Some of the best parenting advice around comes from the instructions given by flight attendants just before take off: “If traveling with young children, please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting your child.” Why? Because no one can be helpful if they pass out from lack of oxygen. The same is true of parenting. If you run out of steam, you will run out of everything you need to parent well—energy, patience, creativity, perseverance, will-power—it’s a long list. Enter healthy self-care.

Self-care is critical, but what to do about the pangs of guilt that can come with taking time away from parenting duties? And how to find the time in an already crowded schedule of raising kids?

Let’s address guilt first: self-care is the opposite of selfishness. Without it, parents grow weary as the energy required to care for little ones is depleted. Taking time to refresh and reconnect to who you are in addition to “Mommy” or “Daddy” renews the strength and enthusiasm necessary for parenting well. Healthy self-care increases patience and decreases stress. This is especially true for parents of a child with special needs, single parents, or in families where a parent works especially long hours or is deployed.

The best way to make self-care part of parenting life is to incorporate it into a regular routine. Then you’ll be more likely to keep it up, thinking of it as a necessary part of your day, not just a once-in-awhile treat (although once-in-awhile treats are nice, too).

Wake up before the family. Set the alarm for one hour before the kids wake up. Use the time to do whatever inspires and motivates you—read, workout, write in a journal or take a relaxing bath. Starting the day with a little breathing room will help you feel more relaxed and energized for the day ahead.

Enlist a helper during peak hours. Trying to wrestle kiddos through homework, dinner, baths, and bedtime can feel like a lot. Particularly for single parents and parent of children with special needs. A helper can be paid or unpaid, a friend or relative, even a
neighborhood teenager. The extra hands can lighten the load and extend your energy.

Plan meals. Planning ahead takes extra work at first, but once you’ve got a plan, it can save your sanity—especially at dinnertime. Start by prepping just a few meals in advance each week. Team up with family and friends for ideas. Remember to include healthy snacks not only for kids, but also for you to keep energy up and moods stable (leftover sandwich crusts don’t count).

Keep a calendar. A family calendar is a sanity-saving tool that will feel like extra work at first, but can help prevent overbooking your life.

Get help with housekeeping. Parenting and housekeeping are both time-consuming jobs. If you’re feeling the pressure of trying to keep up, consider hiring someone to help. Professional housekeeping services are available weekly, monthly or as needed. Shop around for the service that fits your family’s needs and budget. Or get creative and offer to swap housekeeping time with family or friends—once a month one of you takes the kids while the other one cleans in peace.

Some parents struggle with using time for self-care because they believe children should be engaged in meaningful, structured activities at all times. Free play is a vital part of child development. It’s where kids practice creativity, exercise independence and grow social skills. Give yourself permission to let go of feeling like every moment must be structured; give your kids the gift of learning to play independently and navigate down time.

Once you’ve freed up time for yourself, do things that refresh and restore your energy. Read a book on a topic that makes you smile. Take an exercise class or join an adult sports league—kids aren’t the only ones who can have fun on a playing field. Schedule a weekend away or a night out with friends.

Whatever you choose to do, remember that healthy self-care fuels better parenting. It helps us be the kind of parents we spend so much energy trying to become—well rested with more patience and stamina, less stress and more energy. Healthy self-care for parents means happy and healthy families.