Just Had a Baby? A Six-Week Survival Guide

Your first weeks home with a new baby can be awkward and scary. Here's what to expect and how to stay sane.

mother and newborn

This postpartum survival guide culls our favorite experts' tried-and-true tips about how to make the best of this challenging rite of passage.

Here's what you'll need to know:

Brace Yourself
At the hospital, your baby is examined by the pediatrician, who will explain to you any obvious curiosities (for example, birthmarks or a pointy head shape).

After you get home, however, your baby may produce some unexpected sights and sounds; most are normal.

The Umbilical Cord
The stump of the cord may seem very black and unwieldy for such a tiny infant. This is OK; it will disengage within three weeks. Until then, keep it clean (fold diapers down clear of it) and dry (give Baby sponge baths only until it falls off).

The Spit Up
Not to worry, just keep lots of cloth diapers at the ready. Two effective ways to diminish returns, offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics' (AAP) Caring for Your Baby and Young Child (Bantam Books) are to burp your baby every three to five minutes during feedings, and to place the baby in an upright position in an infant seat or stroller right after feeding her. Or just do what comes naturally: Hold her.

The Poop
In the very beginning, Baby's poop is blackish green, and then it approximates certain shades of green, yellow or brown, and it can be runny, pasty, seedy or curdy. Unsettling as this may be, it's all normal. An early breastfeeding bonus: Baby's poop usually doesn't smell at all.

Baby's Breath
You won't believe how you'll crane to hear your baby respire. Any fewer than 60 breaths per minute is normal, as are pauses of about six seconds, according to Barton D. Schmitt, M.D., in Your Child's Health (Bantam Books). Take note of any wheezing or rapid breathing, since this could indicate a respiratory problem.

Bathing
Bathing a newborn can be a challenge. You can either do this by holding her in a big bowl or plastic tub or by wetting a washcloth and washing her on her changing table. Here are some other tips: Baby needs a full bath only about once or twice a week, but she needs to be "topped and tailed" (a term from child development expert and author Penelope Leach) every day. This means washing the baby's head, face and bottom.

Make sure she's been fed (but not right before the bath), that the room is warm and that you have everything at the ready (you can't leave her for even a nanosecond).

Shampoo the scalp first (only once or twice a week), shielding the water from Baby's eyes. Supporting her head, start washing Baby from the top down, using soft cloth and tap water or mild baby soap. Moving down, be sure to get in all those nooks and crannies. Be sure to wash her face well. Left around the mouth, milk and spit-up may cause a rash. Wash eyelids and under the chin. Rinse baby well and pat her dry with a towel.

Getting Through the Night
Since their tiny tummies cannot hold much milk, newborns must be fed often, which is one reason they wake so frequently. Still, you can begin the process of getting the whole household on the same schedule.

  • Establish a routine early on: Bathe, dress, play and stroll around the block at about the same time every day.
  • Place your baby in the crib while drowsy. This way he learns to fall asleep on his own and associates the crib with bedtime.
  • Swaddle him. An unswaddled baby's own movements may startle and awaken him. In Your Baby & Child (Knopf), Penelope Leach writes: "At night you want him so securely wrapped that he will not wake even during the normal periods of light sleep." Keep him face-up to reduce the risk of SIDS.
  • "Keep night feedings as sleepy and brief as possible," Leach also suggests. "When he cries, go to him immediately so he has no time to get into a wakeful misery. Don't play or talk while you feed him." Bring him to bed with you if you want to fall back to sleep quickly.

Newborns often sleep for four hours at a stretch and a total of 16 hours or more a day. As for how quiet the house should be while Baby sleeps, Leach says the following: "A sleeping baby need not mean a hushed household. Ordinary sounds and activities will not disturb him at this early age. However, if everybody creeps about and talks in whispers while he is asleep, there may come a time when he cannot sleep unless they do. It is therefore important to let him sleep through whatever sound level is normal for your household so that he does not come to expect a quietness that will make all your lives misery."

Calming a Crying Baby
Crying is the only means an infant has to communicate.

Your quandary: What is she telling you? Check her out. Is she hungry? Too cold or hot? Is her bedding or clothing tangled? Is her diaper dirty? Are the lights too bright, noises too loud? Is a burping in order? Is she ill? If you've run this gauntlet and put things right and she's still inconsolable:

  • Experiment to discover the most comforting way for her to be rocked (side to side, back and forth), spoken and sung to.
  • Pat or rub her back.
  • Walk the floor with her.
  • Offer a finger, breast or a pacifier to suck on.
  • Swaddle her.

All babies have their fussy period during the day (for many it's between 6 and 10 p.m.); at a certain point there is nothing you can do. Although trying to calm a distressed infant can be exasperating, always respond to the cry. "You cannot spoil a young baby by giving him attention; and if you answer his calls for help, he'll cry less overall," suggests the AAP.

What to Do for Yourself
The physical recovery from giving birth, along with sleep deprivation, can conspire to make big dents in your maternal self-esteem. Particularly for a new mother who has previously spent years being independent, the realization that you are responsible for another human so dependent on you can throw you for a loop. To help you get through this period, you owe it to yourself to...

  • Get enough sleep. Yeah, right, you're probably thinking. However, "the way to avoid sleep deprivation," proposes Schmitt, "is to know the total amount of sleep you need per day and to get that sleep in bits and pieces. Go to bed earlier in the evening. When your baby naps, you must also nap."
  • Take breaks. Take a walk, no matter how short; run your own errands, to get away. Of course, this involves asking your spouse, other family members or friends for help. If you have to, hire someone. Consider it money well-spent.
  • Get Dad into the picture. Allow him to care for the baby so that you get time alone. (You might even be able to enlist him, another relative or a friend to prepare a meal for you.)
  • Continue to eat properly, and keep taking your vitamins. accept that progress now is incremental. Break projects into smaller tasks. Wash a couple of dishes at a time if you have to.
  • Wear a snug-fitting, nonpendulous front baby carrier so you can work while holding Baby. Being close to you is familiar; she'll love the sounds and sensations and maybe even nap.
  • Delegate more. Enlist any and all visitors. Remember what they say: It takes a whole village to raise a child.

You may be vulnerable to uninvited advice as well as the most well-intentioned misguided comments of friends and family. If someone doesn't approve of your mothering techniques, Leach suggests lending him or her a parenting book that supports your philosophy (then soliciting a discussion about the differences in your opinions).

Hang in There
The first six weeks can be a real trial. You and your baby are getting to know each other, and you and your partner are adjusting to your new roles. Hold on to the thought that right around that six-week mark you will be rewarded with one of the most gratifying milestones in your entire parental career--your baby will beam a genuine smile at you. Yes!

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