Jenny Kanevksy shares hard-won wisdom for moms and dads on how to enjoy the early months with your baby.
You or your wife, partner, or girlfriend is about to have a baby. Whether you are giving birth or you are the partner, you’ve probably heard, your life will never be the same. This is true. And this is good. And this will also be hard. You’re in for an adjustment.
Will he or she sleep easily alone or prefer to be held? Will you want to co-sleep? How will the mother be? Some mothers suffer postpartum depression or anxiety as early as hours after birth (or even during pregnancy, known as antenatal depression). These and other things are all factors in how you manage your household once baby comes. There is a lot to figure out.
There are also ways to make this transition easier on yourself, whether you are the mom or the husband/partner/boyfriend, and these tips will not only work short-term, they will help you bond with your baby and your partner. Stress levels will be high, anxiety over how to care for the baby, pressures from family, maternal hormonal fluctuations, ability and/or interest in breastfeeding, sex, even socializing, and the number one issue that will impact all others, sleep deprivation.
According to Parenting Science, most babies take 12 weeks to show day-night rhythms. This is when the sleep hormone melatonin comes in. Circadian changes in cortisol, a hormone that helps regulate waking, may take even longer to emerge. And, overall, babies may take three to five months before they sleep for more than five hours at a stretch meaning days and nights of uninterrupted non-sleep for you and your partner. If mom is nursing, every two hours is typical. If you decide not to nurse, or to supplement with bottles, that can ease the strain, but it also shares the nighttime responsibility and the fatigue. That’s a personal decision.
There is also no predicting your baby’s temperament. You may have grand plans of putting your newborn in a crib at night and sleeping for four to six hours at a clip. That is unlikely at first, although it can happen. Some babies will surpise you, they sleep for four to five hours and you have to wake them to feed. But, most babies do not. They need to eat every two to three hours. They have just come from a warm, cozy environment into a new world of sounds and light and temperature changes. They are going to react by crying, by fussing, pooping, and by doing what babies do. Swaddling, baby wearing, and co-sleeping can all help baby make the transition, but sometimes, babies just cry. All the time, like babies with colic.
My first son had colic, so not only did he nurse constantly, but he was also uncomfortable on his back. Like screaming-at-the-top-of-his-lungs uncomfortable. The only way he’d sleep the first few months was snuggled up against my body. I adjusted. I also had a very stiff neck. For months. The co-sleeper next to the bed stayed empty, and he slept with me. And because that meant poor sleep for me, I napped when he did, all day every day. I’d lay down with him to nurse, and we’d sleep. At 10 a.m., at noon, at 3 p.m., at bedtime, and all through the night. I’d never have survived the sleep deprivation otherwise. It was not in my plan, but it had to be done. So, I didn’t do chores, I didn’t do email or thank you notes or birth announcements. I didn’t “get things done” while the baby slept.
With my second, I suffered from severe postpartum anxiety, which I’ll discuss later. At two weeks postpartum, I was given a directive from my doctor to sleep six hours straight every night. A physical impossibility whilst nursing. I was so absolutely terrified of what was going on in my mind and body that I handed the baby to my then-husband and said, “I’m done nursing, can you go get some formula?” He cheered for me, and happily took on the bedtime ritual. Our second son slept in his crib at a much earlier age and for longer stretches, and I took care of my mental and physical health. We adjusted and I recovered.
Below are some things you can do to enjoy the early days. These are practical tips to help you set boundaries. It’s your baby, your rules. Family and friends will understand, and if they don’t, they’ll get over it. You need to do what’s best for your family.
Sleep when the baby sleeps. If you are the mom and can do this, great. If you are the father or partner, especially if you need to go to a job in the morning, arrange a system whereby you get enough sleep at night so that you can function at work but still relieve the baby’s mom when she needs rest. Do not do housework. Do not do house projects. Do not plan outings. Just because she made the baby doesn’t mean you should go off galavanting to bowling and drinks until 3 a.m. Be a team and bond. You both will need a break at some point, but be realistic. Both of you, at different times, meet a friend for coffee, one beer, an hour, maybe two, then come home. Hunker down—your family just made a person. You need each other. All of you.
Ask for help. Don’t be a hero and don’t be supermom. Hire or ask family or friends to do the laundry or make meals. If the husband or partner is OK helping with housework and other chores, great but if he or she is also exhausted from helping with the baby and working, ask for help from others, or if you can afford it, hire someone. As gifts, ask for gift certificates for a housekeeper. Be specific about what you need. Your family and friends are going to be happy for you and want to see and hold the baby. That’s great, but this is not about them. What you need right now is help. They should be happy to do so, and if they are parents, they will understand. Tell them what you need and be clear. “We are so excited for you to meet and hold our new baby. Right now, we are exhausted and could really use a casserole and someone to do a load of laundry.” Your real friends will be over in a flash. It’s not like you’ll hide the baby from them, a 10-minute chat might be fine. A three-hour hang out is going to wear you out beyond anything you could ever imagine. I’ve done it, and it was a huge mistake.
Just say “no” to visitors. This is akin to asking for help. Our culture is so obessesed with seeing the baby and bringing the baby a gift, and how the baby makes the visitor feel, that the fact that parents may not be up for it often gets forgotten. Part of asking for help is recognizing that you are under no obligation to see anyone. Family and friends can bring food and maybe come in briefly, if they are really close and you feel OK about it, but you owe no one anything.
Send pictures and say, “We are sleeping and exhausted. Baby will be ready to meet you next week.” Grandparents will want to see their grandchildren, but set limits on the amount of time and/or frequency of visits if they are local. If they are want to fly out, set expectations in advance. I had my mom come the second week so that the first week it was just us. Then, she’d come and coo and help and cook and launder and coo some more and hold the baby. At that point, I had a better handle on things. Plus, she’s my mom, it was easy to say, “I’m going to nap,” and disappear with the baby for three hours. I’d come downstairs and the laundry would be done and a chicken would be in the oven. That’s how you do it.
Mom self-care—don’t neglect it. Take your stool softeners, drink your water, and take care of your body with good food and sleep. You have just been through, and are still in, a huge physiological and emotional transition. Hormones are raging. If you had a C-section, you had major surgery, even if not, you may have had a difficult pregnancy or delivery. Even if you gave birth in 10 minutes, your body made a human being. Now it’s adjusting. You need to get it back in working order. That won’t happen in a week, or two, or even three. First, you need to go to the bathroom. This is not always easy at first. Stay hydrated, especially if you are nursing, get enough to eat, and you must sleep.
Also, and I cannot emphasize this enough, moms and partners watch your mood. Partners, husbands, pay attention. It’s normal for new moms to be emotional and anxious, especially if it’s your first child. But, if you, as the mom feel overwhelmed by sadness, anxiety, or intrusive thoughts, ask for help. If you notice your baby’s mother is especially emotional, crying, distraught, angry, rageful, unable to sleep, compulsive, or otherwise having emotional difficulty, please call the doctor. Don’t shrug it off as the baby blues. Also know that, postpartum depression and anxiety can happen to any parent (biological or otherwise, fathers suffer, adoptive parents suffer, it’s not limited to biology). It can look like sadness, anxiety, rage, intrusive thoughts, OCD, insomnia, and many things other things. Take it seriously and don’t let it fester. I suffered from postpartum anxiety after my second son. It hit me like a freight train at the second week and I knew it was not just fatigue. I couldn’t stop crying, I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep, and I felt sick to my stomach, so terrified of everything, it was as if we were both about to perish. I called my doctor and was seen immediately. And I survived. We survived. This is your mental health. This is your family. Call the doctor.
All of that said, this is an exciting and special time in your life; your new family. You will be exhausted, but if you take care of yourself, your partner, and your needs, you can enjoy these special moments and create lasting memories and bond with your baby. There’s no rush, you have years to share your baby with family and friends. You only get one chance to recover from childbirth, to settle in at home, and to find your new normal. Make it work for you.
If you or your partner is feeling anxious, depressed or having intrusive thoughts, please call your doctor. There are also online resources to help. Here are a few links that may help.