Family dynamics: How relationships change after having a baby

No matter how excited you are about becoming a parent, welcoming a newborn into your life can change family dynamics in ways you might not expect, says UCLA Health psychiatrist Misty Richards, MD, MS who specializes in maternal mental health.

That process can be hard. But there are things you can do to strengthen your family bond and set yourself up for success.

New parent transitions

“Families come in multiple flavors,” says Dr. Richards: blended families, foster parents, nuclear families with same-sex parents and more. Whatever the makeup of your family, it’s common to experience an adjustment period when you bring a baby home.

Mothers often go through a period called matrescence — the developmental process of becoming a mother. “Your identity as a mother can take months or years to develop,” Dr. Richards says. “During this period, there’s a push and pull between your maternal instinct and the desire to be who you were pre-baby.”

Though it’s not as well studied, fathers go through a similar period called patrescence. For any parent, it’s a process that takes time. “While you technically become a parent overnight, it can take more than an overnight shift to develop your identity as a parent and figure out what resonates with you as a mother or father,” she adds.

Dr. Misty Richards discusses matrescence

Family dynamics after childbirth or adoption

As you adapt to parenthood, the dynamic between two parents in a relationship is also changing. “You’re getting to know your baby and at the same time, you’re re-establishing who you are together as a couple,” Dr. Richards says.

When one parent is breastfeeding or spending more time at home with the baby, the other parent may feel neglected. A working parent may feel stressed about providing for the growing family. Childbirth, body changes and lack of sleep can all affect intimacy with a partner.

In other words, it’s normal to go through changes after a baby is born, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Having a new baby is intense, but this period doesn’t last forever.

There are steps you can take to adapt to these changes as a family:

Plan ahead

“There are so many books and articles about preparing for baby, but few resources on preparing your family for this change,” Dr. Richards says. If your family is preparing for a new addition, start talking about how it might affect your roles and routines.

Revisit roles

When a tiny new family member joins the team, you may need to revisit the roles in your relationship. If one person feels they’re doing the heavy lifting, they can start to feel resentful. “Household duties may need to be reshuffled,” Dr. Richards says. “List each of your roles so it’s not guesswork.”

Prepare siblings

Older kids in the family also go through an adjustment period when a new sibling arrives. To ease the transition, parents can include older children in planning for the baby’s arrival home. After the little one arrives, the single best thing a parent can do is carve out one-on-one time with the older child — weekly, monthly or whenever you can, Dr. Richards says. “That time is so important to show your older child that they’re important to you, and you’ll always make time for them.”

Take a catnap

If you have a new baby, getting enough sleep might seem impossible. It’s definitely not easy, especially in the first six months, Dr. Richards says. But lack of sleep can make everything harder. Sleep when you can, even if it means the laundry doesn’t get folded. If you have a trusted friend or family member visiting, ask if they could watch the baby for a little while so you can rest.

Go outside

“I tell every parent to get some fresh air every day,” Dr. Richards says. Whether you take your wee one along or have a trusted friend or family member watch the baby while you take a few solo minutes, a short outdoor walk can help all family members feel their best. “Even if it’s just a few minutes, get outside. Don’t stay isolated in your home.”

Keep talking

Before and after an infant arrives, communication is key. “Open communication is critical between parents,” Dr. Richards says. “Be open and honest with each other about your needs.”

Ask for help

It takes a village! Ask trusted friends and family members for support. If you or your partner are struggling, don’t hesitate to get help. “That’s what mental health providers are there for,” Dr. Richards says. “Your primary care doctor can also connect you to mental health support.”

Communication and connection: Staying close after having a baby

Good communication is one of the most important things you can do for family harmony, Dr. Richards says. If you’re struggling to connect — or arguing about everything — she recommends a process called the three Rs:

  • Regulate: First, figure out what it takes for each of you to feel regulated and grounded. It might be meditation, time by yourself for a moment or figuring out a way to get more sleep.
  • Relate: “Relate to your partner,” she says. Find ways to connect and talk about what you’re both experiencing. Appreciate the things your partner does and take time to say thanks.
  • Reason: Once you’re both in a calmer place, you can spend some time talking about the issues that are bothering you. “Once you have a few minutes of quiet, you can discuss what happened and how to prevent it from happening again,” she says.

Changing family dynamics can be hard to navigate, but it can also be a chance for a family to grow into their new roles together. “It can be a process of coming together,” Dr. Richards says. “There’s so much potential for growth.”

If you’re having trouble adjusting after bringing home a new baby, reach out to your primary care physician or pediatrician.