New-Mom Milestones

You celebrate every milestone your baby reaches. (The first smile! Rolling over!) But you've got your own set of "firsts" to strive for—and we're here to tell you that, no matter how hard it may be, you will achieve every one of your new mom milestones.

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I confess, pregnancy offered me scant preparation for motherhood. A strange blend of contemplative retreat meets extended shopping spree, my pregnancy was, for the most part, all about me. After my son, Jordan, arrived, my days suddenly narrowed to a series of repetitive actions that were all about him: nurse, burp, diaper, sleep, repeat.

Meanwhile, my internal life succumbed to an unpredictable pattern of emotional extremes. Part of the turbulence that arises from life with a newborn boils down to sheer inexperience. Like me, many new moms are clueless about how to handle a baby. Combined with sleep deprivation, that makes for a brutally steep learning curve. But learn you will. Along with the challenges, every new mom also gets her share of the good stuff. Just like babies, whose every milestone is recorded and widely shared, you have your own set of "firsts" to be proud of—even if no one else showers them with the same degree of fanfare. Here is our guide to those private, satisfying moments that give you the sense that not only are you getting the hang of mothering, you're enjoying it, too.

MILESTONE NO. 1: Nailing the latch

Although your baby's first instinct is to root for your breast, breastfeeding doesn't always go smoothly. "Part of the issue is alertness. For the first three days babies can be very sleepy and often do little in the way of sucking once they latch on," says Elena Vogel, C.L.E., C.D. (DONA), a certified lactation educator and doula in Los Angeles.

To encourage nursing, Vogel suggests stripping your baby down to his diaper for the first few weeks to help him stay awake while feeding (being naked lowers your baby's body temperature; if he gets too warm, he'll likely fall asleep) as well as rubbing your baby's head, back or feet to stimulate him to keep sucking. If he still misses the mark, try a different nursing position.

Truth be told, breastfeeding is hard for many new moms, and a little guidance can go a long way. Most hospitals offer lactation consultants you can confer with as well as breastfeeding support groups. La Leche League International (lllusa.org) has information on breastfeeding meetings in all 50 states, as well as a 24-hour toll-free breastfeeding hotline (877-452-5324). Stay with it, and be patient when working out the kinks. Eventually you will literally be able to nurse in your sleep.

MILESTONE NO. 2: Making your first honest-to-goodness new-mom friend

The company of other moms is crucial to motherhood, but socializing can be tough in the first few months. "The best time to nurture new friendships is while you're pregnant," says Kathryn Black, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in Boulder, Colo., and author of Mothering Without a Map (Penguin). She suggests taking a birthing class or prenatal yoga class to meet other moms-to-be, but if you missed that window, don't fret.

"You have so much common ground with any mother who has a child the same age," says Samantha Ettus, author of The Experts' Guide to the Baby Years (Clarkson Potter). Take your baby for a walk in the park, go to the play area in the mall or sign up for a mommy-and-me class and initiate a conversation with a fellow mom. "You can strike up a friendship by immediately asking a lot of questions—and no one will think you're crazy," says Ettus. In fact, you'll likely get a warmer response than you'd expect. Do what it takes to meet other moms and make friends, and motherhood will instantly be less daunting.

MILESTONE NO. 3: Finding a rhythm

While the willy-nillyness of a newborn "schedule" can be unnerving, sooner than you think a routine will fall into place. Figuring out your baby's natural patterns—when he's tired, hungry and fussy— will help you structure your day. Begin by getting on a somewhat flexible schedule that maps out a rough bedtime and morning wakeup time.

"Starting at six weeks, quieting down the environment for sleep times can shift your baby to a healthier pattern of napping and nighttime sleep," says Kim West, LCSW-C, an infant sleep expert and author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight (Vanguard Press). Get in the habit of doing the same things with your baby before he goes to sleep—reading a story, snuggling or, in the eve- ning, giving him a bath—as a cue that it's time to rest. This can also help you forge a routine and begin to feel more settled. Another way to encourage your baby's ability to fall asleep on his own and surrender more easily to a schedule is to create a sleep-friendly environment. Paint his room in calm colors, equip it with blackout shades, and help him associate the crib with quiet play and sleep, not as a holding zone while you do chores.

MILESTONE NO. 4: Your first breakdown

You may spend a few minutes every day second-guessing your decision to have a baby. Breakdowns, temper tantrums (your own) and the desire to go AWOL are par for the course. If you find yourself losing it, take the time to soothe yourself first. "Babies are terrific at reading your body and emotions and can feel your distress," says Black.

Put the baby in a safe place, such as a swing or bouncy seat, and take some deep breaths. Or call someone: your husband, your friend or your mother. "Don't be embarrassed to sob," says Black. While tackling the overwhelming task of caring for your baby, you need to take care of yourself, too. "Lack of sleep, poor nutrition and fluctuating hormones all have a huge effect on your emotional state," says Black. Avoid crashing by not letting yourself get too hungry or dehydrated; fight the urge to do chores if you need to lie down; and get out on your own each day—without your baby, if possible—even if it's just to take a walk around the block. For most mothers, the storm will eventually pass, but some women may experience mild to moderate postpartum depression. If your emotional breakdowns start to blur into each other, seek professional assistance.

MILESTONE NO. 5: Resolving that a clean house is just not important

Dust-free shelves and weekly vacuuming are just a few of the things that get sacrificed when baby makes three. "A lot of our expectations about cleanliness are all in our own mind," says Meg Meeker, M.D., the Traverse City, Mich.-based author of The Ten Habits of Happy Mothers (Ballantine Books). "Babies don't need a perfectly clean house; they need a calm, relaxed, rested mother." Friends, relatives, neighbors and even co-workers are often willing to lend a hand—take them up on it!

If you can afford it, hire a housekeeper or sign up with a meal service for the first few months. One of my favorite things about having a new baby was the meal tree my friend organized for me. Anybody she could recruit signed up for a night to bring us a meal, often providing enough that we had leftovers the next day.

MILESTONE NO. 6: Soothing your baby becomes second nature

Ah, the electrifying (and hair-raising) sound of a crying baby. Here's where those parenting books sitting unread on your night table come in handy. If you haven't already, crack open The Happiest Baby on the Block (or, even simpler, pop in the DVD version) by Harvey Karp, M.D. (Bantam Books), and commit to memory his "5 S's" program: swaddling, shushing, sucking, swinging and side/stomach position. His technique is taught in parenting classes in hospitals for good reason— it works. "Swaddling and white noise stopped my son's crying and was the first thing that made me feel I wasn't completely powerless," says Nikki Gersten, a first-time mom in Portland, Ore.

But the S's may not stop every infant's cries. For some babies, it's doing stair repeats; or riding in a car; or being bounced on an exercise ball ad infinitum; or taking a bath with you. We promise, you'll eventually discover what works.

MILESTONE NO. 7: Finding your sense of humor

Spending the day with a fussy baby is a mild form of torture, like listening to a whistling kettle you are not allowed to turn off. It's hard to find humor when every fiber of your being is engaged in silent weeping, but laughing is sometimes the only way to get through the desperate absurdity of those first few months.

Gersten, whose son was a big fan of white noise CDs, recalls the time she and her husband couldn't find the remote to their CD player, which was the only way to operate it. Unable to eject the CD, and afraid it wouldn't start again if they unplugged it, she says, "We had the rain CD on for six weeks— continually. We joked about it raining for 40 days and 40 nights." Looking back, Gersten admits that sleep deprivation may have played a role. "We finally bought a new remote. What seems so simple now was just baffling to us then," she says.

MILESTONE NO. 8: Getting more than two hours of sleep in a row

Babies sleep in spurts. A part of you will adjust, and the other part of you will slowly lose your mind. Sleep deprivation can make you feel crazy, but the good news is you can get your baby to sleep longer after the first eight weeks. "If your baby is healthy and full term, at between 8 to 12 weeks old you can expect one six-hour span of sleep a night from her," West says. The caveat? She must have eaten well during the day, so she doesn't have as much incentive to wake up to eat at night.

During the day, your infant needs to be fed every three hours until 4 months of age, so the adage to never wake a sleeping baby simply doesn't hold true. To encourage longer nighttime sleep stretches, don't let your baby sleep through a daytime feeding. That means no naps longer than three hours, tempting as they are. By limiting your baby's daytime sleep, which also maximizes her exposure to daylight, you help her move to a better night sleep schedule. If she still wakes frequently at night, you need to gently curb those nocturnal comfort feeding sessions. Don't always rush to feed her when she cries. Simply reassure her by shushing, patting or jiggling or, as a last resort, picking her up briefly. Yes, there will be tears. But not as many as you think, especially if you are consistent with your approach.

MILESTONE NO. 9: Taking your baby out for the first time

If you can swing it, enjoy a staying-in period for the first month when all you have to do is bond with your baby at home. When you feel ready to brave the world, take it slow. "I vividly remember the first time I tried to leave the house with my baby," says Ettus. "It took me two hours even though I was only going two blocks away." Baby aside, the diaper bag, the stroller and the car seat all involve learning curves in their own right. Give yourself time to figure out how they work, and you will soon be able to whittle down that two-hour slog.

With my son, I went the minimal-gear route with our first excursions, and limited them to a four-mile radius from our home. I figured out how his carrier worked by watching a few online tutorials, and triumphantly maneuvered Jordan so we were chest to chest. Holding his wee hands as we walked, I had the best of both worlds: I was enjoying a chance to bond with my son and exercising at the same time.

MILESTONE NO. 10: Your first date with your partner

Date nights, which many new parents agree to in theory but never actually have, can serve two fundamental purposes: They help your relationship thrive and get you out of the house without your baby in tow. "Dates make us feel like we are more than just exhausted moms," says Meeker. But don't expect to have the same experience you had before having a baby.

While some experts advise not talking about your baby on dates, Black suggests embracing your new identity as parents. "You have other friends you can discuss movies with, but no one else is as interested in your baby," she says. While most things you enjoyed together before you had a baby don't necessarily change, you are more likely to view and do them differently now. How are you and your partner different now that you are parents? How does the world seem different? That subject is worth exploring on your dates, says Black.

When my husband and I went out on our first date six months after having the baby, we spent the whole time talking about Jordan. Freed from the cycle of diapering, feeding and burping, we could see the huge blessing of his presence with dazzling clarity. We were an enthusiastic admiration society of two, and by the end of the meal, we couldn't wait to hold him again. That's the ultimate mom milestone: not the going out per se, but the eagerness to return home. Because once that baby love has you nailed, the milestones—both yours and your child's—will come thick and fast.

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