Home All Positive Psychology for New Parents: 5 Research-Based Tips

Positive Psychology for New Parents: 5 Research-Based Tips

written by Jeremy McCarthy 27 July 2010

Jeremy McCarthy, MAPP '09, is the Group Director of Spa for Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group leading their internationally acclaimed luxury spa division featuring 44 world-class spa projects open or under development worldwide. Jeremy's blog is The Psychology of Wellbeing, and he teaches courses and offers a free webinar on Positive Leadership. He has also authored the book, The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing: A Guide to the Science of Holistic Healing. Like The Psychology of Wellbeing on Facebook or follow Jeremy on Twitter (@jeremycc). Full bio. Jeremy's articles are here.

As a new parent, I can tell you that there seems to be a surprising lack of guidance from science about how to have (and raise) a child. Since Catherine and I first learned we were expecting, the biggest piece of advice we have received from friends has been, “Don’t listen to advice,” referencing the fact that every child is different and opinions vary wildly about what does (or doesn’t) help a tiny infant grow into a flourishing and successful adult.

From a scientific perspective the problems are threefold.  First, there is the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture.  It is difficult to know how much of whom we become is due to our upbringing versus how much is due to our genetic makeup.  Traditionally, we like to take credit for all of our good qualities, and blame our parents for all the ways we are screwed up.  In reality, the credit and the blame are not so easy to distribute.  Second, once we accept that the environment plays an important role in human development, the number of environmental factors that bring us from infancy to adulthood is so great that it is difficult to determine the impact of any one of them in isolation.  Finally, for ethical reasons, it is difficult to do a placebo controlled experiment since we don’t want to deny children anything that could help them with their positive growth.

So like millions of parents before us, my wife and I had to muddle our way through the miracle of childbirth on our own.  Most of the books that are out there on pregnancy and childbirth (and I read many preparing for the birth of our son) seem to concern themselves with two things:  either reassuring you that everything is going to be OK and that everything you are experiencing is normal; or providing you a list of all of the things that could possibly go wrong and what needs to be done to insure that they don’t. 

What is missing from the literature is the positive side of the equation:  What should we do when everything is going OK to make it even better?  There are books on preventing marital discord, coping with complications, and care and feeding of infants.  But how do you grow closer as a couple when you’re already close, have a great birthing experience when the complications are few, and set your newborn on the pathway to a lifetime of flourishing?

Having just had my first child, I am far from an expert on the subject, but since no one has written the book on “positive psychology for new parents” (yet), I’ll simply share with you the things from my own experience and my own studies of positive psychology that we found useful as we went through our pregnancy:

  1. Future Time Perspective:  Nothing can jolt you into a future time perspective like learning that you are about to have a child.  The good news is research suggests that a future time perspective can be healthy, since thinking of the future is what motivates us to do what we need to do today to create the future we most desire.  When you are about to embark on the voyage of parenthood, it’s a good time to think about how you see yourself as a parent, and what kind of children you want to raise.  We spent many nights, up late (the “up late” part is not recommended since sleep becomes vital, but hey, it happens,) imagining our life as a family and discussing everything from how we would get our son to eat his vegetables to where we thought he might go to college.
  2. Mindfulness: Future time perspective can become unhealthy when you become so obsessed with planning for the future that you are not enjoying the present.  When a new child comes there is much to prepare, plan, and work for.  A parent naturally wants to spend their time and energy helping their child to grow into a better future.  But sometimes that can be best achieved by just enjoying these amazing moments as they happen.  Going through a pregnancy and then a birth are some of the most incredible experiences of life.  It is important to savor them as they come.  Mindfulness training can help to relieve the anxieties of pregnancy and birth and can help parents to remain calm when sleep is limited once the baby arrives.  Mindfulness helped us to bring our awareness back to the present, after too much daydreaming about our son’s illustrious future.
  3. Gratitude:  There are lots of things to worry about during a pregnancy.  But there are lots of things to appreciate too.  This is a good time to practice expressing gratitude to your partner every day for the things you appreciate most.  Practicing gratitude will help you to savor these special moments, but also will keep you close as a couple during times when fluctuations in sex drive, mood, and body image can allow insecurities to creep in.  During the pregnancy, we got into the habit of expressing gratitude to each other each night before we went to bed, and sending short gratitude notes to each other during the day.  This definitely brought us together, not only as a couple, but as a family.
  4. Other people matter It takes a village to raise a child.  Now is the time to reach out to family and connect with other friends who are having children.  We found that having our son opened our eyes to a whole new community of parents that we loved becoming a part of.  This is also a good time to renew your romantic commitment to your partner.  When, decades from now, your child grows up and moves out on his or her own, will the two of you still be together?  What will that relationship look like?  Catherine and I have vowed to hold our own relationship as sacred, even as we form new bonds of love with our son.
  5. Realistic optimism: Labor and childbirth can be painful—a fact of life that I discussed in great detail in my Psychology of Wellbeing article, “Why is Childbirth so Freakin’ Painful?”  If someone is pessimistic, it is easy to learn about all of the things that can go wrong and begin to dwell on them.  Labor is stressful enough without letting our ruminations make it even worse.   But optimism has its downside too.  An optimist who expects labor to be easy or “according to plan” is setting themselves up for a lot of frustration and disappointment.  As a labor coach, I felt my job was to define reality and give hope.  “This is going to be hard, and anything could happen, but you are going to get through it, and it is going to be worth it in the end.”

By writing this article, I turn this list over to the positive psychology community and my community of readers.  What else would you add?  What applications from the research have you yourself applied?  What would you suggest to new parents? 

If positive psychology is to concern itself with human flourishing, then it seems only natural that it would need to follow that quest all the way to the origins of life itself.   Where does flourishing begin if not in the womb?




References and recommended reading:

Bryant, F. & Veroff, J. (2007) Savoring: A new model of positive experience.. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Emmons, R. (2007) Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Boston: Houghton Mifflan Company.

Gottman, J. and Gottman, J. S. (2008). And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives. Three Rivers Press.

Murkoff, H. & Mazel, S. (2008). What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Fourth Edition. Workman Publishing Company.

Hanh, T. N. (1992). Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. Bantam.

Shelov, S. P. & Altmann, T. R. (Eds., 2009). Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, 5th Edition: Birth to Age 5 (Shelov, Caring for your Baby and Young Child, Birth to Age 5). Bantam Books (American Academy of Pediatrics).

Zimbardo, P. & Boyd, J. (2009). The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Will Change Your Life. Free Press.


Dad-baby photo courtesy of Stephen Poff
Dad-baby photo #2 courtesy of quinn.anya
Dad-baby photo #3 courtesy of jk+too
Mom-baby photo courtesy of yoshimov

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Ryan Niemiec 27 July 2010 - 4:29 pm

Great article, Jeremy…I can tell it is from the heart, with the science to meld with it (the best type of article for people).

By the way, the best “mindful parenting” book (and will probably always be the best) is Everyday Blessings by Myla Kabat-Zinn and Jon Kabat-Zinn (1997)

Christine Carter, Ph.D. 27 July 2010 - 5:23 pm


You’d love my book, Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, out from Ballantine earlier this year. And also my blog for the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley (www.greatergoodparents.org). Both are “positive psychology for new parents” (actually, parents of all ages) as you request.


Christine Carter

Greater Good Science Center
University of California, Berkeley

Sherri Fisher 27 July 2010 - 5:36 pm

Hi, Jeremy-
I think you can get many different and conflicting kinds of advice about child-rearing from research, and that means like all positive interventions, you have to try them out–perhaps for awhile–and then tailor the research to meet your needs.

Here are six research based tools for parenting. I work with kids and families (and have two kids 22 and 20 and have been married 25 years–ain’t nothing like the real thing…) These are things that I regularly use.

1) You will not always agree that everything is so wonderful and that is why there are so many self-help books out there for the “bad is stronger than good” days. Be aware of the negativity (or positivity) bias and instead stay aware of your explanatory style. Practice real-time resilience!!

2) Choose authoritative over authoritarian parenting styles. This builds more resilient kids. You’ll be more willing to “share” your kids with others and trust what you are doing as parents even when the grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc do not always do as you say or as you do.

3) The hedonic treadmill applies to becoming parents, so when the adrenaline (or oxytocin or seratonin, etc) wears off, be ready with what works: a weekend away, focusing on new ways to use your strengths.

4) ACR it: Build the relationship with your “co-parent”. You are a team as well as individuals.

5) Check your gratitude journal for “what went well” patterns. Just being grateful each day is nice, but to be able to replicate good days, record the patterns.

5) Beware what John Gottman calls the four horsemen of the apocalyse. These are: criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling. Contempt for a partner is the most crucial indicator of divorce.

6) The Losada line. Put it on the fridge! Between 3:1 and 5:1 🙂

All the best and hugs all around!

Elaine O'Brien 27 July 2010 - 7:18 pm

Really lovely article Jeremy! It made me so happy reading this and I’m thrilled for you, Catherine and your sweet baby. I loved your references, perspective, and PP applications concerning the best job in the world. I liked reading the notes from Ryan and Christine and Sherri’s great tips. My main practical tip would be to try to savor and enjoy every moment of babyhood. The time goes by SO fast. It’s a bit shocking to me that my beautiful baby, Lianna, is now 25! I’m glad I didn’t ever wish she was in a different stage of her development, (even when I was a bit sleep deprived.) You are clearly on the right track, and an inspiration!
Great, good luck and have fun making memories of this precious time,

Jeremy McCarthy 28 July 2010 - 6:08 am

Thanks for the great comments everyone. Sherri, your list is great . . . we should have collaborated on the article and provided the top ten (or twelve) tips. Yours are excellent and deserve another article in and of themselves.

Jeremy McCarthy 28 July 2010 - 6:16 am

Christine, I DO love your blog and just after I had finished writing this article I saw your book recommended on Lisa Sanson’s blog: http://www.lvsconsulting.com/?tag=raising-happiness and promptly ordered it. I hope to write a follow up article after having read it.

To be fair, I know there are other books out there as well on positive parenting but very few are focused on the early days of birth and the first year.

Jeni Hooper 29 July 2010 - 7:02 am

Congratulations to you both on becoming parents. I love your 5 research based tips on the positive psychology mindset for parents. Enjoy your new member of the family.

I would add a further 5 tips which focus on getting to know your child and identifying what will help your child to flourish. These are based on my own work with families as a Child Psychologist and Parent Coach.

1. Your baby is a great communicator and will tell you what is working well. Observe and experiment together to discover what creates a relaxed and happy baby. Your child’s temperament and interests will be a deciding factor.

2. babies like people are better than toys, certainly for the first few years. Contact and companionship release the happy hormones. Family and friends can all contribute to building your child’s relationship with the world and strengthening their emotional wellbeing.

3. Feeling relaxed and comfortable begins that process of broaden and build that is essential for your child to discover and build their strengths.

4. Take time and savour each step on the journey. Children work on slow time and need to repeat and repeat and repeat.

5. Avoid the urge to stimulate your child’s development on some prescriptive timetable. Work with your child’s strengths and emerging interests. Ultimately you are aimimg for Flow but in the early days exploratory play will not last long.

I am working on a book for parents which is a step by step guide to identifying and nurturing your child’s strengths. I am aiming for publication in 2011. I have identified 4 core strengths from positive psychology which are central to a flourshing life. The book guides parents through the process of exploring what is working well and what can be added to create a flourishing childhood.

Jodie Benveniste 30 July 2010 - 2:18 am

Jeremy – congrats to you and your family!

I run a business called Parent Wellbeing – all about PP for parents – here in Australia. http://www.parentwellbeing.com

And two of my books might interest you too. Full Belly is for pregnancy.

But Little Bundle is for baby’s first year – that early stage of adjusting to parenthood.

Here are extracts from the books:

Full Belly: http://www.parentwellbeing.com.au/file.php?f=Gl1CiH.ibm6kz.52

Little Bundle: http://www.parentwellbeing.com.au/file.php?f=Gl1CiH.ibm6kz.3

I really enjoy Christine Carter’s work too. Great stuff.

Good luck with everything!

Jeremy McCarthy 3 August 2010 - 11:01 am

Thanks Jeni, I like how you emphasize observing the interests of the child (which obviously varies a lot by child.) On my blog today I talked about how I swore I would never make those goo-goo ga-ga noises and talk “baby talk” to my son. Unfortunately, now that I see how much joy it brings him I find myself talking like that all the time. There should definitely be something on the list about discarding your preconceived notions of what your baby needs and wants and “tuning in” to find out what he/she is asking for.

Shelley Burdine-Prevost 3 August 2010 - 9:03 pm

Hi everyone,

I’ve been reading PPND for quite some time, but never had the gumption to reply. I so enjoyed reading this article. Thank you for your intention of highlighting a fragile developmental time (for parents and new babies) with such joie de vivre! In agreement, there are some beautifully written and scientifically-based parenting books out there (Raising Happiness is one of the best!), but few focus on the critical developmental stage in the childbearing year.

By way of adding to the list, I have found in my own research that resilience accounts for a substantial amount of well-being in the postpartum period. Interestingly, gratitude–not so much. So, how can we help new parents build their resilience before the birth of the baby? Much like premarital counseling helps couples to attend to their marriage (not just the wedding) perhaps prepartum coaching could help new parents attend to more than just the birth–and build resilience along the way.

Thanks again. I’ll be back often!

Jeremy McCarthy 4 August 2010 - 5:27 am

Thanks Shelley, good comments. In the days after the baby was born we were bombarded with information about post-partum depression (all over the maternity ward in the hospital). But we were both in a state of absolute bliss and elation so we kept joking that they should have some warning posters up about “post-partum joy” as well. But since then I’ve also come to experience the despair that occurs when your baby (the being you love more than anything else in the world) is crying in agony and nothing you do seems to soothe him. I can see how this feeling of helplessness could create downward spirals and how important resilience is for new parents to cope with the ups and downs.

Congratulations on your first comment and hopefully it won’t be your last. The best part of PPND are the discussions of each article!


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