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.