You read all the books—or, at least, you bought them and opened a few—you went down the rabbit hole of birth videos (just one more!) and you took a prenatal class or two. So you were prepared for the good, the bad and maybe even the ugly…but has the weird of your brand new baby caught you a little off guard?
Vancouver midwife Alix Bacon has heard it all, and she tries hard to prepare first-time parents for the inevitable strange things that will come up in the first hours, days and weeks after birth. In between the rush of pure love and joy and fatigue and delirium come the questions from panicked and bewildered new parents about their new babies.
This is a big one: “Bowel movements! We get a lot of questions about their poops,” says Bacon. Whatever parents may have been expecting, it wasn’t the tarry black ooze, or meconium, in baby’s first few dirty diapers. After that, it doesn’t get much better, with breastfed babies’ early poo being yellow, green or brown and “very wet,” like mustard, as Bacon says. It’s more liquid than solid and sometimes even has speckles or “seeds.” It’s not diarrhea (that is pretty much all liquid). It’s just baby’s hypereffective digestive tract. Bacon says the biggest thing to worry about is absence of colour: Chalky or white stools can be a sign of a liver problem and should be investigated by a doctor if they make up two or more bowel movements in a row.
Baby takes on maternal hormones in the womb, which make for some bodily peculiarity in the early days. Both boys and girls may have enlarged breasts or lumps under their nipples. This is quite common—a benign side effect of the same hormone that causes mom to produce milk. The breast tissue will shrink over the following few weeks.
Maternal hormones may also make boys look particularly well-endowed at birth, but the swelling will fade in 24 to 48 hours, Bacon says. In girls, the surge of maternal estrogen in utero can stimulate the baby’s uterus, and she may have a mini period in the first week of life—which shows up as a bit of blood in her diaper. Boys and girls may also have a rusty reddish diaper in the first three days, due to uric acid crystals. “It looks like brick dust in their diaper,” says Bacon. It’s not blood, although that’s usually parents’ first fear. Uric acid crystals are a combination of concentrated calcium and urate, two common substances in urine, and may be a normal sign of mild dehydration, especially in the first three days if mom and baby are still figuring out breastfeeding. (If it occurs past three days, get it checked.)
There’s one final below-the-belt question Bacon gets a lot: Parents of baby boys are surprised their newborn gets erections—but these start in the womb from about 20 weeks on, and they’re not uncommon.
You’ve heard the expression “sleeping like a baby”? If newborns are any indication, that means noisily—and with odd breathing patterns that often scare new parents, says Bacon. “Newborns make all sorts of strange squeaks in their sleep. As long as they are not grunting with every breath, it’s totally fine,” she reassures. Awake or asleep, an infant may exhibit irregular breathing for months until their nervous system fully develops, which can mean rapid, shallow breathing, followed by deep breaths and even a pause for up to 10 seconds—all tricks designed to alarm new parents. When should you really worry? If baby’s nostrils flare or they grunt with every single breath or their ribs become pronounced with inhalation, baby may be working too hard for oxygen, Bacon says.
Babies are born helpless but have impressive newborn reflexes. The most noticeable, says Bacon, is probably the startle, or Moro, reflex, a response to a loss of support that causes a baby to fling out their arms and draw them back in. “It might be a response to a sudden sound or touch—but babies can also spook themselves,” she says. They have a strong grasp reflex, which is why they will squeeze your finger so adorably, while the plantar reflex will cause them to spread their toes when the sole of their foot is stroked. The newborn reflexes fade gradually and are typically gone by the end of the third month.
Peeling fingers and toes, cradle cap, rashes and acne are all common newborn afflictions that tend to hit, as Bacon likes to joke, just when you’ve booked the newborn photo shoot. All typically resolve on their own, though you can gently use a soft-bristled brush to try to speed the sloughing of the skin on baby’s scalp. Moisturizing is another option, says Bacon, who recommends using a natural edible oil, like olive or coconut, to soothe dry skin. “We probably moisturize them for our own peace of mind more than anything else. And why not? There’s no harm to it, and it results in a baby massage—nice for both moms and babies.”
And for more weird newborn questions: Is it normal to check a newborn’s breathing? Why is my newborn so hairy? Will my newborn baby's head shape change? How to care for your baby’s umbilical cord stump