New parent survival guide

The best advice from moms and dads who've been in the new-baby trenches -- and survived to tell the tale

Admit it: You’re so focused on the impending birth that you’ve barely thought about what those first weeks as a new family will be like. And if you have, your mental picture may feature an angelic infant slumbering peacefully in your arms. While you will experience such idyllic moments, be warned: This isn’t how you’ll actually be spending your time.

Caring for a newborn is so time-consuming that babies should have a pit crew instead of two parents. There’s little in the way of downtime as you deal with round-the-clock feedings, poop explosions and crying spells, visitors and appointments, not to mention your own physical healing. Winnipeg mom of three Susie Parker sums it up this way: “For the first week or so, just getting out of your PJs is a major accomplishment, and squeezing in a shower is a feat that should be awarded a prize. Really!”

Fear not: A little preparation in the upcoming weeks can make a huge difference in your stress and energy levels after baby’s arrival. To help give your new family the best start, we asked the real experts — parents who’ve been there — to share their top tips for making the early weeks go as smoothly and joyfully as possible. Here’s what they told us:

Before the birth

Make meal plans

Lack of time, brain fog and babies who need attention just as you’re starting dinner make meals hard to manage. Carrie Hunter, a Toronto mother of one, says the best advice she received during her pregnancy was to fill her freezer with homemade food. In addition to doubling batches and freezing the extra when cooking, Hunter asked baby shower guests to bring food for the freezer in lieu of gifts. “That was probably the single best thing I did,” she says. Gift certificates for your favourite takeout restaurants or stores that make freezable meals are great alternatives.

Don’t own a freezer? “Collect some easy recipes, and stock the groceries you need for a few simple, healthy meals,” suggests Rebecca Neaves of London, Ont. For instance, frozen chicken strips or tinned refried beans, tortillas and jarred salsa can quickly be turned into burritos or fajitas.
Do some homework

All baby care tasks, including breastfeeding, are learned tasks that get easier with practice. Reading books and watching videos will help you feel better prepared for what’s to come, suggests Ottawa mom of three Viola Hoo. Ask other parents which resources they’ve found helpful.

Hands-on practice (with friends’ babies, prenatal classes, or in-hospital instruction after birth) can also be a lifesaver. Hoo’s husband, Sony Singh, for one, might have enjoyed his eldest daughter’s first bath much more if he’d taken advantage of the hospital’s how-to class. As it was “the baby was crying and wiggling, and I’m thinking I’m going to drown my child!” he says.

Find out what new-parent resources are available in your community by checking with your caregiver, hospital, community centre and other parents. If, for example, you run into breastfeeding difficulties, you’ll save time and worry if you already have contact information for lactation consultants and breastfeeding clinics at your fingertips.

Line up support

Think about who might be able to lend a hand with housework, cooking and other tasks so you can devote your energy to recovering from the birth and caring for yourselves and the baby. However, if someone has been kind enough to offer, it’s important to consider two things. First, is this person likely to be a real help to you or a source of extra conflict or work (for example, will she walk past a sink full of dirty dishes or sulk if you don’t follow her advice)? Second, give some thought to the timing of the visit. Montreal mom of two Anna Cristofaro wishes she’d asked her mother to come later, when her husband headed back to work, rather than right after the birth.

Don’t have a grandparent able to come and save the day? Other possibilities include neighbours who could watch the baby while you shower, teens open to making extra cash doing errands or yardwork, a diaper service or a postpartum doula. “I got a housekeeper for a baby shower gift,” says Erin Thomson, of Orangeville, Ont. “That was the best present ever!”

Connect with your partner

Make time for a few heart-to-heart chats before your baby arrives. An important subject to cover: how you’re going to divvy up baby care and other chores. Thomson says that when her first child was born, she just assumed that her husband would know what needed to be done around the house and he would pick up the slack — but he had no idea what she expected. “If you don’t talk about it, the resentment just builds,” she says.

Make time for fun too! Now’s the time, suggests mom of two Jennifer Powell of Toronto, to “take a night or weekend and absolutely pamper yourselves, embrace the fact you can sleep in, and fully appreciate that moment — because you probably won’t have another one for a while.”
After baby arrives

Lower your standards

Savvy parents suggest cutting yourself some slack in everything from housework to meal prep to parenting. Learn to live with more mess than usual, use paper plates for a week or two, and don’t feel guilty for accepting help or not spending every waking moment providing stimulation for your baby. “I had this feeling that you have to do it all on your own, and if people offer help, you say, ‘No, I’m OK,’” recalls Cristofaro. “Looking back, how silly was that?” She adds: “I also felt like I needed to entertain this child constantly, so I talked to him all the time, which ended up tiring me out.”

Supermom doesn’t exist — so ditch that cape, call for takeout, and let the baby doze on Daddy’s chest while he watches the game. Another reason to give yourself a break: Too much physical exertion can prolong after-birth bleeding and slow your recovery.

Limit visiting

Caroline Plawiuk, a lactation consultant in Bolton, Ont., suggests setting limits on visits, even by close family, particularly in the first week or so. For many new moms, modesty can interfere with nursing and the skin-to-skin contact that helps get breastfeeding off to a solid start, she says. Playing host or even making conversation can be exhausting, so don’t be afraid to tell someone it’s not a good time. “We made it clear we wanted people out by eight at the latest because that was often when our baby started getting cranky,” says Neaves.

And if someone is coming over and asks if you need anything, speak up. No one minds picking up a few essentials or bringing you a fresh salad for lunch. When they get there, put them to work while you nap, shower or enjoy your lunch.

Take a daily walk

Nearly all of the mothers we interviewed emphasized the importance of getting out of the house for a daily walk, if possible. The change of scene gives you a psychological boost, and exercise and sunlight are both proven depression fighters. “Going out every day, even if it was just to look at the makeup counter at the drugstore, saved my sanity,” says Parker. There’s also evidence that regular exposure to outdoor light may help regulate babies’ sleep patterns and make them slumber for longer stretches at night. It’s worth a try!
Let dad find his own way

Fathers can nurture and bond with newborns, but they may need a little encouragement to dive in. “I think a lot of men have the mentality that really little babies need mom, and hold back until the babies are more interactive,” says Becky Holden Hueniken of London, Ont. “But now my husband wishes he’d spent more time with Owen in the beginning.”

If you are constantly correcting or criticizing your partner, however, you might find yourself carrying the whole load solo. Like you, he’ll learn from experience and if he’s confident caring for the baby, you’ll all benefit. On the other hand, being overly focused on splitting the workload right down the middle can be counterproductive. “My husband, Chris, and I found if you keep score, it turns into a battle of wills,” notes Powell. “It doesn’t matter who got up last night — you have to respect when someone is really tired and be there to support each other. Chanting ‘don’t keep score’ helped us keep a good energy.”

Sneak in more sleep

Fatigue and new parenthood go hand in hand, so make sleep a top priority and figure out how to get as much of it as you can. Some parent-tested strategies include napping when the baby sleeps, swapping shifts with your partner (for instance, taking turns going to bed early or sleeping in), and learning to nurse lying down so you can rest at the same time. “Do what you need to do to get by,” counsels Holden Hueniken. “Owen wouldn’t sleep in the bassinet so he slept with us — that’s what we did to get by.”

Talk to other new parents

When, two weeks after her son was born, Cristofaro discovered a new moms’ support group mere blocks from her house, she burst into tears of relief. “Just talking to other mothers made me feel so much better,” she says. Connecting with someone who’s going through the same thing can be amazingly helpful, not to mention relieve the isolation that many new moms feel. Powell adds, “I witnessed a lot of dear friends get into a real funk when they weren’t engaging with other people outside the house.” Moms and tots groups or drop-in centres are great places to strike up friendships with other newbie parents.
Treat yourself

“When you have a baby, you’re giving constantly, and that can really drain your emotional energy,” notes Michele Perry, a postpartum doula in Orangeville, Ont. The solution? A little self-care. Whether it’s a leisurely bath or a solo wander around the bookstore, doing small things for yourself will refill your tank. Even purchasing a decent bra can give you a lift, according to Holden Hueniken. “It gave me a waist again. It seems silly, but it made such a huge difference!”

Decompress the stress

Parker suggests learning a relaxation technique and practising it regularly. “Even if it’s just sitting in your room for five minutes and deep-breathing, finding a way to decompress is super-important,” she says. Adds Neaves: “I said to myself over and over in the night, ‘It will get better, it will get better….’ And it did help me.”

Trust your instincts

While resources like books and experienced grandparents are great, when it comes to your baby, you’re the expert, so listen to your gut. Because every baby and every parent is unique, “sometimes you just have to wing it,” says Powell, and that’s OK. In fact, finding out that you can indeed unravel the mystery of this vulnerable little creature will bolster your self-confidence. “It’s the hardest six weeks of your life,” admits Thomson, “but it’s so rewarding.” And, as all these parents learned, it does get better — so much better, in fact, that many parents go on to do it all again!

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