Relationships and the postnatal brain

October 23, 2019

They say it takes a village to raise a child. That a close community is essential for children to grow and develop in a safe and healthy environment.

The proverb also implies that others can – and should – help with the weighty task of parenting, sharing their experience and knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

But what if you don’t live in a village? What if you are new to your community? Who do you turn to for help and support during the early weeks, months and years of being a parent?

Psychologist Dr Rosanna Gilderthorp says it is vital for mothers to form strong relationships with other adults. And this is particularly important in the postnatal period – because of the way our brains work.

She explains: “Our brains haven’t changed since we were living in caves.

“We are designed to be surrounded by other humans that help us with the child rearing process.

“So if your brain detects that you don’t have those people around you to protect you and your helpless little new born, then it activates the ‘threat system’.”

The threat system is the part of your brain which activates the fight or flight response. It’s an ancient part of the brain which simply detects: am I in danger or am I safe? A key survival tool, it responds in the same way to all types of threat.

“It’s the brain’s way of trying to keep you and your baby safe,” says Rosanna.

“And in the postnatal period, when you’re particularly vulnerable, it gets really good at threat detection. That threat may be the fact that you don’t have enough social support. You don’t have a tribe.”

Soothing system

Rosanna continues: “In modern life, this can lead to hyper vigilance, which is a common symptom of anxiety, where you don’t feel you can ever relax or let your guard down. Where little things make you jump, and where you feel like everything is overwhelming and difficult.

“All of this happens because your brain is working overtime to try and assess your situation, to see whether you’re safe or not.”

In order to get the threat system to switch off, you have to activate a different part of the brain which is called the “soothing system”. And this most effectively switched on by people who care about us.

“Receiving care and compassion from other people communicates to your brain that you are safe and that other people will protect you and your vulnerable baby,” says Rosanna.

“The best relationships are with people that fully understand you and your needs, and that give you a feeling of safety.”

Practical help counts too, of course, from people who understand the new demands of parenthood.

“Anybody that can give you an hour of sleep, or provide you with a hot meal, or help with feeding the baby, they are the most helpful people to have around,” suggests Rosanna.

Building a tribe

The mother of two toddlers, goes on: “My best advice, is while you’re pregnant to try and build a tribe, to build a network.

“It doesn’t have to be big, just a couple of people who give you that feeling of security and understanding.

“There’s also a lot you can do to try and develop the relationships you do have.

“If you’ve got a partner, have these conversations beforehand. Talk about how you’re likely to feel, and how you’re likely to feel bit different to how you usually feel.

“Discuss how you’re going to develop a system that works for both of you, how you’re going to share tasks. Having that kind of open communication will really help once the baby has arrived, so you can both talk about what you’re struggling with and how you can help each other.”

Rosanna adds that seeing a therapist, especially one with perinatal experience, can really help new and expectant parents to find out what they really need.

She works predominantly in “compassion focused therapy” where conversations take into account the new way you might react to the world of parenthood.

“We focus on the fact that the reactions you’re having are not your fault,” explains Rosanna.

“We try and figure out how to bring out the best from your brain, rather than allowing it to work against you as it often feels like it is doing.

“What I try to get across is that the brain is not broken. It’s actually doing very sensible things. We just need to tell it that we’re safe.

“It’s a really empowering model, because when you look at it this way, you think: ‘Oh, thank you brain’, rather than resenting it for not working properly.”