Three days after I brought my new baby home from the hospital, I went out for my first postpartum walk. It was a five-minute shuffle to the milk store on a blustery winter’s day. Two unforgettable thoughts cycled through my mind: So this is what it feels like to have absolutely no stomach muscles; and I will never again be able to pop out of the house without planning for my baby! I was delighted with my newborn son, but suddenly felt a sense of panic and deep despair — feelings not uncommon to many brand new parents.
The first few weeks at home with your new baby can be a challenging time. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you are exhausted and caring for your baby 24/7. Here are 10 tips to make your transition to parenthood a little easier:
1. Stock your fridge
A fridge and freezer brimming with healthy food can be a blessing in those early days with a newborn. Nancy Klebaum, an RN and clinical coordinator of Saskatoon’s maternal visiting program, suggests that in the month before the birth, try to double up on everything you cook and put the extra portions in the freezer. If you don’t have the time or energy to cook, stock the fridge with healthy frozen foods. And look for snacks that can be eaten easily with one hand — so you can eat and nurse at the same time! Fruit, precut veggies, tube yogurt and muffins are good bets.
2. Research resources
Racheel Baartman, a childbirth educator and birthing coach at BC Women’s Hospital, suggests you track down local breastfeeding clinics, emergency rooms, 24-hour pharmacies and local new mother support programs before the baby arrives. “Should a crisis arise, instead of fumbling through the telephone book you have a ready-made list of numbers.”
3. Build a support team
Organizing support is probably the most important thing you can do, observes Klebaum. “I think a lot of new mothers think, ‘I am an independent, working woman. I’ve managed my own life. I probably won’t need much help.’ You think, ‘Well how hard can this really be?’ and, in fact, this is going to be a very demanding few weeks.” So throw away that independent streak: Some extra help will really come in handy. And whether you hire a postpartum doula or enlist a family member, adds Baartman, choose people who will relieve your stress — not add to it. “Discuss, as a couple, who you would like to have around so everyone is comfortable with the decision.”
4. Don’t take on too much
Baartman uses a pie chart to show parents how their lives will change with baby’s arrival. In a 24-hour clock, she fills in all the time it will take to feed, change, comfort and bath the baby, and then gets expectant parents to fill in other activities…and inevitably they are surprised to see how little time is left. “The penny drops,” she says. “They suddenly see that they won’t be able to dash out to get groceries, or clean the house or entertain visitors. It helps parents understand more profoundly the idea that this should be a quiet period for their family.”
Pam MacInnis, who practises with Kensington Midwives in Toronto, believes that it is a good idea to keep visitors to a bare minimum for the first week — that is, “until after a mother’s milk comes in and breastfeeding is well underway.” Klebaum has seen many instances where a mother waits politely until company leaves before she nurses. “By then the baby is so fussy and the mother’s breasts so engorged that the baby can’t get a good latch and the mother is in pain.”
It is also a good idea to accept that the house will be messier. MacInnis and her colleagues worry when they go into a postpartum home and find it spotless. “We encourage parents to nest and bond with their baby and not worry about things like dirty dishes and vacuuming.”
5. Ask for help if you’re having difficulty breastfeeding
In the first two weeks with a newborn, the rhythm and routine of nursing gets established — but for some new moms, it can be a big challenge. If you’re having trouble breastfeeding, says Klebaum, don’t wait to ask for help. “It’s much easier to solve a nursing problem in the early days than if it goes on over a longer period.” See a lactation consultant or breastfeeding clinic, or call the La Leche League breastfeeding referral service: 1-800-665-4324.
6 Get as much sleep as possible
“I think the biggest hurdle for new parents is sleep deprivation,” says MacInnis. “Babies can be wakeful at night; often they have a feeding frenzy between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. and this is the time when you are most used to sleeping.” It’s important for parents to mentally, physically and emotionally prepare for this change. “Try to make these night feedings a special time for you and your baby, a quiet moment when you can really focus on one another.” Sometimes MacInnis advises new mothers to pretend they are working the night shift. “It seems to help new moms recognize the importance of sleeping in the day when the baby is sleeping.” Many parents also find it helps to keep the baby close by at night. If you can respond to your baby quickly before he gets really upset, then everyone can get back to sleep faster.
7. Make mom’s recovery a priority
“Mothers have been through the physically and emotionally exhausting experience of childbirth and then are thrown into a situation where they have new demands and little sleep. They need time to recover,” says Klebaum. So it’s important to eat well, drink plenty of fluids and find time for sitz baths and rest. Baartman adds that a 10-minute walk each day, once you feel strong enough, is an excellent way to find some new energy.
8 Hold that baby close
What a newborn baby craves is an “outside womb,” says Klebaum, an approximation of the safe cozy world he had inside his mom. “Babies love to be close to a warm body and to hear the sound of a beating heart.”
Remember the five senses when interacting with your new baby, says MacInnis: “Babies respond to your touch. It’s great if you can establish skin-to-skin contact as soon as possible after birth and continuing with this will help your baby thrive. He will also recognize the sound of your voice since he heard it constantly in utero,” so talk to him. Many people believe newborn babies cannot really see, but the truth is that a baby’s vision is very good over the distance between his mother’s breast and her face, says MacInnis. A baby even knows his mother through the taste of her breastmilk and her scent.
9. Let bonding happen in its own way
There is no one right way to bond with your baby. “Mothers, in particular, sometimes feel pressure to establish a deep and immediate connection with their newborn, but this doesn’t always happen,” observes Klebaum. Some parents fall in love the moment the baby is placed in their arms; for others it is the day-to-day caring for their baby that builds a strong relationship. “Either way is just fine,” says Klebaum.
Baartman encourages new parents to respond to their babies’ cries as quickly as possible, “to pick them up and try to soothe them immediately. You’ll be surprised at how soon you learn your baby’s non-verbal cues and are able to determine her needs — whether it is to be fed, cuddled or stimulated. This will help to build a strong relationship.”
10. Get in there, Dad!
Partners can sometimes feel left out once a new baby arrives, especially since breastfeeding is the exclusive domain of mother and baby. But Klebaum says there are many, many important ways that fathers (or other partners) can establish their own relationship with their new baby. She advises fathers to get involved early: “Babies are creatures of habit and if Dad doesn’t soothe them from early on, pretty soon only Mom’s touch will do.”
Klebaum encourages moms to learn to let go a little. Your partner may have a different way of doing things, and you’ll be tempted to interfere, but “just try to close your eyes,” says Klebaum. Rest assured, he’ll do just fine!
About 80% of new moms experience a bout of weepiness and sadness during the first postpartum week—often called “the baby blues”—that passes quickly. Between 10 and 20 percent develop the more serious condition of postpartum depression. If feelings of unhappiness, exhaustion, irritability or anxiety linger, new mothers should seek help. Your caregiver or public health unit is a good place to start.