try to be there with nature – listen to the sound of leaves rustling like talking to each other, smell the scent of flowers nearby, feel the gentle wind caressing your cheek. This is also a great grounding practice, especially when you are feeling stressed.
- Physical time – when we move our bodies, aerobically if medically possible, we strengthen the brain in many ways.
It’s true! Regular exercise is very important for our physical and psychological health. Even a quick daily stroll with your baby can be a great mood shifter with fresh air and oxygen circulating your body. Or, you may want to make this your special time to yourself, and ask your partner to care for your baby, while you take a long walk, swim, or engage in whatever you find enjoyable. It will make you feel refreshed and recharged both physically and mentally.
- Time in – when we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, we help to better integrate the brain.
Time in could be meditation, a simple breathing practice or a quiet introspective time that would give you an opportunity to tune in with yourself. There are many apps and YouTube videos that people find helpful in guiding their “time in” practice. It may be easier to begin with a shorter practice, gradually making it a regular part of your routine. Some people find rhythmic movement like walking and light jogging, which also encourages rhythmic breath, help them in self-reflection. See if you can find a time in the day – when your baby is sleeping, or before going to bed yourself – to take a few moments for time in.
- Down time – when we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, we help the brain recharge.
Maybe you enjoy reading books, listening to music, or catching up on your favourite TV series. Not everything needs to be goal-oriented tasks. We all need some down time when we don’t need to be doing or trying. A good long bath and having a cup of tea with a magazine may also be good activities.
- Sleep time – when we give the brain the rest it needs, we consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day.
This may be the most challenging activity to regularly engage in if you are a sleep deprived parent. Arrange some relief with your partner, family member or a good friend, so you can get some much needed rest. This is especially crucial in the early weeks/months and during difficult times (e.g., when your baby is not well), Also, it is important to talk to your maternal and child health nurse or GP if you find that your baby’s sleep is an issue.
Healthy Mind Platter is a great concept and it helps us understand the importance of having various self-care activities in nourishing our relationships and our mind. A nourished mind will make parenting more enjoyable and fuel our motivation to be the parent we want to be. So why not stop and give yourself permission to nurture your mind one step at a time?
At the Centre for Perinatal Psychology we understand the difficulty in achieving the delicate balance between meeting your own needs and those of your baby. We can help. We enjoy supporting new parents find their way in their new role. We are interested in supporting the emotional wellbeing of all parents and babies.
*We are grateful to Dr. David Rock and Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. for generously granting permission to reproduce their model*
About the Author
Dr Yoko Hayashi is a clinical psychologist with the Centre for Perinatal Psychology. She maintains a practice in Menzies Creek in the Dandenong Ranges, Victoria, helping parents, infants and toddlers. She is a mother of three young children and passionate about helping others create loving and connected families.
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