Baby care: what you should know

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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!
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

  1. If you’re female and you go out with the baby, nobody will bat an eyelid.
  2. 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’.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

  1. Being a parent is awesome.
  2. Looking after something that is entirely dependent upon you for its very existence is an honour as well as a responsibility.
  3. You get to use parent/child spaces.
  4. When you hop about, sing, dance and act like a clown, you can say you’re doing it to ‘entertain’ the baby.
  5. You gain a new understanding of your own parents.
  6. You watch more sunrises than you ever knew existed.
  7. You get the morning news before anyone else.
  8. 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!

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Knowing What’s Right

As a new parent, you want to get things right. You want to do the right kind of feeding, whether breast or bottle, the right amount, the right products, the right process. What kind of teat, how fast the flow, normal or anti-colic, two-hourly, three-hourly, on demand? You want the right sort of nappies, the right size, the right comfort. Sleepsuit or outfit? Woolly hat or sunhat? Is she warm enough? Too hot? What’s the right thing to do?

Unfortunately, ‘right’ is a fluid concept. It changes depending on who you talk to, which books you read, the websites you consult. It changes from child to child, and no matter how much you weigh up the evidence for one thing against another, the answer remains ever elusive. Short of turning your baby into a test subject as you experiment on them with various methods and tools to see what works, which not only makes you and your child confused but damages your bank balance, you have to find some way of navigating through all this mess.

The answer seems to be a little esoteric.

I have known a few psychics in my time, mostly teenaged self-proclaimed witches and middle-aged divorcees with ‘the gift’ who go on to prove it by telling me I’m sensible when the situation calls for it, but also fun in the right circumstances, that I’m extroverted at those times when I’m not being shy, and that I am confident except for when I’m not. Wow, you should charge money for that. You are? No wonder my wallet feels so light.

Anyway, as an endlessly inquisitive and sceptical sort of fellow, I wanted to know more about the process of being, ahem, psychic. They told me they received ‘impressions’. Well then, what form did these impressions take? Did they see visions? Did they experience it as feelings? Did they hear it as voices? Thoughts? Some other sense that those of us on the non-psychic plane of existence couldn’t understand?

And how clear were these impressions? Were they vague and poorly formed? Were they a tangled jumble of thoughts and feelings? How did they sort out this bundle of interconnected data streams? How did they interpret them?

Apparently, that’s not how it works. You don’t ponder, you don’t analyse, you don’t question and evaluate and formulate. You just know.

As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome who has to think his way through everything, the idea that you can ‘just know’ is an alien concept. Like those other cliches ‘follow your heart’ and ‘go with the flow’, I can’t select a course of action without first weighing up all the available options and comparing the possible benefits and repercussions. My world is a rational world of thought.

At least, it was until last week. Lizzie and I were always averse to dummies (pacifiers for my American readers). Then one day we looked at a horribly unsettled, colicky baby, looked at one another and said in one voice, ‘Let’s get her a dummy.’ Neither rhyme nor reason, no analysis, no evaluation or assessment. We just knew, intuitively, in that moment, that it was the right thing to do.

And it was. For the past week, Izzie has been a calmer, happier baby. It isn’t lazy parenting, it’s doing what your child needs. I wouldn’t recommend it for every baby, but Izzie needed something to soothe her between feeds more than cuddles, rocking, burping and going for walks. In spite of the censure of people who don’t matter anyway, I know we made the right decision.

Loathe as I am to admit it, having a baby has made me realise you can overthink things. It is hardwired into our DNA to know what is right for us and our babies. If you’re faced with an impossible decision, switch off your brain and allow your instincts to take over. You might find that your intuition already knows the right thing to do.

But take my advice: if your instincts tell you to try the baby’s milk, they’re not to be trusted. You’ll be tasting that warm sour yoghurt tang the rest of the day.

The Baby Expert

New parents beware: sightings of the lesser spotted baby expert are at an all time high. Found in streets, parks, shops, pubs and your own home, as well as on the internet, this genus of the family interferus feeds by offering unsolicited advice and passive-aggressive criticisms of your parenting techniques. They are best avoided when tiredness makes it harder to hold your tongue, though as babies attract them, there is no known repellent that works.

The lesser spotted baby expert can be further divided into a number of species: the judgemental acquaintance overfamiliarus, the childless spinster that used to be a nursum, the earth mother organica, the internetus anonymous, the never had kids but I have strong opinions on the subjectumthe my daughter/friend/hairdresser/person I saw on TV had it much tougher than you but they’re still breastfeedingo, and, possibly the most pernicious of all, the had a baby forty years ago and in my day we did it like this and even though it goes against everything the midwives and health visitors and paediatricians say it didn’t do our kids any harmus. This last, often known by their common name of ‘Lady Macbeths’, can become quite offended if their advice is not immediately heeded without question. Best fobbed off with the line, ‘We’ll consider it.’

Unfortunately for the would-be baby expert watcher, no two have the same song. Use a dummy, sings one; never use a dummy, sings another. Teach her to suck her thumb; don’t let her suck her thumb. Cure constipation with laxatives; don’t use laxatives, give her boiled water; change to a different formula; use orange juice; yoga; massage; a cotton bud up the backside. Hold her like this; like this; like this. She’ll be too hot; too cold; too much sun; not enough sun; let her sleep; you have to wake her; you’re feeding too much; you’re feeding too little; too often; not often enough; make her sleep in her cot; she’s okay in your arms; she’s having too much stimulation; she needs more. This makes things rather confusing, and not a little annoying.

What the new parent must remember upon being accosted by the lesser spotted baby expert is that these creatures are experts on their babies, and on babies in general, but they are not experts on your baby. And while they insist on getting involved, the only people responsible for your baby, the only people qualified to make decisions that affect your baby, and the only ones who will have to deal with the consequences of those decisions, are you, the parents. The baby expert will fly away when it detects the scent of another baby elsewhere, and the parent must be able to look themselves in the mirror each morning, or evening, or whenever in the day they can find the time to look at themselves in the mirror, and be comfortable with the decisions they’ve made, and know they made them for the right reasons and not because the baby experts browbeat them into compliance. If you can’t justify it to yourself, just don’t do it.

Libraries are full of what other people think – all that matters is what you think. So during this upcoming season, watch out for the lesser spotted baby expert. It can be a nuisance, but it is more noisy than harmful. And if it gets too much, there’s no harm in reminding it that you are the only expert on your baby whose opinion matters.