This isn’t your mother-in-law’s unsolicited advice
Newborn humans are a special kind of adorable; they’re wrinkly, they resemble the old man version of Benjamin Button, and they have an awkward/funny way of trying to navigate their new world. Their baby noises, quirks, and facial expressions are endearing and sometimes, even comical.
But they’re also incredibly difficult, challenging, and exhausting little people who rely entirely on their parents and caregivers for every.single.thing, big and small, from repeated diaper changes to constant feedings.
The physical act of becoming a new mother is often forgotten in the days and weeks that come afterwards. Sleep deprivation complicates the healing process, and the pain of birth becomes almost an afterthought until you find yourself wincing while trying to get off the couch. Conversely, keeping a little one alive reminds us at every waking moment that we are now mothers and that our roles on this earth have forever changed. Our “shifts” now last from the early morning hours to the dredges of midnight and we will now witness more sunrises than we ever have before, a fairly bittersweet reminder that this is our lot in life now, at least for the next eighteen years.
When I became a new mother, I realized how outside of my comfort zone I was as soon as I brought my baby home. The nurses and midwives at the hospital offered tips and techniques for keeping our newest addition safe and happy, but this advice flew right out the window the instant he started crying. Now that we’re one month in the trenches, he hasn’t stopped crying- but every day leaves me feeling a little more confident in navigating this new role of mine.
It also leaves me feeling sad for new mothers, who- if they are anything like me- seem to be woefully unprepared for what horrors and rewards await them on the other side. Therefore, in order to cope with my own insanity and sleeplessness, I’ve identified a few points that I wish someone would have really nailed home with me before I left the relative safety of the hospital.
You are going to long for sleep like you’ve never longed for anything.
Sleep deprivation is real. The first night, my husband and I both slept about 2–3 hours each versus our usual 8. Multiply this by every single night and we’re talking about an extreme deficit, and one that could potentially have harmful effects on both a new mother’s physical and emotional well-being. In fact, sleep deprivation can contribute to the development- or the worsening of preexisting- postpartum conditions such as depression and anxiety¹. The most consistent advice I received about avoiding the pitfalls of sleep deprivation was to “nap when the baby naps”; it was only until I actually attempted to do this at home that I realized how virtually impossible this really was.
The reality is that babies can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, and at varying times throughout the day, leaving little wiggle room for a mother who attempts to mirror her baby’s nap times. There are other demands of motherhood (such as pumping) that prevent a new mother from crashing simultaneously with a newborn, and I found that this advice wasn’t really all that helpful in the first few days- we can’t all just fall asleep on command!
What works for me? Learning the baby’s general routine and mimicking it as much as possible. Since our pediatrician recommended feeding our son every 2 hours for the first week or two, I alternated feedings with both napping and completing other responsibilities, such as laundry and pumping. It is difficult, but I have been able to catch some much needed Z’s on occasion without feeling like everyday tasks were being neglected.
Breastfeeding is really, really hard.
I’m a planner; I enjoy planning all of my endeavors down to the very last obnoxious talking point. So imagine my frustration and sadness when I realized that nursing- which I had planned to do exclusively for the first year- was both extremely exhausting and challenging to the point of tears.
I happened to be paired with a newborn who flails and cries when he’s hungry. There’s a very small window to get him fed before his hunger overpowers him and he becomes a clawing, angry monster baby who more closely resembles a Tasmanian devil than a small human. Tearing my shirt off in order to position this wild baby at the breast while simultaneously applying a nipple shield and encouraging a successful latch during those few minutes before all hell breaks loose has left me sobbing more times than I can count. In fact, if this all happens too late, my child gets too upset to nurse correctly and he ends up screaming. Now he can cry real tears, which makes me feel even worse about my failed attempts at nursing.
What works for me? I have found more success with pumping, though it has been difficult to actually sit down for 20–30 minutes and get it done with any consistency. Despite this change to my original plan, my baby is still reaping the major benefits of breast milk but from a bottle, which means that my husband can now participate in feeding. Because of this versatility, he and our son can also enjoy some bonding time while I can catch a much needed break.²
It is important to note that there is a lot of guilt associated with deciding to bottle feed versus exclusively nurse. Please don’t let this be an obstacle to the consideration of all available options to feeding your baby; in my personal opinion, fed is truly the best. Discuss these alternatives with your child’s doctor to get the most relevant, recent information on the benefits of breast milk- whether in breast or bottle form- and whether formula is an appropriate option as well.
Learning the difference between night and day is crucial.
There is an overwhelming urge to cocoon with a newborn in a dark room during the day, trying to catch up on sleep. But over the past month, I have found that doing this actually makes things worse. Why? Because a baby is still working on developing his own circadian rhythm, which will eventually help him to better understand the difference between night and day. Until this rhythm fully develops (usually between 1 and 3 months of age³), it seems beneficial to help a newborn understand that there actually is a difference between the two so that he can start alternating between daytime alert stages and nighttime sleepiness.
What works for me? As challenging as it is, I throw open the curtains and turn the lights on all around the house in the morning, allowing the natural light to seep in. At night, I do the opposite: I turn the lights off except for the one in the nursery, reduce the sound on the television, and start introducing some white noise through both a fan and a machine. This helps drown out the noise from the outside while encouraging my baby to start settling down. We still struggle with the “witching hour” which lasts from 9 until about 10:30 pm when he cries for seemingly no reason, but reducing some of the stimulation around him seems to help him understand that the nighttime isn’t scary- it’s just a time for rest and relaxation.
Try some stimulating activities when baby won’t stop crying.
It sounds counter-intuitive (“stimulate baby more when he’s crying, really?”) but I’ve learned that sometimes, babies cry out of sheer boredom. Imagine being carried around all day with your only consistent activities being eating, sleeping, and defecating in your own pants. I think that I tried at least a dozen times to prepare my newborn for sleep when in fact, he wanted just the opposite. It took me a few tries to learn the cues of the alert stage including bright, open eyes and a quiet but attentive demeanor⁴, but once I recognized that he required more than just a feeding and a nap, I was able to skip some of those crying spells and actually do something fun for a few minutes.
What works for me? Music, lights, and toys that make noise are pretty great options when your baby wants something more than the regular old routine. An activity mat that offers flashing lights and music, a toy that shakes or rattles, and even the baby channel on Pandora help offer your newborn some much needed (and desired) stimulation. In fact, listening to music helps babies processing speech sounds more effectively, which is an important skill for ongoing development⁵. Bonus points if you sing to your baby and offer up some interesting facial expressions for him to study and mimic.
Expect to argue with your significant other….a lot.
My husband and I have been together for almost 11 years and we have never been the couple to argue frequently- until our baby popped onto the scene like a napalm-drenched atomic bomb. We argued in the hospital over his snoring, we argued at home over my inability to reach out and ask family members for help, and we argued over differences in our approaches to parenting a newly-hatched human. Sleep deprivation makes the vast and frustrating challenges of new parenthood even worse, and I often found myself starting a fight just to get the tension and stress out. Obviously, this is neither functional nor healthy in any way, but in my experience it’s temporary- after the first few challenging weeks, you’ll start to support each other better, potentially avoiding some common new parenthood pitfalls.
What works for me? Recognizing when I need a break and asking for it. My husband and I both used to work at residential treatment facilities with delinquent youths and we had to learn very quickly when we needed to step aside and allow someone else in to handle the situation. It helps to be able to recognize your partner’s growing frustration and offer to take the baby for a few minutes; I tend to suggest that my husband get out and take a drive with the dog for a little bit to clear his head. This requires some humility on both parts, though, because there will be times when you can’t recognize the signs of your own frustration because you’re too mired in it. When this happens, you will find yourself wanting to refuse the relief- but don’t. Let your partner offer you a break during these occasions so that you can walk away for a bit, allowing you some much needed time to breathe.
Know that it’s all going to be okay.
Look, I’m not going to lie here for the sake of making anyone feel any better. I have been through some pretty tough things during the course of my lifetime, so I think I can say with some credibility that parenting a baby is literally the hardest thing I have ever done. Ever. I struggle every day to remember that most of these challenges are temporary, that it will get better, and that one day I will look back on these times and laugh at the sheer lunacy of it all. To be honest, I may even long for the chaos of these first few weeks and months when my newborn is older and doesn’t want me around as much. I try to think about the future when I’m lost in those “special” moments, drenched in urine or leaked milk, smelling like a foot because I’m a day overdue for a shower and chose to get some extra sleep instead of washing my body like I should have (priorities!).
It’s important to measure success in small increments at this stage and I always consider the fact that my baby is still alive and healthy at the end of each day to be the greatest determination of my ability as a new mother. The dissonance that still exists between my old way of life and my new role remains a constant struggle, and I have had to dramatically alter my expectations in order to make it through the day, but every day I feel better and more confident. Sure, sleep remains an elusive creature- never to be seen again- but after awhile you just get used to it and soldier on in search of those smiles and milestones that await you just around the next corner.
So for all you new moms out there in the trenches, know that it will begin to get better and that every day, you’ll look back and realize that you’re already stronger. Try to ask for help when you need it, cry when you need to, and be prepared to alter your plans in favor of flexibility and spontaneity.
I promise you, it’s all going to be okay.
: Sara Petersen. (2020). New mothers don’t get enough sleep. That needs to change. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2020/02/12/new-mothers-dont-get-enough-sleep-that-needs-change/
: Motherly. (n.d.). Proud papa: 7 ways for dad to bond with his newborn baby. https://www.mother.ly/love/7-tips-to-help-dad-bond-with-baby
: Scott A. Rivkees, Majid Mirmiran and Ronald L. Ariagno. (2003). Circadian rhythms in infants. https://neoreviews.aappublications.org/
: Dr. Brownwyn Leigh. (2016). Six stages of alertness for newborns. https://www.centreforperinatalpsychology.com.au/states-of-alertness/
: Molly McElroy. (2016). Music improves baby brain responses to music and speech. https://www.washington.edu/news/2016/04/25/music-improves-baby-brain-responses-to-music-and-speech/