The first few hours, days and weeks with your baby can be equal parts terrific and terrifying. Prospective parents know newborns require around-the-clock care, but it’s still a shock to discover what exactly that entails. There’s the riddle of how to soothe the ceaseless crying of a tiny person who can’t even talk. Is she hungry? Does she need her diaper changed? Is she just toying with us? Getting to know each other can be overwhelming. It’s an intense time of change and growth for the baby—and the parents.
Thinking of it as an additional trimester can help. “This is the most important concept for new parents to grasp,” says Harvey Karp, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Southern California and creator of The Happiest Baby on the Block book and DVDs. “Once you understand that, everything that’s going on will make sense and seem more manageable.”
1. Recreate life on the inside:
Karp explains that compared with other mammals, human babies are actually born several months too early. “A horse, cow or camel can run on the day it’s born,” he says. A human baby, by comparison, can’t even lift his head for four weeks or so.
To facilitate all the growth that needs to happen before a baby can be a bit more independent, parents should try to recreate life on the inside as much as possible. In the uterus, your baby became accustomed to several key elements: constant touch, a confined space, loud rhythmic sounds (like Mom’s heartbeat and blood whizzing through nearby arteries) and near-constant jiggling. After delivery, your baby is craving that hypnotic cacophony of sensations and can be very fussy without it, says Karp.
So your job is essentially to become a womb outside the womb and give your baby everything she needs in the first 12 weeks. How do you do that? Karp recommends a series of soothing techniques, which, if done right, should yield a happier and calmer newborn who cries less and sleeps more. (Sounds good, right? See here for the lowdown on Karp’s Five Ss System.)
By the three-month mark, your baby is more physically and cognitively developed, and is usually falling into an eating and sleeping routine that you’re finally getting the hang of. That’s not to say it’s all smooth sailing from here, but most parents notice that things start to click after 12 weeks.
2. Take time to heal:
In the early weeks, one aspect of the “recreating the womb” concept is particularly important for Mom, too, says Lisa Weston, a registered midwife in Toronto. “Holding your baby or having her strapped to you in a sling or carrier the majority of the time forces women not to do too much and just let their bodies heal, which is so important,” she says.
What can you expect in terms of physical healing during the first days and weeks? A shrinking uterus will cause a bloody discharge known as lochia, shifting pelvic-floor muscles can result in incontinence when you sneeze or laugh, and night sweats are common as the body sheds excess pregnancy fluid. Major healing will also be going on if the birth caused tearing, you required an episiotomy or your baby was delivered by C-section.
But emotional changes are also happening in a big way. Postpartum hormone surges can cause mood swings, and the lack of sleep is an energy sap for parents. Then there’s the magnitude of the new life in your arms. “Initially, there’s a euphoria after the birth; reality sets in by day three or four,” says Weston. “I hear a lot of anxiety from parents about the awesome responsibility and concerns about their ability to provide all that the baby needs.”
3. Get some baby backup:
Here’s where extra help comes in. Postpartum support, whether it’s from Grandma or a hired doula, can free parents up for some necessary self-care. (At this point, that probably just means a shower. A walk can do wonders in the early weeks, too.) The top priority of helpers should be tackling some of the house cleaning, food prep and shopping—not taking over diaper changes or feedings, stresses Weston. “It’s important that baby care is left to the parents as much as possible,” she says. “This is a time for the baby and parents to get to know one another and figure one another out. If they all learn together, they’ll be much better equipped to handle the challenges that come along.”
All told, the first three months of parenthood is a very challenging time, no matter how much help you have or how prepared you think you are. “Caring for a newborn certainly isn’t complicated, but it’s not intuitive either,” says Karp. “The beauty of all this, though, is that once parents learn the skills, they can respond to their child’s needs feeling confident and competent.”
A version of this article appeared in our October 2015 issue with the headline, “Through the haze”, p. 96.