There will be beautiful moments and lots of bonding. Also very little sleep and some tears (from you). Read on to get perspective on the first seven days of parenthood.
It was our first full day at home with our son, Noah. By 7 p.m., he was sleeping in his bassinet and I was resting when our pediatrician called. Blood test results revealed Noah had jaundice and needed treatment. At the hospital. Right now.
We spent that night and most of the next day in the hospital—me on a cot, my husband in a chair, and Noah in an isolette, a tiny blocker over his eyes, basking in the UV light that would help his body fight the toxins of this common newborn illness. I wish that I’d had the perspective then to see that jaundice would be a highly curable, passing problem, but even once we were home, the experience left me an emotional wreck. I struggled to settle into a routine.
Now I understand better that feeling out of sorts is a normal part of any postbirth experience. “Those first days are a mix of physical, psychological, and social changes,” says Leena Mittal, M.D., director of the Reproductive Psychiatry Consultation Service at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston. Here’s how to gracefully clear any hurdles ahead.
Day 1: Your Body Is in Shock From Delivery
Everyone thinks about their impending birth; few consider the recovery. “I didn’t realize it would be so traumatic,” says Sarah Camacho, a mom of two in Denver, recalling a lot of “down there” discomfort from her vaginal delivery. “I had to use a squirt bottle every time I went to the bathroom to soothe the pain of my stitches, and I felt bruised. I couldn’t sit down without a donut pillow. Even walking was exhausting.”
If you deliver vaginally, you are going to be extremely sore—a baby the size of a Virginia ham did just come out of a very small spot. Ice the area for the first 24 hours in the hospital and then take frequent warm baths at home to soften stitches and keep them from feeling tight, says Laura Riley, M.D., director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital. There is some good news: “Because a lot of blood flows to your vagina, the area heals quickly—in a matter of days,” she says.
For cesarean births, pain medication (OTC or prescription) can relieve the soreness and pulling at your incision site. “It’s important that you take enough medication during the first week so you feel good enough to move around, which is what encourages recovery,” explains Dr. Riley. Your C-section incision will take four to six weeks to fully heal, so keep an eye out for infection. If it leaks, smells, burns, or looks red, or if you develop a fever of more than 100.4ºF, call your doctor.
No matter how you delivered, you can expect a lot of cramping during this time as your uterus shrinks to its pre-pregnancy size. If you’re nursing, the pain will be strongest when your baby latches on, which signals your body to start releasing oxytocin, a contraction-triggering hormone. And all postpartum women experience a few weeks of lochia, vaginal discharge that includes blood, mucus, and placental tissue.
Day 2: Your Newborn May Develop Jaundice
About 60 percent of newborns will experience some degree of jaundice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The telltale yellow coloring usually starts at the head and works its way down, says Lisa M. Asta, M.D., associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California in San Francisco. The tricky thing about this condition, caused when levels of bilirubin build up excessively in an infant’s bloodstream, is that it often appears when your baby is 3 to 5 days old, which is when you’re likely already at home.
Most cases resolve on their own, but because jaundice can cause brain damage if left untreated, many pediatricians will have you schedule a newborn visit about two days after you get home from the hospital to check for it. Always call your pediatrician if your baby’s abdomen, arms, legs, or the whites of his eyes are yellow. If your baby has already been diagnosed with jaundice and he becomes fussy, hard to wake, or is not feeding well, dial your doc.
Because my son Noah was two weeks early and on the small side (5 pounds, 15 ounces at birth) and because his bilirubin numbers were high, his pediatrician wanted to be aggressive with treatment. Other babies with jaundice may get sent home with a bili blanket, a flexible lighted pad that Baby rests on (supervised, at home) as it breaks down the bilirubin molecules.
Day 3: Nursing Is the Hardest It Will Ever Be
When moms of older kids dreamily tell you how much they “loved, loved!” breastfeeding, they are not remembering the first seven days. Even when your baby latches on correctly (his lips flipped out, chin pressed close, jaw and ear moving slightly), pain at latch-on is common for the first week or two. Still, the nursing session itself shouldn’t hurt after the latch, says Lisa Marasco, a lactation consultant in Santa Maria, California. “I see moms who wait to get help because they think scabs, cracks, and bleeding are part of nursing,” says Marasco. Not so! See a lactation consultant. “I met with one the day after I left the hospital, and it was two hours well spent,” says Chicago mom Claudia Rozenberg. “She showed me positions that made nursing 100 times better.”
Your emerging supply may stress you out too. While milk can come in as early as 36 hours after birth, for some women it can take four to five days—and yet you have a hungry babe in your arms. Just keep offering your breast to both stimulate milk production and eke out every bit of the nutrient-rich colostrum for your newborn, says Marasco. You may start to feel like you’re nursing all the time—because, um, you are—but it won’t always be this way.
Day 4: You May Cry a Lot
“I had a healthy baby and I knew I should be happy, but I kept sobbing about the trauma of my unplanned C-section,” recalls Megan Orringer, a mom in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Feeling sad about not having the birth experience they planned jolts many women. And regardless, your body is on a hormonal roller coaster during these first weeks. The highs can help you bond with your baby, but you may hit lows you’ve never experienced before. Adds Dr. Riley: “Your body doesn’t feel like your own, your boobs hurt, your bottom is sore, you’re not sleeping, you may not have much help. The postpartum blues magnify all of that stress.”
Bonding isn’t necessarily automatic, either. It’s okay to feel somewhat disconnected from your newborn at first, or to be anxious about not knowing how to take care of your baby. Give yourself time to just be with your little one: Feeding and changing him will grow your confidence, says Dr. Mittal. When he’s alert, focus on him. Hold your baby, noting what positions he prefers. Sing, imitate his sounds, and make eye contact with him. However, if you continue to feel indifferent or anxious, or your feelings of sadness worsen, especially if you begin to have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, you may have postpartum depression. Contact your ob-gyn, who can steer you to help right away.
Day 5: Oh, Hello, Sleep Deprivation
At first, the adrenaline rush of having a baby carries you through. Then comes the crash—the rude awakening that this is no temporary matter. “I labored through the night and struggled to sleep in the hospital,” says Emily Jo Hoover, a mom in Pacifica, California. “At home, my baby wanted to nurse all night. Then after a day that included a doctor’s appointment and seeing a lactation consultant, I started shaking from pure exhaustion.”
Everyone has a different threshold for sleep deprivation, so don’t compare yourself to friends or your partner. Be open to trying advice like “nap when the baby naps.” I was a skeptic about this “tired” advice. (Take a mid-morning nap? I have so much to do!) But I forced myself to give it a go most of the time, and it really did help me maintain my energy. Yes, one 24-hour cycle blended into the next, but this lasted for only a few weeks, until Noah started dozing for longer stretches.
Day 6: Helpful People Mean So Well, But You Don’t Want a Crowd Around
Your phone will be lit up with texts reading, “No pressure, but we’d love to come by!” Discuss now with your partner who makes the first-week cut. Grandparents, sibs, and best friends only? Neighbors too? “I loved having our mothers, siblings, and my aunt lend support,” says Riva Marker, a mom in Brooklyn, New York. “It boosted my adrenaline, but my wife, Erica, wanted us to bond with our son as just a threesome.” Next time, Marker says they will plan to have some private time for their immediate family first.
It’s okay to be selfish about placing the needs of your little family first and making others wait, Dr. Mittal says. There are other ways eager pals can help. Take them up on offers to deliver food or give the dog a walk, with each task earning them a peek at the baby!
Day 7: You're On Your Way!
The jaundice, gone. The stitches, dissolved. In the months to come, the sleep will (eh, sort of) return and you’ll become one of those moms reminiscing about how much you loved nursing. But the tears? Total mom thing that seems to stick around. When Noah was 18 months old I was still sobbing on occasion. Surprisingly, it’s the little moments that continue to get me. Like watching him sit up on his own, or hearing his laugh, or when he plants a toothy kiss, with some spit, on my nose. I get a little teary now just thinking about it.