Parenting and Arthritis
Being a parent when you have arthritis is almost exactly the same as being a parent in any other circumstances. There will be many highs and occasional lows, it’s just that you will have these at the same time as having arthritis.
One of the most important things to remember is that even if you sometimes need help with some of the practical parenting jobs that need doing, you are still a parent and can still be a great parent in spite of living with arthritis.
In general, thinking about things you will need to do in advance and planning ways round will help. Knowing your limitations and being able to ask for help can be a great skill to develop and learning how to park guilt can help your mental wellbeing. Most parents feel guilty a lot of the time about so many things, so focus on what you can do rather than on what you can’t.
Carrying, transportation and going places
Going out with a young child can seem a bit like a military operation at first as there is so much to think about and plan.
When picking up a small baby, try to use your forearms as well as your hands, which will take some of the strain off your wrists. Using one forearm under a baby’s legs can also help slide them into a car seat.
Baby slings can be helpful but make sure that you can manage this by yourself as some of the buckles can be difficult to manage with painful hands and they can be awkward to get on and off with painful shoulders. Slings can sometimes also get very heavy and drag round the neck and shoulders, so practice for short periods at home first.
Lightweight buggies can be much more practical than heavy duty ones and are much easier to get in and out of the car by yourself. Make sure that you try a buggy in the shop first as they are an expensive item, and you want to get it right. Make sure too that you can easily make it collapse with one hand or one foot by yourself, as this will make trips much easier. If a friend or relative is buying a buggy for you, don’t be afraid to tell them that you need to try it first or just do your own research and explain exactly what you need. It’s much better to have the equipment you need and potentially offend someone slightly than end up with something that you can’t use.
You are likely to need a bag for carrying assorted baby equipment when you go out and the sheer volume of things you need can get quite heavy. Think about a rucksack-style bag that is easy and comfortable to wear and think about carrying small packs of what you need rather than a whole bag of wipes for example, to reduce the weight.
Think about getting a blue disabled badge so that you can park closer to the shops or activities. This can really help with maintaining your energy levels on a busy day out.
Car seats can have very tricky catches as they are obviously designed to make escaping difficult for the child, so try these out in the shop before you buy and make sure that you can release the buckles on your own. There are gadgets called car seat unbuckle keys that can be bought online to help with unfastening tricky catches and using a broad tool such as a screwdriver handle to press the car seat release button can be easier than pressing with the fingers.
Breastfeeding or not?
Everyone knows that breast milk is the best food for a baby but breastfeeding when you have arthritis will have extra challenges, so don’t feel guilty if this is not something that you want to do or if you struggle and want to stop. You are just as important in this equation and doing your best may mean not breast feeding so that you can concentrate on other things. Your midwife or health visitor will be able to help you with positioning your baby if you want to try breastfeeding when you have arthritis. In general, finding a comfortable chair or bed and supporting the baby and yourself with pillows will help to take the strain off your joints. However, as everyone is shaped differently you will have to find a way that works for you.
Many drugs taken to help with arthritis are not suitable if you’re breastfeeding, so if you want to breastfeed your baby it’s best to plan ahead and think about medication so that you can switch to something else that will be safer. It’s not a good idea to let your arthritis flare indefinitely for the sake of breastfeeding as you may risk joint damage, which can be permanent. Don’t struggle in silence and speak to your rheumatology team about different medicines that are safe with breastfeeding.
Dressing, changing, playing and bath time
An important thing for you to think about when doing essential or repetitive jobs is to try to avoid over-using your joints and to position things close to you and at a good height to minimise strain on the joints.
Make sure your baby’s cot and changing mat, bathing and dressing areas are at a good height for you so that you don’t have to keep bending over too much.
Baby clothes with simple fastenings like Velcro, zips or elastic can be much easier than fiddly buttons or poppers. Shoes with Velcro are much easier than laces or buckles.
Bath time can be difficult if you use a regular bath and have a small baby as you will have to kneel down at the side of the bath. Getting into the bath at the same time can be a good option and is fun for the baby but be careful of the water temperature. You may get cold yourself if the water is shallow. A non-slip mat on the bottom of a bath can help you keep hold of a wriggly baby, while a separate baby bath with head support and insert to hold the baby’s legs and body in place can really help and means you can use one hand at a time. Think about putting the baby bath on a higher surface than usual and fill the bath up from this high position so that you don’t have to kneel down, or get a stool or beanbag for you to sit on at the side of the bath. For older children who are not yet independent in the bath, think about bathing them in a large basin or kitchen sink which can feel much more comfortable and puts less strain on the knees.
Playing with a small baby on a floor can be difficult, so think about playing on a bed or elevated surface such as a dining table padded out with blankets or mats if large enough. Obviously never leave your baby alone if they are high up as they can suddenly learn to roll very quickly and they can end up on the floor if you turn your back for just a couple of seconds.
Dealing with flares, sleeplessness and fatigue
It’s probably fair to say that at some time all new parents feel exhausted and overwhelmed. This is usually a combination of things, including lack of sleep, frustration and the complete life-changing event that having a baby always is. Dealing with a flare of arthritis at times like this can feel unmanageable so it can help if you think in advance about what you will do when you feel exhausted or are struggling to cope.
It’s not forever, so slow down
Firstly, remind yourself that this is normal, and it will pass. You will feel better, and no one is perfect all the time. Slow down and make sleep a priority as this will also help your mood and your pain. If you have a very young baby, try to sleep when the baby sleeps during the day to recharge your batteries. The housework can be done another time, and no one cares if you have an untidy house or a bit of dust. Banish guilt from your life and focus on what is essential for you and your baby. If you have older children and have had an exhausting day, slow down the next day to build up your energy and take extra time to look after yourself. It’s fine to have a sleep during the day if you need it!
Sharing the load
If you have a partner, take turns getting up at night to deal with the baby. Expressing breast milk can help with this and if you wake easily when the baby cries consider sleeping in another room occasionally, where you can’t hear and can sleep undisturbed for a few hours.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, especially with jobs that someone else can do like cleaning, washing, or ironing. You may need to let your standards drop a bit with housework, but it will improve! Enrol the help of family or friends to cook you a meal or do the shopping. You can pay them back a kindness when you feel better. Think about paying someone for a few hours to do some housework if it isn’t something you find easy to leave.
Ready meals or meals that you have frozen in advance can be a great help as you won’t feel like cooking from scratch. When you are feeling better, make meals in bulk and freeze them so that you have a stash for difficult times.
Save your energy
Most children are full of energy and will want you to play most of the time, which can be challenging. If you’re not feeling well this can be overwhelming, so be prepared. Think of some quiet activities that you can manage at difficult times and prepare a supply of things in an emergency box that are ready to go, such as quiet reading books, a puzzle, colouring or art box, Lego or building bricks that will keep your child amused and not require too much energy. Think about grabber tools to pick up stray objects, which can be fun for you both.
Time for yourself
Try to negotiate some time for yourself so that you can get away or out of the house, even if only for an hour or so. Doing something just for yourself like having coffee with a friend or watching a film can really help recharge your batteries.
At your wits end?
If you are feeling low or depressed, speak to your GP or health visitor. They know how you are feeling.
If your arthritis is flaring, don’t suffer in silence, ask for help and speak to your rheumatology team.
Speak to other new parents about how you are feeling. They will all have been through what you are feeling and knowing that it will pass can really help.
All parents go through times when they feel that they just can’t cope, especially if a baby won’t stop crying, you have tried everything you know to calm them down and you feel exhausted. If you are at your wits end with a crying baby on your own and you feel you can’t take anymore, put your baby down in their cot, make sure they are completely safe, close the door and go into another room to make yourself feel calmer. Go back after a few minutes when you feel better but don’t leave it more than 10 minutes. Never shake a crying baby. This phase will pass but if you feel like this often you must ask for help from your GP or health visitor.
Getting a local support network
Becoming a new parent for the first time can be very daunting and quite isolating at times. Other parents will know exactly what you are going through and can be a great source of advice and support, especially regarding what’s going on locally and to reassure you that you are doing OK.
Finding local parents’ groups, playgroups and toddler groups should be a priority as it can give you a mental and a physical break for a few hours each week as well as helping you get to know local parents who may be able to help in a crisis.
How can your children help?
Children always want to help, so there are a lot of simple ways they can be encouraged to make things easier for you.
Make sure that as soon as they’re old enough you teach children to climb up to your height, for example on a chair or step (obviously making sure they are safe to do this) rather than you having to bend down to pick them up. They can also be quickly taught to clamber into a car seat without you having to pick them up.
Encourage independence as soon as you can, in particular with dressing, toileting and helping with tidying their toys.
When your children get a bit older, tell them about your condition so that they understand if sometimes you are not well or don’t want to play as much.
Give your children simple chores that are appropriate for their age as soon as they can understand what needs to be done. Even small toddlers can pick up toys and clothes from the floor. Having a good system of toy storage like coloured baskets or boxes can really help them get organised.
When your children get older, you will be able to speak to them about what it’s like having arthritis so they can understand why you sometimes might be grumpy or sad. This can help their self-esteem too.
Remember to keep your medicines in a safe place, if necessary locked away so that curious hands can’t reach them. Young children are often very interested in medical issues like blood tests and needles so don’t be afraid to talk about these things with them – if you show that you are brave then it will be easier for them if they ever need to have any procedures done.
You can read more about treatments for arthritis in our Medications Guide.
You are not a bad person
Finally, remember that you are a parent first and foremost and will do your best for your children, even if it feels at times as though that’s not good enough for you.
Count your blessings and focus on the good things you do as a parent. You may not be able to run or trampoline, but you can sit quietly and read or do crafts with your children, something many parents don’t have the patience for. Your children will learn caring and empathy skills and will be better young adults as a result. Your children definitely won’t care if your house is untidy, and time spent quietly and engaging 100 percent with your child is so much more valuable to them than having a distracted super parent with a tidy house.