Oh, you know me! I always have something helpful to say!
This post is actually from my personal letter archives. I wrote most of it after my first was born (nearly 5 years ago!) and have tinkered with it each time I’ve sent it to friends who are expecting. Since I have a bunch of friends who are having babies this summer, I’m editing it a bit to reflect my (much more positive) experience with my second born, and adding links to other useful posts I have on HLW. Enjoy!
Advice to New Parents
The most important advice I can give you: Parenting this child is going to be a unique experience, and while other people’s advice might be useful, it is not the Law. Sift through everything and keep what is true to your hearts.
Stock up on freezer food! The stuff I froze for us to eat absolutely saved us during the first week. You need to have things on hand that are grab-and-go. I made “Manwiches” – whole wheat pizza dough folded and crimped in a half moon around pizza toppings, then baked, wrapped in aluminum foil, and frozen.
Ask neighbors, friends, relatives, church members - or just anyone who asks you “How can I help?” to sign up to bring you a meal after the baby is born. You can use Food Tidings to help organize things.
In the last days before the “due date,” be really intentional about spending time with your partner - or even alone! It will be a looooong time before you make it to the movie theater again. Or a fancy restaurant. Go do those things. Soon the days where you could just hop in the car and go somewhere on a whim will be gone; take advantage of them now. After the baby is born, you will be strategizing errands around nap schedules, poop times, and that rare day when you’ve managed to take a shower and get dressed!
Have you thoughtfully considered what you’re going to do about vaccinations? Make me happy and make an informed decision - either way, I don’t really have a beef. Just know the Why behind what you do. :)
Caregivers and Birth Location
I’m a huge advocate of midwives and out-of-hospital births. If your vision for your birth doesn’t include anesthesia or surgery, your best bet is to steer clear of hospitals entirely.
I’m not in the least bit anti-medicine or anti-hospital; I want them available in an emergency. However, the birth culture of the average US hospital is extremely incompatible with anything “alternative.” I’m not talking about extremes here; just wanting to move about freely, or eat, during labor is usually not a standard option.
Most labor and delivery nurses will not have witnessed an unmedicated labor; they will not know how to support someone who can feel anything below her waist.
Once your water breaks, you are almost always on a countdown to C-section (the risk of infection goes up after 36 hours, particularly in a germy hospital where random strangers are sticking their fingers up your hoo-ha every so often to “check progress”).
Hospitals tend to treat birth as “an emergency about to happen” and that kind of energy is not compatible with natural childbirth.
No matter how natural birth-friendly a hospital claims to be, it answers to a much higher power than your birth plan. Its default mode - particularly if anything unusual happens during your birth - is Get It Out ASAP. If labor slows down (which is actually pretty normal!), a midwife in a birth center (or at your home) has the luxury of telling you to take a nap, take a walk around the block, or eat something. At the hospital, you’re more likely going to have pitocin thrown at you and reminded of the impending cut-off for C-section.
Hospitals are businesses, and it makes better business sense to do the known-risk, efficient, and expedient thing: C-section. Waiting around for a woman to birth vaginally is not cost-effective; it ties up a room for an undetermined amount of time, it requires more on-duty staff, etc. All of this before you even factor in the malpractice stuff, which is probably THE biggest issue. Malpractice coverage is expensive.
Midwives who attend births at hospitals are also bound by hospital regulations (and have self-selected to be compatible with a hospital birthing scene), so you are not as likely to get the typical midwife experience that a free-standing, midwife-run birth center or a home birth midwife will provide.
In the event that you are constrained to a hospital setting, the best thing you can do for your birth experience is hire a doula. Women who are attended by a doula are:
• 28% less likely to have a cesarean section
• 31% less likely to use synthetic oxytocin to speed labor
• 9% less likely to use any pain medication
• 34% less like to rate their childbirth experience negatively.
Do not make the mistake of believing that since you plan to have your partner, your sister, your mom, your best friend - whomever - with you during labor, that you won’t need a doula.
Having support from your family and friends is wonderful, but it “does not seem to impact [the] likelihood of undergoing a series of labor and birth interventions.”
If your heart’s desire is a natural, gentle, and non-medicated birth, my advice is to not risk attempting that goal in a hospital. Even if it costs more out of pocket because your insurance won’t cover a home birth or birth center’s fees, spend the money: Think of it as investing in your emotional, psychological, and possibly even physical future.
The World Health Organization recommends a C-section rate no higher than 10-15% to account for true life-saving emergency situations that require a C-section. Most hospitals hover between 25-30% with a few appalling outliers like LA Community Hospital which sends nearly two out of every three mamas to surgery. Choosing to give birth in a hospital is choosing to play roulette with a surgical birth, usually caused by a cascade of unnecessary interventions geared toward expediency, not your experience.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, prepared me for how visceral, bloody, and violent giving birth can feel.
I vaguely remember reading this during my first pregnancy and always in my head I dismissed it, “Oh, that won’t be me.” After all, I was going to everything right with the midwife, birth tub, and special mantras.
My birth plan was all about empowerment and natural woman instinct; how could it be anything but bliss? Hard work, yes. But a total ripping apart of my soul?
I was totally blindsided.
I don’t think there’s a way to escape the reality of how brutal it actually is. My first labor was the most primal, loneliest experience of my life, even with my husband right there beside me. Only I could go through with it. My first labor was an “easy,” fast (under 4 hours), unmedicated birth and I felt completely traumatized by it for months.
This may not be your experience, but I really wish someone had told me that it could be mine.
On the other hand, my second birth was redemptive, exhilarating, and left me high on endorphins for days. This could also be your experience - and you will increase your chances for it if you choose to give birth out-of-hospital and with a support team who believes that birth can be all those things.
The specifics of my two labors were completely identical. What differed was my location and the mindset around me. My first birth was in a hospital with a very hands-off, emotionally unsupportive midwife who had not bothered to get to know me very well prior to the birth and who pulled me out of the birth tub onto the bed for the convenience of a very well-lit delivery. My second was in a free-standing birth center with a midwife who had spent an hour on the couch with me at every single appointment, who had lit candles and dimmed the lights to prepare the space for the sacred experience I was hoping for.
I also didn’t ever read or hear anything about the spirituality of birth. I still have not been able to put words to it entirely, but what I can grasp is that it was a certain kind of death for me.
A life passed through me, and left me.
I literally lost Iife from my body, and though she has thrived outside the womb there has still been that sense of loss. It’s okay to recognize and grieve that loss.
I hated pushing. It was like the dry heaves you get after you’ve thrown up all your stomach contents, except backwards through your vagina. Ugh. Some people say it’s such a relief to finally push, but I hated every minute of it. During my first labor, I fought against the feeling and it really wore me out. The second time, I still didn’t like it, but I zeroed in all of my focus and intention into relaxing through the force of it, and things went much faster.
My own philosophy about “pushing” is that the term is a misnomer. For me, at least, things go better if I don’t push. I do better when I concentrate on getting my mind out of the way so my body can do its thing. That means getting in the zone and keeping as relaxed as possible. Those weird panting “Ooo! Eee!” breathing techniques tend to increase tension; try long slow, powerful exhales with each push that your body makes.
Visualize your breath working to blow the baby out. If you vocalize, make sure that it’s deep and low (no high pitched screams; they tighten you up).
What prepared me best for the mental exercise of my second labor was my weekly chiropractic appointments. I credit chiropractic for keeping me completely pain free the second time around. I didn’t have any low back pain, no hip pain (which was really bad the first time); I felt amazing the whole pregnancy. The added benefit for me was that my adjustments were so excruciating - in a wonderful, healing way! - that I had to learn how to relax and submit to the pain.
Labor is intense and it can register in your brain as “Scary Pain!” if you tense up and fight it. If you learn to let go and allow the pain flow through you, your body and your baby will be able to get the work of labor done much more quickly!
(By the way, if you hire a doula she will be reminding you of all these things during your birth, so you won’t have to print all this out and take it with you. Ahhahaha!)
One of the biggest shocks is that there is no real “recovery time.”
Immediately following the labor (it’s called that for a reason), you are presented with the most demanding little person whose needs are few but horribly relentless. It starts immediately and never, ever, ever stops. For like, 18 more years or something. And even then? Talk to your mom - does she still worry about you every night? Yup. It never stops.
You can also make “Panty Popsicles” by laying a bunch of natural (the chemicals in some types of sanitary pads actually PREVENT tissue healing) pads out on a cookie sheet and pour the tea over them. Wrap each one in waxed paper and put in plastic bags in the freezer. The herbs drastically decrease your healing time, and the coolness really helps the soreness dissipate.
The first week home
Mamas - expect to cry. A lot. For no apparent reason, or for reasons that seem too stupid to admit. Let this be okay. Give yourself permission to let your body, heart, and soul grieve the things you may never be able to put words to. Bringing new life into the world is not without its ripple effects. Days 3.5 and 10 are usually the hardest.
Partners – I have read research that finds 20 minutes of massage per day is as effective as medication in combating post-partum depression. Hint hint.
SLEEP. Newborns tend to be pretty sleepy for the first few days. Sleep when the baby sleeps. Don’t be tempted to get up and do chores when you have a free moment (that’s what slings are for when they are awake!). Once the newborn sleepiness wears off, you will need all that stored up sleep to get you through the many growth and developmental spurts in the first 6 months.
Babies don’t sleep for very long stretches - particularly not breastfed babies. This is normal. It’s kinda hellish, but waking you up to nurse every 2-3 hours is what most babies need. Give your baby what he needs to grow and develop properly. Do not engage in “sleep training” with a newborn. Withholding nutrition and comfort from an infant can cause serious long term neurological, emotional, and physical problems. Many babies consolidate their sleep between 9 months and a year - look forward with hope. Your best chance for serenity is to just keep your expectations really low. :)
Beware the third squirt. Newborn poops typically come in sets of three. Make sure you’ve heard that third squirt before you take off the diaper.
Beware the second pee. Something about the cool air hitting the plumbing almost always sets off another trickle. Keep the old diaper underneath to catch it.
During the first week (at least!!), I believe that mamas should not have to change any diapers. Your baby’s job is to eat, sleep, and poop; the mom’s shouldn’t be that much different. Everything else can be taken care of by someone else. Don’t even delegate - just don’t do it. Let someone else pick up the slack.
Speaking of poop, ladies, take your stool softeners!
You will heal. Depending on the damage, it may take longer. But that first week, it is probably not going to feel like you’ll ever be “yourself” again. Be patient with yourself. Make sure you take hot showers (or baths, if you’re like that) every day. Put on nice smelling lotion. Don’t freak out by the size of the blood clots you see coming out of you (this is hard!). You will heal.
Speaking of showers, we learned that taking the baby into the shower with us stopped the inconsolable crying, at least for a little bit. It was a nice family together-time, too. Get everyone naked and enjoy your new family. Really - it’s special.
It’s okay if you don’t want or like your baby right away. It’s okay if you wish it would just go away. Or you could just go away. It’s okay if you feel like throwing your baby across the room after the third hour of screaming. It is not okay to actually do so! Hand it gently to someone else who cares and then go get some sleep with a pillow over your head.
Seriously – I was shocked and horrified by the ugly feelings that arose in me during those first few weeks. They ranged from a cold lack of empathy to white-hot rage. The combination of plummeting hormone levels, sleep deprivation, and a complete upheaval in self-identity really rocked me hard. And that was before the constant screaming from my firstborn’s food issues started!
My huz also experienced a lot of anger toward the firstborn, as have all the other dads we’ve ever talked to about this. I think it’s normal; just quite a surprise.
Each night, before the screaming began and while I was still feeling a little tender towards my newborn, I would cuddle her and tell her “It’s okay if you cry tonight; I give you permission. And when you cry, I’ll be here for you. I’ll take care of you no matter what.” Giving her permission to take all my energy, all my sleep, everything I had, helped me not get resentful when she did.
No matter how committed you are to breastfeeding, it is likely that this commitment will get tested. Do not give up; it does get easier. Seeing a lactation consultant saved my sanity and my nipples. Also, pumping to give them a break really helped them heal from the initial damage caused by the crappy lactation consultants at the hospital. Hospital LC’s are notoriously bad. Find an independent LC or just an experienced nursing mom. The most useful advice someone gave me was: “Nipple to nose.” It helps insure that the baby is opening his mouth wide enough. I have a lot of other great breastfeeding resources listed here.
Also, my favorite breastfeeding motto: “When in doubt, whip it out.” :)
Learn how to nurse in a side-lying position. Or, any decently reclined position that won’t kill your back/neck and will let you get some rest. During her 4-5 month growth spurt, my firstborn went for 6 weeks not sleeping more than 45 minutes at a stretch – 24/7. It was utter hell, but had I not been co-sleeping with her and able to just let her latch on and go back to sleep, I think I would have died from sleep exhaustion!
When you feel physically ready, which may be anywhere in the first week to 10 days, take your baby out and about. Babies are portable! They are durable! The worst thing that can happen is a dirty diaper or an empty belly, both of which you are fully equipped to handle. Do not be afraid to go places and do stuff. This newborn time is nice because more often than not, your baby will sleep the whole time. I have friends who went to movies with their baby in the Moby Wrap under their coat. No one knew the difference.
No matter your views on co-sleeping, at least take a few naps next to your baby during the day while there are other watchful people around (so you won’t be worried about it dying in its sleep because you are not awake watching over it). That way you’ll learn to ignore all the non-critical baby grunts and whistles so that when you hear them in the middle of the night (next to you or in the monitor), you won’t freak out and have to check on the baby every 2 minutes.
Cutting fingernails: totally intimidating. Don’t use clippers! While baby’s really small and they’re still paper thin, just bite them off while s/he’s nursing. It gives you something interesting to do during the endless hours of nursing.
We dealt with unknown food intolerance issues for 4 long miserable scream-filled months. It was horrible. It still hurts to look at the pictures from my firstborn’s infancy because all I remember is the screaming. I still have PTSD responses to the sound of a baby’s inconsolable cry.
Here are some things I wish someone had beat into my head (including my doctor, who just said, “Oh, the screaming is a personality thing.”):
Breastfed baby poop should almost always be YELLOW and curdled. There will be variations in color (eating lots of spinach or B vitamins will tinge their poop green), but if you have a baby with consistently green diapers, there is something not right. This goes for formula-fed babies as well. Green is not normal.
Poop that is green and watery or foamy and smells kind of sulphury, usually means there’s a lactose imbalance. If you have a really strong let down or “overabundant supply” chances are that’s what’s causing it. You can calm your supply down by nursing on just one side for all feedings in a two hour period.
Poop that is green and mucousy/snotty looking typically indicates a food intolerance or allergy. It will most likely be accompanied by one or more of the following: flecks of bright red blood in the poop, excessive gas, reflux, excessive or projectile spitting up, lots of screaming, nasty yellow crusts of cradle cap that doesn’t go away after 8 weeks, baby acne that doesn’t clear up after 7 or so weeks, fussing at the breast, refusal of the breast, lots of nasal congestion and wheezing, itchy red eyes (or dark “raccoon eyes”) and nose.
If you suspect food sensitivities, try cutting out dairy - big dairy (milk, yogurt, butter, cheese) and its derivatives like whey and casein - for two weeks. You should start seeing significant improvements in the baby within 72 hours, but it takes about 2 weeks for the milk proteins to fully clear. Don’t use soy as a milk substitute, as its proteins are very similar to cow’s milk proteins and can also cause a reaction.
Also, email me; I’ll tell you more about our experience with food intolerance and what we’ve done to combat it.
Whatever you do, DO NOT LIVE IN DENIAL!!!!
I still kick myself for taking so long to admit to myself that we had a problem. The desire for everything to be okay, coupled with the fierce “knuckle down and survive” mode that rises up in response to a baby that doesn’t sleep and screams every waking moment, fuzzed my brain into a non-rational mess. If I could have taken a step back and really analyzed the situation with clear (well-rested) eyes, I think I would have caught it sooner.
Gear and other stuff
I’ve got a separate post about Gifts for New and Expecting Parents, with all kinds of product links to my Amazon store. But I’ll leave in my commentary here as well.
Get a sling. Babies who are worn develop faster and cry up to 51% less each day. Who wouldn’t want that? Besides, you’ll get stuff done around the house. You might even brush your teeth more than once a day! Imagine! Learn to nurse in the sling ASAP. It is so much easier to nurse in the sling and keep on doing whatever you were doing (cooking dinner, grocery shopping) than stopping to sit down and nurse. Newborns nurse almost constantly and after a while you get so sick of sitting around with your boob hanging out.
At about 5 or 6 months, your baby will find her feet and her favorite activity will be to pull her socks off. Put on some Robeez and pull the ends of a pair of BabyLegs down over the heel of the Robeez; it’s virtually impossible for them to disentangle their feet this way.
Footed, zip-up, one piece “sleep ‘n play” outfits - a dime a dozen at baby consignment shops. You’ll be changing newborn diapers pretty much every time you nurse and after a while you just don’t want to deal with the cute outfits anymore. Sleep sacks are great at night.
A good swaddling blanket. For summer, nothing beats those great muslin ones.
Find a moms’ group to join. It’s easy to get trapped into a cycle of living from nap to nap, isolating yourself from adult human contact. A moms’ group (La Leche League meeting, library story time, Kindermusik or a new moms’ exercise class, maybe?) will give you an excuse to get out, people to commiserate with, and a reason to shower and change out of your jammies. Bonus: show off all the cute outfits the grandmas send along!
SmugMug.com – online photo archiving without the social networking aspect of Flickr. You can purchase DVD backups and prints.
The BabyWearer - huge resource for baby wearing info. Great reviews as well as links to purchase.
Recipes for making your own baby wipes, teething gel, etc.
ParentHacks.com - shortcuts to all aspects of parenting that you might not have thought of.
Best way to burp a baby or get gas released: gently squeeze on either side of her spine with your thumb and forefinger all the way from his shoulders to his waist. Keep doing it until the gas releases. You can also firmly stroke with the heel of your hand all the way down the spine. Always use a top to bottom motion, as that is the natural flow of energy and you are combating “rebellious chi.” My kids always store their tension in between their shoulder blades. There was a spot on my secondborn’s left “wing” that I could gently massage and all her built-up gas would come rippling out!
Best way to get rid of hiccups: nursing!
Chiropractic has been wonderful for our family. It has helped resolve ear issues, constipation woes, general attitude and behavioral problems, and kept us really healthy. Here’s a website where you can locate a chiropractor who is certified to see babies. I’ve found the best way to meet a good chiropractor is to ask around for referrals from people you know. When someone has a chiropractor they love, they almost always shout it from the rooftops when given the chance.
Well, that’s it. I need to get this posted before any more babies are born!