expert advice on your 10 most pressing infant- care questions
you’re finally at home with your new baby. What could feel more natural? That wave of anxiety you might be feeling is pretty natural, too. For first-time parents in particular, caring for a newborn can prompt a host of questions. “Many parents are worried when they bring a newborn home; babies require so much maintenance,” says pediatrician Janet Michaelson, M.D. Michaelson speaks from experience: She’s had 20 years’ worth in her Philadelphia-area practice, and she has four sons of her own. Just hold on, Michaelson advises: “After the first six weeks, it gets easier.” To help you through those weeks, here are answers to some of the most common baby-care questions.
1. How much should my newborn be sleeping? Don’t worry if it seems like your little one only eats and sleeps—that’s really all she’s supposed to do, at least for now. Most newborns will sleep for about 20 hours a day. “Their periods of wakefulness are usually spent eating,” says Carolyn Ashworth, M.D., director of general pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Once fed, they’ll probably relax and go right back to sleep.” This phase doesn’t last long. By the age of 1 month, your baby will be more aware of her surroundings. And by 3 months, your angel may be so engrossed in her new world that she may resist sleep.
2. How often should I bathe my baby and wash his hair? Until his umbilical cord falls off—typically after a couple of weeks—it’s sponge baths only. Use a warm, wet washcloth when baby’s face, neck, hands and diaper area get messy. To prevent infection, swab the umbilical stump with alcohol several times a day and be vigilant about keeping the area dry. Once baby’s cord has fallen off, bathe him as needed—two to three times a week is fine. “There’s nothing magic about once a day or every other day,” Ashworth says. “Use your judgment.” If he has spit-up in his hair or has a particularly messy diaper, give him a bath. On days between baths, you can spot clean with a washcloth.
3. My baby seems so happy being by himself, but I’ve heard stimulation is important. How much time a day should I spend interacting with him? Relax. You don’t need a Ph.D. in child development to raise your child. “Your baby needs to hear you speak and sing, or go to the supermarket with you,” Michaelson says. “Just introducing him to the wonders of the world is what he needs.” Constant stimulation, though, can make babies cranky. Michaelson recommends setting aside quiet time in the morning and afternoon when your baby can relax and entertain himself. There is a bonus: As he gets older, these quiet sessions often evolve naturally into naptime.
4. My baby wakes up every few hours at night. How do I get him to sleep longer? Of course your baby wakes every few hours—he’s hungry! And until he’s a little older, feeding him—not extending his sleep—should be your primary concern. Once your baby is a few months old, chances are he’ll take longer stretches of sleep, anywhere from six to 10 hours. Some parents like to move their baby into his own room at this point, feeling he’ll sleep better. Others like a closer arrangement, since sleeping in the same bed or room makes returning to sleep after feeding easier for mom and baby.
5. Is There any difference between caring for an uncircumcised penis and a circumcised one? “The difference is that there should be no direct contact with a circumcised penis until it has totally healed,” says Jay Gordon, M.D., a pediatrician in Santa Monica, Calif, and Fit Pregnancy advisory board member. “To clean the area, squeeze warm water onto it from a washcloth, then dab on petroleum jelly to protect it from irritation. If the penis is not circumcised, you can clean it directly with a washcloth. Don’t try to retract the foreskin to clean under it.”
6. Should I put my baby on an eating schedule? Not now. “Your primary concern when baby first comes home is that she gets enough food,” says Jay E. Berkelhamer, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics and senior vice president of medical affairs for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “Rather than holding back food in the first few weeks, you want to give your baby whatever she wants at this point.” Berkelhamer recommends feeding “on demand” for at least the first month.
7. Is it OK if my baby falls asleep while nursing? It’s perfectly fine and natural for your newborn to fall asleep while nursing. “It’s not a bad thing and, in fact, it’s very comforting for both mom and baby,” Ashworth says. But do make sure your little one has had enough to eat; you may need to switch breasts or stroke his chin to get him to finish his meal. However, sleeping on the breast or with a bottle in his mouth is not such a good idea by the time he cuts his first teeth, typically around age 8 months to 9 months. That’s because allowing milk (or formula, for that matter) to pool in the mouth can contribute to tooth decay. Add a gentle tooth-and-gum brushing after feeding to his nighttime routine.
8. My husband says I should let our baby cry sometimes. Am I spoiling her by responding right away? No. “A newborn has very basic needs, based on what comes in and what goes out,” Michaelson says. “At this stage of the game, you should respond to her immediately. Your touch will help her thrive and develop trust.” Once she’s a few months old, your baby will be better able to comfort herself with a thumb or toy. Then your husband may have a point: If her cries are not urgent, you might try waiting a few minutes to see if she can settle herself. But always be sure to stay close by and keep a watchful eye.
9. My baby has developed a stuffy nose. Should I call the doctor? As long as she seems to be content and comfortable (eating and sleeping well and not crying excessively), there’s no need to call the pediatrician just because your baby has a few sniffles. But if her breathing is troubled and making it difficult for her to nurse or sleep, call the doctor right away. And always contact the doctor if your newborn is running a fever that registers higher than 100.4Þ F rectally, which can be the first sign of a serious infection (See “Fever: friend or foe?” pg. 54).
10. I know my baby should be sleeping on her back, but what happens if she rolls over onto her stomach? Tummy sleeping is a concern because it has been linked to a higher incidence of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). For your peace of mind, make a habit of putting your baby to sleep on her back from the start. “For most babies, if they are used to being put to sleep on their back, that will be become their preferred position,” Ashworth says. And once your baby becomes proficient at turning over, the risk of SIDS drops.