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Single parent? Go from surviving to thriving

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As a single parent, some days it may feel like you’re doing all you can just to survive. It will get better. As one mother says, ”I learned that regardless of whether or not this is the life I planned, this is my life and I need to embrace it. I love being a mom and wouldn’t trade it for the world. My son makes all of the difficult times worthwhile.”

Several strategies have been shown to improve outcomes for single-parent families. With these in mind, you can create an environment that helps you and your baby thrive and grow.

Seek and accept support

Probably the most important thing you can do as a single parent is to develop a strong support network. Practical and emotional support from others can not only help you handle your responsibilities but also boost your well-being.

Asking for help can be hard on your pride, since many people are brought up to believe they should and must do everything by themselves. But it’s better to lean on others a little than to become so overwhelmed or stressed that you can’t parent effectively.

Many single moms say their own mothers are their best sources of both practical and emotional support. You can also turn to other trusted family members, friends or co-workers. Ask for what you need, whether it’s someone to babysit while you run errands, a friend to call when you need to talk, or someone who’s willing to provide backup child care if your baby is sick or your regular arrangement falls through.

In addition to seeking help from family and friends, look for a support group for single parents, or seek social services. Faith communities can be helpful resources, too. A support group, whether in person or online, offers a great opportunity to share feelings and get advice.

Find quality child care

Good child care is crucial for your baby’s well-being and your peace of mind. If you need regular child care, look for a qualified caregiver who can provide stimulation in a safe environment.

Many single parents say they view their child care providers as valued partners in raising their children. Be careful about asking a new friend or partner to watch your little one. Anyone who cares for your child should be someone you know and trust and who has some experience with young children.

To learn more about child care in your area, contact your local Child Care Resource and Referral (CCR&R) agency. The agency can help you find out if you qualify for free or subsidized child care. Links to state CCR&R agencies are available through Child Care Aware of America.

You can also find child care resources by state at the Office of Child Care. The federally funded Head Start program serves infants and toddlers in low-income families. Local government, United Way agencies and other community or faith-based organizations sometimes provide child care scholarships. Some employers may provide child care benefits or discounts.

Aim for a stable family life

Changes in family structure, such as one parent leaving or a new adult entering the family, can be hard on kids. Try to ensure consistency in your family and your child’s caretakers and, if possible, keep moves and major changes to a minimum.

Create routines

Family routines — such as regular bedtimes, mealtimes, naps and reading — promote good health and cognitive development in children. A lack of bedtime and mealtime routines, for example, increases the risk that children will have sleep problems, eat a less healthy diet and become overweight.

Single-parent families are often less likely to keep daily routines for young children than are two-parent families. Some of the reasons include time constraints, financial pressure, fatigue and lack of support. Do the best you can to establish routines.

During your baby’s first months, you’re still helping him or her develop regular sleep habits, and the feeding schedule might vary from one day to the next. As your child gets older, create a regular schedule for meals, naps and bedtime. If you’re having trouble establishing daily routines, figure out what’s in your way and brainstorm solutions. You can also seek assistance from your child’s medical provider.

Take care of yourself

To take good care of your child, you must take good care of yourself. Include physical activity in your daily routine, eat a healthy diet and get plenty of sleep. Make sure you get some “me time” regularly. Time away from your child will help replenish your energy and spirit, helping you to be a better parent. Even taking 15 or 20 minutes to relax can be helpful.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Here are some tips:

  • Arrange for a baby sitter for a few hours once a week so you can get out of the house and do something you like, either by yourself or with friends
  • Take naps when you can
  • Read or walk on your lunch break
  • Work out or read a magazine after your child is in bed
  • Once your child is sleeping regularly, get up a little early to enjoy a quiet cup of coffee or do some yoga stretches
  • Reduce stress with relaxation techniques
  • Let go of guilt about taking time for yourself
  • Accept your limits, and don’t be too hard on yourself

Prioritize family time

Throughout your child’s life, and particularly in the early years, time with parents is important to health and development. Single parenting can put the squeeze on your time with your child. Make it a priority — even if it means having a messier house or not getting something else done that day. Set aside time each day to cuddle, play with or simply hold your child. Find out if you can modify your work schedule to have more time with your son or daughter.

Get organized

Being organized can help reduce stress. Try these tips:

  • Stock up on basic household supplies, such as toilet paper and diapers, as well as easy-to-prepare foods and meals that can be frozen and reheated
  • Eliminate clutter
  • Plan your week on a calendar
  • Keep a list of baby sitters
  • Prioritize what’s most important for your child’s needs and your needs, and focus on those.

Provide opposite-sex role models

Children benefit from interactions with both women and men. If your child’s other parent isn’t involved, create opportunities for your son or daughter to interact with an opposite-sex adult who can be a positive role model. It doesn’t have to be a romantic partner. If you’re a single mother, spend time with a responsible, positive male family member or trusted friend. Involve the men in your life in family rituals, such as holidays and birthdays.

Stay positive

Make a conscious decision to focus on the positive and not dwell on the negative aspects of single parenthood. Try to keep your sense of humor when dealing with everyday challenges, and don’t forget to have fun. Take a break from the routine and plan a fun activity you can do with your child, such as a hike in the park, trip to the zoo or picnic with friends.

One single mother advises recognizing your accomplishments and blessings: “Give yourself a pat on the back daily. What worked out well and what made you smile today? There is no question that being a new single mom is one of the hardest challenges life will throw your way, but you will get through it and it will get better.”

If you’re feeling down much of the time or find yourself stuck in a pattern of negative thinking, talk to your doctor, a counselor or a psychologist.

Dr. Klaas and Dr. Cook are co-editors of  Mayo Clinic Guide to Your Baby’s First Years.

Walter J. Cook, M.D.

Dr. Cook is a specialist in general pediatric care within the Department of Pediatrics, Mayo Clinic Rochester, Minn., and an assistant professor at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. A father of three, including twins, he has cared for thousands of babies in more than 25 years of pediatric practice.

Kelsey M. Klaas, M.D.

Dr. Klaas is a pediatrician in the Division of General Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester, Minn. She is the mother of two children who brings both a medical and new parent perspective to her practice and writing.

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