Baby’s first year: Strategies that work!
I think it occurred to me sometime within the first hour of arriving home from the hospital after the birth of my son. I don’t know if it was the shock of being sore, mostly unable to move, and all alone with his fragility after having nurses on call for days. Or, maybe it was being squirted with projectile, fluorescent yellow baby poo, or having changed his clothes four times in less than 45 minutes after the spewing of two pee-pee fountains, loads of spit up after his first nursing session at home, and a second batch of liqui-poo that leaked out the sides of his diaper. No matter the cause, the reality was clear—this whole baby thing was not going to be as easy as I thought.
Since that day over a year ago, I’ve learned that I am not the only mom who was faced with this truth and actually quite astounded by it. With all the books and websites out there on babies and mothering, it’s a little curious that many of us aren’t prepared for the challenges that baby brings. Instead we learn from our experiences and from going to other mamas with our questions as they come up. With all this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to be a bit more proactive.
In a recent post, I asked the moms who read this blog to share their tried and true methods for surviving the challenges of the first year. Thanks to all of you who sent emails and Facebook messages, and who left comments on the post. I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised with how much good stuff everyone brought to the table. I organized, edited, and added to the ideas that you all sent. I also thought of some miscellaneous recommendations I received. Finally, I included some verbatim quotes from the moms who sent them, because I just thought they were valuable.
For the purposes of keeping the post from being painstakingly long, I divided all the info into two: (1) strategies–things moms can do and (2) products–things moms can buy (or of course, even better, have bought for us). Today’s post will tackle the strategies. Before I jump in, I want to add one cautionary note: not all of these things will work for everyone. In fact, some of the recommendations from other moms did not work for my son, and I’m sure some of the tactics that worked for Jacob or me did not or will not work for others. This may go without saying, but it’s important to remember that we, moms, and our babies are all quite different. What works for us will vary accordingly. Still, much of what worked for one of us will likely generalize to others.
Here’s what worked for the mamas who contributed…
Before baby arrives
Don’t pack up the oversized clothes quite yet. Many of us don’t realize that the baby belly remains for a while after baby is born. I know moms who headed to the hospital with plans to wear home a cute outfit in their pre-pregnancy size after giving birth. It wasn’t over-optimism fueling their plans—it was mere expectation. They didn’t know any better! It varies for everyone, but for most of us, there’s a deflated balloon around our waists for at least a couple of weeks after baby makes his grand exit. If you have a c-section, you probably won’t want anything hugging your sore mid-section for even longer than that. So, hang onto the maternity clothes—or at least the slightly larger clothing you wore about midway through your pregnancy—you may need them for a little longer than you expected.
Find breastfeeding support. Out of all the complaints I’ve heard, nursing, especially during those first few months, may have been the most common hurdle. Have a lactation consultant ready in case you need help. Thank goodness I joined a couple of breastfeeding support groups with other moms who were going through the same. I’m not sure what I found more helpful—the information from the lactation consultants who led the groups or the consolation of being with other moms enduring similar trials. I’m still friends with a few mamas I met in these groups. Being able to trade stories has been priceless.
“[Breastfeeding is] …the most beautiful thing to do, but in most cases takes about 4 to 6 weeks to perfect. Both baby and mommy are learning something new, but it’s worth it.”
Gear up for the first week. Have meals ready in the freezer. Ask a family member or friend come over to cook and clean (not just socialize), and help you catch up on sleep. If your own mother or someone else who has kids can do it, that person can be a good resource for sharing stories from her own experiences as a parent.
The first couple months
Be prepared for visitors to come and meet your new precious bundle. Set rules if you want to limit who comes to the hospital. Have your partner enforce them. If friends or family want to visit once you’re home, ask them to pitch in, like holding the baby while you have a nice, long shower.
Accept help and even request it. If people offer a hand, say, “yes!” If they don’t offer, they simply may not know what you need. I could hardly walk for weeks after my c-section. I would have killed to have someone drop off a meal or watch the baby while I took a shower, threw in a load of laundry, or got out of the house for an hour. No one did. Mostly though, I feel it’s my fault because I didn’t ask.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s taking out the trash, painting your toenails, or changing your baby’s diapers. If you want an extra set of hands, say so. People want to help, but they are also sensitive to your ‘I am supermom and I need no one.’”
Focus on healthy habits from the beginning. As much as you can, eat nutritious foods and get a good amount of sleep. You’ll be recovering, and you’re going to need your strength, especially to get through those first few weeks of baby adjusting to night and day and to being out of your belly and in the world. Eating well, going to bed early, and napping during at least one of baby’s naps can help a lot.
Tell your partner what he can (and can’t) do. Remind daddy he’s important, but new babies often just want mom at first, especially if she is breastfeeding (and therefore is baby’s lifeline). Plus, mom’s smell and voice are all baby has known for the past nine months inside her womb, so she provides the most comfort. Dad’s job is to be mom’s manservant: fetch her a glass of water, fluff her pillow, cook her a meal. And, when mom needs a break from baby, dad can help with that too, even though baby may resist a bit.
Let the housework go. This also goes for yard work, preparing elaborate meals, and pretty much anything that is not essential to keeping you and your baby happy and healthy. A friend shared this poem, which I had never heard but loved:
“Cleaning and scrubbing can wait ’til tomorrow,
For, babies grow up, we’ve learned to our sorrow;
So, quiet down, cobwebs, and dust, go to sleep;
I’m rocking my baby, and babies don’t keep.”
Take baby into the shower with you. I was going it alone for the first few months of motherhood with my husband at work and no family or close friends nearby. One thing that worked, so that I could get cleaned up and so I didn’t have to make extra time to give baby a separate bath later, was to pull him in with me. It was easiest when he was a tiny baby, but my husband and I still do it now. Make sure to hold on tight—babies are squirmy and very slippery when lathered up.
Start tummy time right away even if baby resists. Although some babies are quite content on their backs and fight time on the flipside, having them on their backs all day and night sets them up for flat heads and slower development of their muscles.
“[My son] hated tummy time. At his 3-month checkup, I was reprimanded by the doctor about his flat head and told that it would take up to 6 months to fix.”
Don’t wait until baby starts crying to react. Many will say that the only way baby can communicate is through crying. This is not the case! They have a lot of other ways of saying they are hungry, tired, or just need a change of scenery. Pay attention to your baby’s cues such as a bobbing head when hungry or a rub of the eyes when tired. Then, act before the tears and wails begin. This way, babies start to realize they don’t need to cry every time they need something.
Get into the habit of putting baby to bed early. I have friends who wait to put their babies to bed until they go to bed. Not this mama! I need, need, need time to unwind, especially at the end of the day—and if baby is awake, the winding continues, and the unraveling never has an opportunity to start. I use the couple of hours between Jacob’s bedtime and my own to journal, catch up on housework, and reconnect with my husband. From what I can tell, babies are flexible in the sleep-timing department—why not make it on the early side?
Take a time out. Can’t get a break? Make one. I mentioned this suggestion in my post about battling stress but the suggestion came up so many times from other moms that I figured it was worth including. When the going gets tough, put baby in a safe place and go take a breather.
“If no one is there [to help you], put the baby in the crib and let him cry while you cry it out yourself.”
Be open about your feelings to at least one person. Having a baby involves a wide range of emotions that aren’t all positive. Once we accept this and admit our feelings to others, the emotional jumble often is easier to manage. Open up to your partner or another close friend or family member. Tell them exactly how you feel. It may be joy, but it may be frustration, anxiety, sadness, or anger. And, that’s okay.
“Whatever it is, share your feelings. I had mild postpartum, and I held everything in. I would then either explode at my husband in a mean way (which caused him to be angry) or end up holding it in and crying in the shower (my one time to be alone). When I finally gave in and talked to my doctor, my family, and my husband about it…my depression went away.”
When newborn turns baby turns toddler
Ease back into your job (if you have the flexibility). As I was about to return to work, one new mom told me to use the first day away from baby to cry and get a handle on my emotions. A lot of moms who have to go back to work full time start with just a few days a week and gradually build up. Since I started back at work when Jacob was almost four months old, I have worked four 9-hour days and one 4-hour Weds. I look forward to the middle of the week when I have my whole afternoon to spend with my son.
Try co-sleeping. When I was back to my full-time job and my four evenings a week at the gym (my most effective anti-stress therapy), I felt like I hardly ever saw my son! Also, I found it so hard to fall back asleep after getting up to pull him out of his crib and into a rocking chair to nurse in the middle of the night. As soon as I started having him sleep next to me in the bed, I got much more sleep and overall time with my son. We still do it this way—the only time he still nurses is at night. And, thankfully for me, he still loves to cuddle up close to his mama (though during the day, he’d much rather be exploring!). I value this time with him so much. Note: This is one of those recommendations where you may want to proceed with caution. Some people who know I co-sleep are appalled. After Jacob become mobile, it meant disassembling our bed frame so only a mattress remained and also getting rails for the bedsides. Factoring in the impact this may have on your sex life (or the faded shadows of its existence) also is probably not a bad idea.
Don’t let yourself go completely for too long. After your belly starts to shrink back down and your baby starts to follow some semblance of a schedule, do some things so you feel better about you. Wash your face, put on some makeup, tweeze your eyebrows, etc. Whatever will make you feel like you again. By a few months out, I say: pack up the maternity clothes. Do not put them back on only to set yourself up for someone asking when you are due. Wear your husband’s baggy tees, your jeans without buttoning them, whatever. Do NOT wear clothes that are meant for pregnant women. You will only feel larger than you are. I still remember the first time post-childbirth I actually put on makeup and a matching, non-maternity outfit: I felt renewed!
Plan mamas’ nights out. Hallelujah to the nights when I can put on my dangly earrings (without fear of having them ripped off by a tiny hand) and share some wine and stories about the adventures in mommyhood. When you’re a mom, girlfriends are important. Girlfriends with kids are a necessity.
Don’t force baby to finish his food. Learn your baby’s cues for “I’ve had enough”. Turning his head away or crying during nursing, bottle-feeding, spoon-feeding, or even eating finger foods are usually good signs. When they’re hungry, they will eat.
Strive for consistency and routines. Nighttime routines and somewhat consistent naptimes and pre-nap preparations usually help to soothe baby to slumber. A few moms recommended putting baby to bed while he’s still awake. As babies get further along in the first year, letting them know what to expect in various situations also is a good idea.
Question social norms and the advice of others. I wrote a whole post on this a while back. Sometimes what works for everybody else may not be helpful to you and yours. You may consider questioning recommended strategies before you attempt them and suggested products before you buy them. They may not be as necessary as you thought.
Read books and make it fun. Reading is something we want our children to do for life. Get them used to it now. Although for the first several months it may mean them exploring the books with their mouths (okay, trying to eat them), getting them excited about reading early has its benefits. Use voices, facial expressions, and funny noises as you flip through the pages.
Start baby-proofing early. Outlet covers, latches for drawers and cabinets, and gates for stairs are some of the necessities. Also, be mindful of common products that your child could easily ingest.
“One time, [my toddler daughter] …saw a bottle of rubbing alcohol in my bag. I learned that she drank the darn alcohol! I called poison control…immediately. They said that most likely she only drank a small amount because alcohol tastes bad. Apparently, this happens all the time…”
Let babies be babies and kids be kids.
“Sometimes we want [our children] to act a certain way, [and] we forget they are young.”
During my first few months as mom, whenever Jacob cried, I would apologize or say, “he hardly ever does this” (I think I was trying to convince myself). After I came to terms with the idea that it’s okay for him to cry and be fussy, things got much easier for me to handle.
Have a sense of humor. Hopefully, each of us possesses a little of this naturally. Still, sometimes we all have to remind ourselves to look for the humor in challenging situations. Getting into the habit of smiling or laughing instead of crying or yelling can only make the hard times a little less difficult.
Remember that things get easier with time and that you’ll likely miss the “baby” years. A lot of moms say they are sad when baby’s not a baby anymore, no matter how challenging it was. When you are in the midst of trying times, attempt to focus on the little things you treasure a lot and that won’t last. The-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel approach also can’t hurt. Although there are certainly some challenges in store for the years to come, many things will be easier. To name a few, it’s only a matter of time before baby will not only be moving around on his/her own but also feeding and entertaining him or herself. Cherish the time when everything is tiny and cute and when baby needs you. Because, whether you like it or not, you won’t always feel so needed.
“[My husband and I] always knew [parenting] would be the toughest and most rewarding job of our lives… and now we have a really awesome dude we can call our son.”
Thoughts? Thanks again for all who contributed. Feel free to leave a comment to say one of these suggestions didn’t work for you and what did instead. And, if you want clarification on any of the above, I’m happy to consult with the moms who contributed. Finally, if you have any other ideas, I’m sure the new and expecting moms out there would be happy to hear them.
Next time, we’ll move onto the products: what to buy for baby and mama.