A Guide To The First Six Weeks

The first diaper change, first bath, first crying jag — we'’ll help you with all these and more. We'll also show you how to breastfeed and get back in shape.

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"It was much harder than I expected." This is a common refrain among new mothers, whose lives are often a blur of feedings, diaper changes, dirty dishes, smelly laundry and crying. (The crying baby and the crying mommy, that is.) But you will get through it.

"After four or five weeks, you'll have the dance figured out," says Cat Larsen, 38, a mother of two in St. Louis. "One morning you'll wake up and you and the baby will be clean, clothed, fed and happy." We'll help you along the way, with suggestions from parents and experts on how to get through all the "firsts" of the first six weeks: your baby's first diaper change, first bout of inconsolable crying, first bath, first hint of illness.

We've also got tips on taking care of yourself: how to squeeze in a few hours of much-needed sleep, lose the pregnancy weight and get your pre-baby body back. And we give you tricks to help you breastfeed like a pro. Granted, it can be a tall order to absorb all the details of caring for a new baby, but take heart: Soon it will all be second nature.

The Big Firsts

First Bath Until your baby's umbilical cord has fallen off—usually after seven to 10 days—stick to sponge baths. Here's how to do it: Lay your baby on his back in a warm room. Gently wipe the soiled areas, such as his bottom and neck, with warm water and a baby washcloth or cotton balls. Keep him wrapped in a towel as you clean him, exposing only the parts you are washing.

For the first full bath, have everything ready ahead of time—washcloth, towel, cotton balls or cotton swabs, baby soap and shampoo, and a plastic cup for rinsing. Set the mood: Turn on some relaxing music. Soften the lights and warm the room. Fill the bath with a few inches of lukewarm water, then proceed slowly.

Ease the baby in gradually, feet first; he may startle easily, so lean him backward gently. Wash your baby's body first, paying special attention to the genital area, behind the ears, and the folds under the arms and neck. Wash his hair last so he doesn't get cold. Use a cup to rinse his entire body with warm water, then wrap him in a warm towel to dry off.

First Diaper Change Before you begin, make sure you have everything you need on hand: a clean diaper, diaper ointment, clean clothes, cotton balls and a washcloth. Note that baby wipes aren't mentioned here; that's because they can contain oils or cleansing agents that are irritating or allergenic to your baby's skin, says Steven P. Shelov, M.D., chairman of the pediatrics department at Maimonides Medical Center in New York and editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Your Baby's First Year. Many experts therefore advise waiting at least a month before using them; in the meantime, lukewarm water and cotton balls will do the job. Now, down to business:

-Lay your baby on his back on the changing table; keep a firm hand on him at all times so that he can't roll off the table.

-Remove the dirty diaper and roll it up. If your baby is a boy, keep a cloth diaper or washcloth handy to place over his penis so that he doesn't pee on you or himself.

-Wipe your baby clean, working from front to back.

-Let him air dry for a moment, apply diaper ointment if needed, then tuck the back of the clean diaper under his bottom, pull the front between his legs and fasten.

First Sign of Illness Baby acne, bouts of crying and loose, seedy poops are normal, but do call your doctor immediately if your newborn experiences any of the following:

• Changes in eating, such as repeatedly refusing to nurse

• Very watery stools

• Excessive sleepiness or unresponsiveness

• Excessive irritability

• A red and swollen rash anywhere on the body

• Redness or swelling at the base of the umbilical cord

• A fever of 100.4F or higher (The most accurate way to take an infant's temperature is with a digital rectal thermometer. Coat the end with petroleum jelly. With your baby lying on his stomach, insert the thermometer into his rectum just beyond the tip. Gently press the buttock cheeks closed for one to two minutes and remove.)

First Crying Jag It's difficult to listen to a baby cry, but think of it this way: Crying is his only way of communicating with you. So what can you do to soothe him? First check to see if his diaper is soiled, if he's too hot or too cold, or if his diaper is pinching his skin.

If that doesn't do it, watch your baby for a few seconds to see if you can read his cues. A hungry baby may turn his head from side to side, lick his lips and try to suck on anything near his mouth. An overtired baby will flail his arms and turn his head away; his cry will be persistent and escalate.

If your baby's not hungry or overtired, try soothing him: Walk with him, rock him and sing to him. Re-create a womblike environment, advises Harvey Karp, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the UCLA School of Medicine and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block (Bantam Books). "Your baby was packed tight into the fetal position in your womb, enveloped by the warm wall of the uterus and rocked and jiggled for much of the day," he writes. "He was also surrounded by a constant shushing sound a little louder than a vacuum cleaner." Swaddle your baby snugly, hold and jiggle him with fast, tiny motions and shush loudly in his ear, Karp says.

First Sleepless Night Many babies start out life by sleeping during the day and staying up all night. "Know and accept that and adapt your life to your baby's life for the first six weeks," says Corky Harvey, R.N., M.S., a certified lactation consultant and co-founder of The Pump Station, a breastfeeding support center in Santa Monica, Calif.

That means preparing to get up at night and resting whenever possible during the day. Playing "tag team" at night works for many couples: One of you goes to bed early and the other sleeps late. This way, each parent can get a healthy dose of sleep while the other watches the baby.

Mom to Mom

Here are some tips from moms to help you make it through the first weeks with flying colors.

Relax

Go easy on yourself. "Expect to melt down at least once during the first six weeks," says Michelle McCann, 36, of Portland, Ore. "Don't think that you are a freak if you find yourself sitting in a rocking chair at 3 a.m., crying, with your boobs hanging out."

Be Prepared

Purchase plenty of newborn outfits and baby blankets; in fact, get way more than you think you'll need. "The first night we were home, Christopher soaked through three bodysuits, three pajamas and three receiving blankets," says Rosa Martin, 38, of Mendham, N.J.

Also make sure that you not only have the necessities, but that you have them in the right areas. "For a week, we changed Ronan's diapers on the dining-room table because we didn't have a changing table set up downstairs," McCann says.

Point the Penis

Protect your baby from urinating all over himself, which can happen even when he's wearing a diaper. "If you have a boy, make sure his penis is pointing down when you fasten the diaper," Martin says. "Otherwise, if there is any gap between the diaper and the baby, he will pee straight up his belly and it will drip down the back and soak everything."

Divide the Duties

Designate dad as the diaper man. "Jerry changed all the diapers," McCann says. "That made me feel good, and it gave him a chance to bond with Ronan."

Keep it Clean

To clean the "neck cheese" that builds up in the folds of your baby's neck, McCann suggests using a cotton swab dipped in baby oil.

Take a Break

Cat Larsen's second baby, Annika, had colic. "If your baby has been crying for hours and you can feel your tension escalating, take a break," the St. Louis mom says. Have someone else hold your baby; if no one is around, put him in his crib or bassinet with music playing. "A five-minute break is not going to hurt him, and you will feel a lot more loving when you go back and hold him," Larsen adds.

Keep it Dark

Keep the room dark for nighttime feedings. McCann brought her baby into bed and used a reading light when she nursed. "I could see well enough to help Ronan latch on, but the room stayed dark enough not to rouse him," she says.

Get Some Sleep

"Get earplugs for when you are off baby duty," McCann suggests. Another tip: Sleep when you can. "Everyone says to sleep when the baby sleeps, but I found it impossible to sleep during the day," Martin says. Instead, she went to bed earlier and slept later to get extra rest. "I would crash at 7 p.m. because there were plenty of people to watch the baby. And for the first few weeks, the baby and I would stay in bed until 9:30 a.m."

Ask for Help

"It's hard to know what's normal," Larsen says. "It's helpful to have your mom or someone else with kids give you perspective—they can tell you if the poop looks normal or if your baby is really acting sick."

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