I vaguely recall a time before I became a mother. It wasn’t all that long ago, but in the haze of naps, night feeds, and nappy changes I feel like I’m in some sort of twilight zone.

Before I became a parent, it was ok if I stayed up a bit too late, ate something a bit too rich, or worked a bit too long. After all, the only person who suffered was me. I wanted to “do it all” – take care of my family and friends, preparing healthy meals, maintaining a home. And doing it while holding down a full time job, where I routinely skipped breaks and worked through lunchtime. I willingly relinquished my basic needs (like rest and food) for someone or something else.

And then I had a child.

A couple of days after my son was born, when I was still in hospital, I remember watching him sleep in the early hours of the morning. An hour ticked by and then the nurse approached and told me to go to bed. I declined, because of course I was tough and I could handle sleep deprivation. She told me that I needed sleep otherwise my body wouldn’t produce enough milk, and I wouldn’t be able to feed my son. She then went on to ask me if I was eating enough (no) and drinking enough water (no).

I needed to take care of myself to meet my son’s needs. Sounds obvious, right? But over the following days and weeks I started thinking beyond his physical needs. I noticed that life was more challenging when I was under-nourished or dehydrated. Or when I worked instead of rested during his naps. Or when the days became too full with errands and visitors. Only when I was functioning as best as I could, was I best equipped to handle the day. I was a better mother. Even more than that – I a better partner. And a better friend. And a better person.

The realisation hit me like a slap in the face. All those years that I’d been putting my needs on the back burner – I was actually doing others a disservice. Because when we don’t take care of ourselves, it shows up in our mood, our emotional stability, our body language. We might lose our temper more quickly, or be more impatient or pessimistic. Maybe we find ourselves getting more headaches or more susceptible to colds.

Now, I’m not saying that we need to put our every need above everyone else all the time. We each have an instinct to care for and be there for others. I’m talking about when we consistently put our needs behind other things – even unimportant things – day after day after day. When we take that nurturing instinct too far.

We may think we’re being stoic, but consider this: we unconsciously give off signals when we’re tired or overworked or stressed. We may say the right thing, but the way we say it may be very different. Given that body language and tonality account for 93% of our communication, it’s worth thinking about those unconscious signals. And children, particularly young children, are exceptionally good at reading our tone of voice and body language.

Perhaps it’s time for all of us to become a little more selfish, and start prioritising our needs. If you value helping others, or you have friends and family, or if you want to inspire those around you – the very best thing you can do is to take care of yourself. Eat healthy food, drink plenty of water, get some exercise, get adequate rest, spend time outdoors, have time for recreation, and cultivate positive relationships with others. It’s not about being perfect, it’s about doing the very best you can in your situation. Because when you take care of yourself as best you can, you can give of yourself as best you can.