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Balancing the parenting brain and how to avoid “blocked care”

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Meeting our babies’ physical and emotional needs on a 24/7 basis is important for raising a secure and emotionally healthy child, but it has an impact on our body and mind. You don’t need me to tell you that when our babies cry, we feel it in our body like no one else. Or when our child has a tantrum in public, we are flooded with critical thoughts and stress hormones. Then, there are the enduring everyday stressors of feeding, changing and bathing a baby, all on very little sleep. Parenting can be a highly stressful occupation.

What happens to the brain during excessive stress

Most of the time our brains are equipped with a care system that drives us to be fully focused on our babies’ needs, which in turn helps us tolerate the stress involved in taking care of them. However, during times of unmanageable stress – which is experienced differently depending on our own attachment history – the areas of our brain that are essential for responsive parenting can become ‘blocked’.

‘Blocked Care’ is a neurobiological term coined by Dr Dan Hughes, attachment specialist, and Dr John Baylin, Clinical Psychologist in their innovative book ‘Brain Based Parenting: The Neuroscience of Caregiving for Healthy Attachment’. It describes the way that when we are highly stressed, our brains are busy looking out for a threat (the job of the amygdala) rather than rationalising our thoughts and regulating our emotions (the job of the prefrontal cortex).

When our prefrontal cortex goes offline in periods of peak stress, it is much harder to self-monitor, tune into our children, resolve conflicts and solve problems effectively. We are more likely to focus on the negative behaviours of our child, which in turn suppresses the positive feelings that help us sustain a deep connection with them. Additionally, we are more likely to be judgemental about both our child and ourselves.

When we experience blocked care, we are more at risk of parenting outside of the way we would ideally want to. That mum that lost it with her children in the park. The dad that pulled his child up off the floor a little too hard. The times I have said to myself “I am failing at this”. We have all been there from time to time but when this happens regularly, it could be a sign of stressed-out parenting and blocked care.

The solution to blocked care? Parents prioritising their self-care

To guard against blocked care, we need to calm the emotional parts of our brain (amygdala) and bring our rational regulated part of brain (prefrontal cortex) back online. Although the common danger here is swinging too far the other way and trying to get rid of our feelings completely.

We need both feeling and rational parts of ourselves in parenting. Staying emotionally open enough to feel what our child is feeling whilst remaining regulated enough for it to not overwhelm us has been shown to promote “attachment security” in children. As you know, keeping this balance is not easy and so it requires us to be in optimal emotional health. This is where self-care comes in.

In parenting, just at the time we need self-care most, we find ourselves with less time, energy and money for it than ever before. However, self-care does not have cost anything. We do not need to wait for the weekend, or childcare or when our children grow up to look after ourselves.

There are plenty of simple things we can do that fit into our busy lives, limited energy and are completely free, to bring more reflection, energy, resource, relaxation and compassion, so we can find that brain balance and be the parents we want to be.

Here are a few essential ways to balance the brain and avoid blocked parenting.

1. Playfulness

When I feel low or disconnected, I make a conscious effort when I’m with my daughter be more playful, to smile and laugh more. That in turn has led to her smiling and laughing more. Essentially, giving more back, which helped me feel better too. Playfulness can take effort when we have so much on our plate. It can be so easy to forget to stop and play in the moment and to make light of situations.

Playfulness has been found to not only benefit our children and their attachment, but it has also been shown to decrease pain and distress and increase joy and pleasure in parents. More importantly playfulness has been found to act as a buffer for parenting stress by engaging our reward system and stimulating the production of oxytocin and dopamine. It also increases the desire for both parent and child to want to spend time together.

2. Nap times

I am fully aware of the age-old advice to sleep when the baby sleeps and how frustrating it can be to hear when you’re baby will only sleep while you’re walking, driving or holding them. However, there are still things you can do to look after yourself and try to replenish during these times, like listening to something soothing, practicing mindfulness or offloading to a friend. Nap times are very special little snippets of the day with the opportunity to do something just for you.

3. Breathing

When I feel anxious, this is my go-to self-care activity. Taking deep breaths when stressed sounds like a cliché but it has got me through so much in my life, from nerve-wracking interviews to childbirth. Breathing through pain or stressful events doesn’t take away the fact that it hurts or it’s hard. But it does take away any unwanted extra anxiety which often adds a whole new layer of suffering.

For the added bonus of entertaining our children (and more playfulness) we can use wind spinners, bubbles or balloons to show them how to intentionally change their breath. For example, play a game to blow as many bubbles as you can or to make the wind spinner move for as long as possible while breathing out slowly!

For more inspiration, I post different self-care ideas to do with babies daily on my Instagram account.

We are absolutely everything to our babies and they literally cannot survive without us. No one else can do (all of) it for us. Taking care of us is taking care of our babies.

You can start right now. You have already started by reading this.

Take a deep breath….

Drop your shoulders….

It may not feel instantly life changing but, like a railroad switch on a train track, it will put you on a slightly different trajectory and you will end up miles away from where you were going.


About the author

Dr Katie Denman is a mother and Clinical Psychologist specialising in children. Her clinical and research interests include attachment, parenting, children with neuro-developmental conditions including Autism Spectrum Condition, and therapist self-care. Katie is also trained in the Foundation level of Family Therapy accredited by the Association of Family Therapy. Katie has worked in clinical psychology in the NHS since 2012. Since leaving her role in the NHS in 2020 to be a stay at home mum, she has been focusing on how she can apply her knowledge of therapist self-care to her new role as a mother and been sharing her reflections daily on her Instagram @mummyselfcare

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