One of my favourite things to do in life is offer unsolicited advice. I have a few friends expecting their first baby this spring/summer, and I am forever sharing my pearls of wisdom with them, so I thought I'd summarise it all in one place for easy access. That way, I will be able to simply link them to an article I've written outlining precisely how to do things my way and why any deviation from that would be most misguided.
I will caveat this by saying that obviously I am completely unqualified in any shape or form to tell anyone how to raise their children and all I am doing is sharing my own thoughts and feelings regarding my own specific experiences in the hope that they might help someone else in their hour of need.That being said, here goes the Holy Grail to all parenting needs:
1. Be Fearless
This one is mainly for mothers. Mostly because I don't personally think it's possible for fathers to be fearless without bordering on wreckless. Whereas I do
think mothers have a strong, reliable instinct regarding what's right is for their child, and that any self-doubt they feel is best not given too much attention.
The vast majority of mothers I've spoken to ignored guidelines regarding parenting in some shape or form. I know mums who co-slept from the beginning, mums who bottle fed when told to persevere with breatsfeeding, mums who didn't bottle feed when told they had to or their baby would lose weight, mums who didn't weigh their kids every month, mums who didn't start weaning with home-made vegetables, the list goes on.
Soon enough, you realise that for every guideline there's someone else contesting the validity of it. I had different NHS workers telling me to give my baby Vitamin D or not to give him Vitamin D. You will, for the most part, have to independently research and make up your own mind on stuff, because with something as delicate as children you just can't have a one-size-fits-all approach.
It is really hard to be fearless when you are responsible for your baby's wellbeing, and it is not something that you can just achieve once and for all. It's a constant challenge to recognise your anxiety and not let it diminish your trust in your maternal voice. Especially if you're struggling to find someone who supports your decision, or if it's a spur of the moment decision you haven't got time to research and meditate.
Sometimes even the dad will question you, and that can be really tough, but just remember he hasn't grown the baby and gone through labour - in the early days, he really doesn't have any idea (sorry, dads). And you don't either, but you have an advantage over absolutely everyone else by being that baby's mother.
The more fearless I became, the more everything fell 'magically' into place. The more content my son was, the more we rested, the less we struggled. Perhaps I was lucky, and it was all a big coincidence - but that's not how I experienced it. So when you feel a panic, remember, be fearless.
2. The First Six Weeks Are Absolute Hell And Anyone Who Tells You Otherwise Is Lying
This is controversial. Most people don't like to say this to expectant parents. But, unlike labour horror stories which, I agree, are an irresponsible thing to share with pregnant women, I actually wished I had
been told the facts regarding the First Six Weeks.
This is what I imagined having a new born would be like:
Sleeping maybe four hours at night, waking up with a crying baby that needs feeding, feeding them for about ten minutes, cuddling them, changing their nappy, and then just resting with the baby until the next feed in maybe another four hours, watching tv and cooing at the baby and napping with him.
This is what having a new born was like:
Fucking mental. Basically they have no idea what to do, they can barely breathe - I mean they are breathing and it's all fine, but the first few days of Francis being born I kept asking midwives why his breathing was so muffled and loud and they always looked at me like I was an idiot, before patiently explaining that a baby needs time to get used to life outside the womb.
This 'getting used to' takes, I would say, about six weeks, minimum
. For the first six weeks the baby is like a thing that accidentally fell out of the womb when it really wasn't meant to, so you just have to deal with this organism that is fundamentally in an incorrect habitat and won't shut up about it.
To be concrete, this is why the six weeks are hell: they feed every two to three hours.
And they can take up to one hour to feed.
Let me do the maths for your: if your baby feeds every two hours and takes an hour to feed, you have to feed for one hour, then burp him (this can take twenty to thirty minutes), then change him (they wee or poo at every feed) and then you put them to sleep. By this point maybe 90 minutes have passed since the beginning of the feed. That means that in 30 to 60 minutes' time you have to start feeding them again, just when you're entering the sweet deep sleep of exhaustion.
It isn't every two-three hours during the day and then every four-to-five hours during the night.- that's a rhythm you have to train your baby to learn.
In the beginning, they feed every two-three hours during the entire
24 hour period, and at the end of that 24 hour period you don't get a break - another cycle of 24 hours has already begun. The word relentless has never felt more appropriate than in those first days of motherhood.
This means that for six weeks you are sleeping in 20-40 minute chunks every 1-2 hours, and waking up to do the most horrendously stressful and tedious thing you can imagine, on loop. What's more, you don't really know how
to feed your baby, nor whether your baby is
feeding even if it kind of looks like they might be but you're not sure what it looks like or how it would feel. So you're not really sure whether you're giving your baby the one thing it needs, and you have to deal with this while being completely sleep deprived. So it is hell.
I think the reason nobody talks about this is because six weeks, in the grand scheme of things, is really not long, so why focus on the difficult few first weeks where you're trying to establish milk supply/demand and regularity/keeping your baby alive, when it does all eventually work itself out?
But six weeks is a long time not to get any sleep in and it will drive you crazy, especially since you are recovering from pushing a human out of your body and your hormones are rebalancing etc. So we should talk about it, because while six weeks is a short time in a person's life, it's a long time when you're living it, and no one should feel abandoned for six weeks just because 'it will all sort itself out'.
3. Dad won't be enough
You will rely a lot on your partner. But in my experience even though men are primarily not feeding the baby (even if you're bottle feeding chances are you'll be wanting to take the majority of feeds yourself/the baby will settle quicker around your smell/temperature etc than with the dad), the guys are exhausted too. Not just physically, because they're still not sleeping properly etc even if maybe they are getting 3/4 hours stretches whereas you simply are not. Mentally, it can be ovewhelming too.
My advice is get your mum/aunt/dad/sisters/brothers whoever to come. Ask them to stay the night if necessary. Hire someone if you have the money and can't get help from family. Do whatever it takes to relieve the pressure from both yourself and your partner. And ask for help early and assertively if you feel yourself losing your sanity. I asked for help way later than I should have and suffered the consequences - don't be afraid to be demanding, and don't pay attention to anyone who doesn't make you feel entitled to more support.
4. Some practical stuff that they should summarise quickly instead of expecting people to read entire books (wtf)
5. One for the dads
- Burping is a learned skill which is quite hard. You have to be quite firm with a newborn baby which is hard because they're all soft and fragile and their neck needs supporting so you will (probably) feel quite scared to be firm and the midwives and nurses will look like they're being too rough. Make sure someone teaches you how to burp your baby before you're left to go home alone with them.
- Burping/gas is often what's making them cry. If they haven't burped enough they may cry for hours. And often it will take thirty minutes for the burp to come and you are exhausted so you may well give up after ten minutes and then go to sleep only to wake up seven minutes later by a crying baby who isn't hungry but sounds very cross.
- Sometimes they don't burp and they are fine. Enjoy that lottery! Mostly, they do need to burp though.
- If your baby is crying your baby is either hungry or needs to burp. In the first six weeks THEY DO NOT GET OVERTIRED BECAUSE THEY FALL ASLEEP INSTANTLY and in the first six weeks THEY DO NOT GET BORED BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT SOCIALLY DEVELOPED BEINGS. If they're crying 99% of the time they are either hungry, or need to burp. They also 'comfort suck', which means they want to be at the breast but not necessarily feeding - but either way you should just try putting them at the breast or burping them - it's one of those two if they're not calm/asleep.
- If they cry loads and loads and loads they're not ill, they're just a newborn. I called the midwife loads asking what was wrong and she always said if he's not unresponsive (quiet or floppy) then it's all good. I advise you to still always call the midwife/doctor/rush to a&e if you're worried, but just something I learnt which made me feel better was that for the most part a crying baby is a healthy baby.
- Witching Hour: this happens in the evenings - they want to feed little and often, and they are generally fussy. For ages I wondered what I was doing wrong, then I read 'Witching Hour' and Googled it and found out it's just another fun part of the first few weeks of parenting.
Make sure she eats first. She can't eat if she's holding the baby. Mostly, unless the baby is asleep, she's holding the baby. Don't serve food and then eat it while she tries to settle the baby. Make sure she always eats first, before you do, before the baby is seen to. Make sure she always has water next to her. Make sure you bring her whatever she needs. Know that you're doing everything you need and can do by being there, every day and every hour, even if you don't feel like you're doing anything helpful. Soon you'll be able to take the baby out and play with them and make meals for them and dress them and joke with them. But now is not the time yet, and that doesn't make you any less important. Your task for the first six weeks
is simply to make sure she always eats first. Don't mess it up.