Taking care of a baby can be less stressful than you fear. Here are the 10 most important things you need to know (including what you don't need to do).
The prospect of caring for a newborn 24/7 can be daunting, what with the floppy head, shrill cries and sheer mystery of it all. But with time, practice and a common-sense approach, you'll quickly be a diapering, bathing, burping pro. Our wisdom gleaned over the past 15 years will help you get there—and give you some much-needed perspective and peace of mind.
1. Breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed your baby. But it's not necessarily easy. Lactation has come out of the shadows, and it's no longer taboo to admit that nursing is difficult for many women. If you find you're having any problems whatsoever, call a lactation consultant—pronto.
And if you still can't breastfeed, or if you can't breastfeed exclusively, know that you're not raising the next Hannibal Lecter by giving your little one formula. "Still, any bit helps, so if you are able to nurse your baby once or twice a day, do," says Atlanta pediatrician Jennifer Shu, M.D., co-author of Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality (American Academy of Pediatrics).
2. You don't need to bathe your baby every day. In fact, you shouldn't, as too much water and soap can irritate a newborn's delicate skin. "Babies are not yet rolling in the mud, so bathing twice a week is usually what I recommend," Shu says. In the meantime, a sponge bath should do the job if your baby has a particularly messy blowout, or if milk or other crud builds up in the folds of his neck or elsewhere.
3. It's really important to put your baby to sleep on his back. Since the federal Back to Sleep campaign began 14 years ago, studies have confirmed that back sleeping reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) by 50 percent. Place your baby on his back to sleep. Every time. No excuses. And make sure any caregivers do, too, including grandma.
4. Infants are more mobile than you think. Although the average age at which babies roll over is 4 months, it could happen as early as 2 weeks. "The first time your baby rolls over could be off the bed, changing table or couch," Shu says, "so get in the habit from day one of never leaving him unattended on a raised surface." Also never put him in a bouncy seat on, say, the kitchen counter—even newborns can jiggle enough to send the seat crashing to the floor.
5. Three out of four car seats are installed incorrectly. You need to become an expert at this, so read your car seat and vehicle manuals thoroughly, take a class if possible, and have your installation inspected by a professional. (For a list of car-seat safety checks nationwide, visit usa.safekids.org and click on "find car seat >> check-up events near you.") "Knowing how to install your baby's car seat is of paramount importance," Shu says.
6. You don't need to change a wet diaper immediately. "Today's disposables wick away moisture, so your baby will stay dry until the diaper is close to overflowing," Shu says. (Not that you should let it get this full; this can set the stage for a nasty rash, especially if you're using cloth diapers.) Use discretion with wet diapers at night, too: Changing your baby can be stimulating and make it difficult for him to get back to sleep. A poopy diaper is another matter, though: Change promptly.
7. Your job is to go with the flow. Most newborns have absolutely no eating or sleeping schedules, and trying to impose them will only frustrate you both. But with time, your baby will naturally fall into a routine. "Babies typically establish a sleep routine between the age of 1 and 4 months," Shu says. "Eating is more predictable: Newborns fall into an eating pattern pretty soon after birth."
8. Crying is normal. It's your baby's only way of expressing himself. This is small comfort at 3 a.m., of course. To soothe your baby, try pediatrician Harvey Karp's "5 S's":
• Swaddle your baby tightly.
• Hold him on his side or stomach.
• Make shushing noises in his ear.
• Make them as loud as the crying.
• Swing him, either in your arms or a swing.
• Let your baby suck. A pacifier, bottle or breast will do.
If this doesn't work and you become concerned, don't be shy about calling your pediatrician. "It's typical for infants to cry for a total of two to three hours over the course of a day," Shu explains. (To make matters even worse, it often peaks around your dinnertime.) "But if there's a change in your baby's crying pattern and you're worried, err on the side of caution and seek help. Parents' hunches are often correct."
Also keep in mind that babies do outgrow their fussiness. "It usually begins about two weeks after birth and peaks by the age of 6 weeks," Shu explains. "And it's usually gone by 3 to 4 months."
9. It's OK to walk away. If your baby is screaming inconsolably and you need a break, take 10 seconds or 10 minutes—whatever is required—to compose yourself. Just be sure your baby is safe before doing so. "Babies don't die from being in a crib or bassinet when you have to walk away," Shu says. "They die when parents get so overworked that they shake them."
10. You don't need to entertain your baby every minute. Whether they're looking out the window or staring at a light, infants are continually learning. Give your baby the space to discover his world—and don't feel that you need to bombard him with stimulation; this may only make him fussy. "Any time you spend engaged with your baby is quality time," Shu explains. "Even if you're doing something as mundane as going to the grocery store, talk to him and make eye contact as you shop."