Looking after my second baby girl, now twenty days old, I really feel I have a handle on what this baby-rearing thing is all about. While all babies are unique, it seems to me to be a difference of degree rather than of kind. As I’ve said before, baby care is mostly a case of putting stuff in one end and cleaning it up when it comes out the other, and in the interim making sure she isn’t too hot or too cold. If you keep that in mind, and don’t sweat the small stuff, you should do fine.
That said, becoming a parent for the first time is an incredibly scary, difficult thing. I know that some of my readers are planning on having children, and some are soon to become parents themselves, so for your benefit I thought I’d share my take on parenting – all the facts you need to confidently raise a baby. At least, the facts as I see them, and the things that I’ve found invaluable in my own life.
The General Stuff
- There’s a lot of sentimental guff spoken about babies. You hear people on the way out of the delivery room saying, ‘I love her so much, she’s perfect in every way, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’ There’s this expectation that you’re going to feel an instant connection. In my experience, new born babies look like asthmatic Smurfs – blue-skinned, gasping for breath, and stuffed into oversized hats. You look and think, ‘What on earth have I done?’ If it takes you a few days to warm to the little creature, a few days to work out how you feel, a few days to get your head round things, that’s okay. You’ve got a lifetime of emotions to come – don’t expect too much too soon.
- New born babies feed every couple of hours, sometimes for a couple of hours. If it feels like you’re always feeding your baby, you are – their stomachs are very small and with all the growing they do, they use up what they’ve drunk very quickly. Luckily, it settles down and they get into a pattern, sometimes having a big feed and a three hour sleep, sometimes cluster feeding every thirty minutes before drifting off. And when they’re finally asleep, I have one word of advice: sleep!
- Baby poo changes rapidly over the first few days, from black tar to green whole grain mustard to yellow mush. This is normal and nothing to worry about.
- Babies aren’t made of porcelain. They’re designed to make it through the birth canal, so unless you’re really clumsy, you’re probably not going to break them. But don’t put that to the test!
- You might not think of yourself as a particularly violent or jealous person, but you may find that when people pick up, touch, or even look at your baby, you feel like scratching out their eyes. This is normal, but try to remember you’re not the only one excited about your child, and you’ll have more opportunities for cuddles than anyone else can ever hope for.
- Even though they seem to prefer lying on their front, when you put your baby down to sleep, always put her on her back. If your relative tells you that the advice in their day was to put them on their front, ignore them – the advice was wrong. Babies on their front are eighteen times more likely to die of cot death than babies on their back.
- Though it is lovely to let your baby fall asleep on you, and such cuddling is to be embraced, be sure to transfer them to the cot or Moses basket for a proper sleep – you don’t want to get to the point where they will only sleep on you, or you’re setting yourself up for a very tiring couple of years.
- Babies communicate. Try to learn the little signs that they’re hungry (rooting, poking out tongue) or need burping (fidgeting, gasping) or need changing (a slightly shocked facial expression accompanied by the smell of sour milk), and deal with these things before they start to cry – it makes life much more peaceful.
- Babies cry as a form of communication – mostly because you haven’t met their needs quickly enough (i.e. within about thirty seconds!). It can be distressing for a parent to hear their child wail, seemingly in despair, but don’t take it to heart – it’s how she’s talking to you. It’s your job to figure out what she needs.
- Babies only have a handful of needs. They need to be fed; they need to be winded; they need their nappy changed. Do these things and they are normally happy.
- Babies are sometimes unhappy. When they have belly ache or a non-disclosed need, or simply want to hear their own voice, they can cry and keep crying. This can be upsetting for you, but there’s not really a lot you can do about it except rock them and hug them until they fall asleep.
- If you suspect something more serious is wrong, don’t be afraid to get advice or seek help. If you go to an out-of-hours doctor or A&E, they’re jam-packed full of new parents with young babies. It’s part and parcel of being a new parent, so don’t ever feel like you’re being neurotic.
- In the womb, babies are lulled to sleep by movement, light and noise (i.e. during the day, when mum is busy), and come awake when all is still and quiet and dark (at night, when mum is exhausted). Why, then, do we expect them to sleep in a dark, quiet room? If you’re struggling to get your baby down at night, a Moses basket on a rocking stand at the bedside, a night-light and some quiet music or a radio tuned to static can really help give you some well-earned rest.
- Make sure you have plenty of everything. Taking off a poopy nappy at 3am to discover it was the last one is nobody’s idea of a good time. That said, there will be occasions when you need to buy something in a hurry, so be sure to locate a good 24-hour store long in advance of actually needing it.
- You’re going to be tired, you’re going to be crotchety, and the baby is going to push your buttons. That’s just the way it is. If you ever feel yourself at breaking point, put the baby into the cot or Moses basket – somewhere safe, at least – and walk away. Take some deep breaths. Make a cup of tea. Ask for help. Don’t keep going until you break.
- Forget the housework. Sure, do enough to keep the place ticking over, but you don’t need to live in a show home. Provided it’s clean, don’t get too hung up on it being tidy or spotless, unless you’re prepared to add extra stress to your life in pursuit of perfection.
- Babies are better off being too cold than too hot. Older people are paranoid that your baby isn’t warm enough, but being too hot is actually dangerous for babies as their brains are vulnerable to increases in temperature. In fact, the recommended temperature to keep your home with a baby around is 19 degrees centigrade – colder than we like it.
- Eat. Drink. Sleep. You might think you can keep going forever, but trust me – if you neglect your own needs, eventually you’ll be good for nothing.
The Controversial Stuff
- Breast is not always best. Since breastfeeding has become something of a sacred cow these days, you might be treated like a pariah by the sisterhood if you shun its self-evident benefits. But not everyone can breastfeed, despite their best efforts, and you shouldn’t be made to feel a failure because of that. Faffing about with nipple shields while you’re tired, the baby’s tired and hungry, and you’re both crying does not help either of you. It can harm your self-esteem and mental well-being, and make it more difficult to bond with the baby. If you don’t feel you can cope breastfeeding then switch to the bottle – it’s as easy as that.
- Dummies (pacifiers) shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Like bottle-feeding, these simple tools have earned the opprobrium of the ‘all-natural’ brigade, but unfairly so. It’s not a means of making a baby shut up but of meeting her needs. Sometimes, between feeds, a baby needs to suck to soothe, and giving either the nipple or the bottle is inappropriate. As with anything, it’s a personal choice and nobody has the right to judge you for what you decide is best for your baby and family.
- Never underestimate the utility of swaddling. A fidgety, unsettled baby can be transformed into a contented sausage roll by wrapping her in a blanket and gently rocking her.
The Little Everyday Stuff
- When a baby breastfeeds, if done right, the first part of its body that comes into contact with its mother’s boob is its nose. If you’re breastfeeding, using a bottle or trying to keep a dummy in, and having little success, rub the baby’s nose – it often triggers the baby to latch-on.
- If your baby is distressed, has a rock-hard belly but isn’t able to poop, sit with your knees up in front of you and rest her in your lap, facing you and leaning against your thighs. Using two fingers, rub her belly in a clockwise direction centred on her belly button. After a few minutes, switch to gently pushing her knees up towards her chest. Alternate between the two. If this fails to work, pick her up under the armpits and allow her to stretch out in the air – oftentimes, gravity will cause the world to fall out of her arse.
- Whether male or female, while changing nappies you will get explosions from front and back. Before removing the nappy, be prepared: make sure you have cotton wool, water, nappy bag, clean nappy, and toilet paper. Keep them out of the way so that if things do go flying, they don’t get soiled too.
- Urine has a chemical in it that can’t simply be scrubbed out of the carpet with soap and water. I’ve tried. A couple of days later, you start to smell stale wee and go mad trying to locate the source. If there’s an accident and baby champagne goes everywhere, you need to use a proper cleaning product. I recommend the spray cleaners sold in pet shops as they contain enzymes that neutralize the odour while also disinfecting the area.
- When bottle-feeding a baby, an armchair or a sofa with a cushion – or even putting your knee beneath your elbow – prevents you getting a dead arm. Make sure you’re in a comfortable position that you can maintain before you start feeding or you’ll regret it.
- Always burp your baby after feeding. Babies have immature digestive systems and inefficient swallowing reflexes, so gulp down a great deal of air along the milk – air that causes wind and discomfort. It’s sometimes tempting in the middle of the night when the baby falls asleep at the breast or bottle simply to place her gently down and return to bed. Don’t. You’ll be getting up again in 5-10 minutes to burp an unhappy baby, right when you’re falling asleep, making both of you grumpy.
- Check out Dunstan Baby Language. This is the idea that all babies are born with five ‘words’ that they use for the first three months – ‘neh’ (I’m hungry), ‘eh-eh-eh’ (I need burping), ‘eairh’ (I’ve got belly ache), ‘heh’ (I’m uncomfortable/please change my nappy), and ‘owh’ (I’m sleepy). Though this hasn’t been scientifically scrutinised, it has undoubtedly worked for both of mine, especially the first three words. It makes it so much easier to know what she wants, and this leads to a calmer household.
- Make a record of every time she eats, poops, sleeps, for at least the first couple of weeks. You can very quickly spot patterns to her behaviour, and knowing when she last ate or had a bowel movement is very reassuring. It’s also helpful to be able to tell to doctors, midwives and health visitors, in case there is anything wrong.
The Annoying Stuff
- If you’re female and you go out with the baby, nobody will bat an eyelid.
- If you’re male and you go out with the baby, you’ll be stopped by every old woman you see. But they’ll only ever ask you how the mother’s coping, and then congratulate you on ‘doing your part’.
- People will give you advice. Lots of advice. Much of it will be wrong and directly contradict what you’ve been told by the midwife. Much of it will be against your principles. Luckily, advice is free and is not mandatory. You might as well listen, smile, and say ‘I’ll think about it.’ And then do what feels right for you.
- People will give you opinions. Lots of opinions. You will feel judged, because they are judging you. But the only expert in your baby is you, and everyone else can bugger off, because opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one and they’re mostly full of shit.
- People will make out like modern parents are useless because when they were parents, they never had car seats and parent/child parking, or washing machines or paternity leave or Perfect Prep machines. They’re just resentful they didn’t have these conveniences, and criticising us makes them feel better about the fact that their infant mortality rate was about ten times what it is today.
- You will feel patronised because people will be patronising. This is my second baby, yet I’m still told to ‘make sure she’s warm enough’ and ‘support her head’, as though without these instructions I would somehow flush my baby down the toilet without realising I was doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, there’s no way I know of not to get annoyed by these ‘helpful’ comments.
- Your family and friends will no longer talk to you, except about the baby. They’ll come to see the baby, but not you. And they won’t listen. You can break off mid-sentence and nobody will notice. You’re not going to have a grown-up conversation for a while.
- Unless you’re really weird (or single), you and your partner will argue. You’re both tired, you’re both under stress, you’re both trying to adjust to this new life you find yourselves in, so don’t expect your relationship to be perfect. In my experience, you’ll have a crap time for a few months but it’ll pass. Don’t take your disagreements too seriously. Don’t throw in the towel too quickly. It all works out in the end.
The Good Stuff
- Being a parent is awesome.
- Looking after something that is entirely dependent upon you for its very existence is an honour as well as a responsibility.
- You get to use parent/child spaces.
- When you hop about, sing, dance and act like a clown, you can say you’re doing it to ‘entertain’ the baby.
- You gain a new understanding of your own parents.
- You watch more sunrises than you ever knew existed.
- You get the morning news before anyone else.
- You realise it’s the best thing you’ve ever done and you’re grateful to experience the ever-changing miracle that is your child.
And that, mums and dads, is baby care in a nutshell. Here endeth the lesson. Now go forth and multiply!