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.