This is as much about the process of becoming a mother as it is about babies. It will help you to get to know your baby better, and we hope that it will also help you understand yourself as you take on this new, motherly role.
1. GIVING BIRTH IS A COMPLEX, EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE
Entering motherhood is like any other transition in life in that it entails both a gain and a loss. I don’t have to tell you that what you’ve gained is a whole new person to love, who will love you back. The loss is not quite so obvious. Leaving pregnancy behind is not always easy. When you were pregnant, you felt special. People took care of you. You babied yourself. Your partner fussed over you, carried the groceries, brought you treats.
After the birth, the spotlight shifts to the baby, and you’re the one doing the caregiving. Finding it hard to make this shift doesn’t mean you’re unhappy about or jealous of the baby. It does mean you still need someone to care for you, which I’ll talk more about later.
Ceasing to be pregnant also means that you can leave the emotional issues of pregnancy behind. The reality of minute-to-minute baby care will soon turn you into an experienced mom. I hope that during your pregnancy you had a chance to think about the changes motherhood will bring, both to you as an individual and to your life with your partner.
Talking about this during pregnancy can make the first months of parenthood easier. If there are problems left over from your nine months of gestating, recognize them when they pop up again in the weeks to come. Now that your baby is here, you will need to deal with them wisely and with kid gloves. Suddenly—finally—you’re not pregnant anymore. Get ready to meet your baby!
2. A NEWBORN BABY IS ALREADY A PERSON
A baby is a unique individual, right from the start. She is herself, a special human being with a personality all her own and a surprising number of well-developed abilities. Approach her with the same respect you would offer a fully grown human being. You and your baby are nine months into the great adventure the two of you will share; continue your journey by getting to know one another.
The best time to study your baby is when she is in the state of “quiet-alert.” She’s awake, her eyes are open, and she’s relatively still. This is when a newborn is at her most magical. Most newborns spend the first hour or so after birth in the quiet-alert state, which is why they should be with their parents during this time—not in bassinets by themselves.
Periods of quiet-alert won’t last as long in the days to come, though they will gradually lengthen as your baby learns from you how to keep herself under control. When you see your baby wide-eyed and quietly looking around, take the time to enjoy her. Later you can talk to visitors or finish your lunch.
Follow your heart as you get to know your new child. Because you care about your baby more than anyone, it is you who will do the best job of figuring out what she’s doing and feeling and what she needs.
“Experts” such as nursery nurses and grandmas may swoop down upon you and try to tell you what to do. Some of their advice may be valuable, but you are the expert on your own baby. The bond between the two of you has been growing for many months already.
3. YOU AND YOUR BABY NEED TO STAY TOGETHER
Imagine that you’re a baby in the womb, soon to be born. What’s your world like? There’s not much to see—maybe some dim light filters through if Mom is standing in bright sunlight without too much clothing on.
There’s more to hear—muffled voices from the outside, some of them familiar, some good music if you’re lucky, the occasional loud noise that makes you jump, and the steady background sounds of the placenta swishing blood back and forth, and of Mom’s body, her heartbeat, her breathing, maybe some rumblings from her tummy.
But what do you feel? Always warm, held and caressed by the firm muscles of Mom’s uterus. You are lulled into sleep by the motions of your mother’s body, surrounded by the soft touch of the amniotic fluid you float in, relatively weightless.
Babies belong with their mothers. This simple truth seems obvious to me, as it may to you, too. Certainly it’s clear that new babies are most comfortable when they are held a lot, rather than left to lie somewhere on their own. If they are put down they need their mothers to respond to them quickly, before they’re crying so hard that even getting what they need won’t calm them down.
What may not be so obvious is how much mothers need to be with their babies. You have a lot to teach your baby, and also a lot to learn from him. Mastering these lessons in your first few weeks together will make the months to come much easier for both of you.
Right from the start, you can help your baby feel that the world is a pretty nice place to be, and that he can trust you to keep it that way. If you’re right there to soothe him when he fusses, he won’t get much practice at full-blown howling, and he’ll be easier to live with because he knows that help is only a whimper away. You’ll teach him to be happy, and he’ll teach you how to feel needed.
These first special days of your baby’s life are a time not to be missed—there’s too much to learn and savor! Keep your baby with you as much as possible while you’re in the hospital. You’ll go home with a happy baby, and you’ll already feel confident as a mother.
4. BREASTFEEDING HAS ADVANTAGES OVER BOTTLE FEEDING
I could make a very long list of good reasons for breastfeeding your baby. It would include headings like “perfect nutrition,” “protection from illness,” “brain growth,” “long-term health benefits,” and “psychological advantages.” You’d find items such as “less risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” and “fewer ear infections.”
But how does this translate into your life with your baby? Will you really see a difference if you breastfeed? The answer is “Absolutely.” And the advantages will be apparent in a lot of ways.
When you breastfeed, you always have a close-at-hand method available for comforting and quieting your baby, a maternal secret weapon that comes in handy when you’re around people who have a low tolerance for infant crying (and that includes just about everybody). Sucking soothes infants, even when they’re not hungry. (If your baby doesn’t want to suck she’ll let you know—sometimes babies just want to be held while they have a good cry.)
No new mother likes to think about her perfect little one coming down with a cold or flu, but that miserable first cold or tummy ache is inevitable. Breastfeeding will make it easier. First of all, breastfed babies really do get sick less. You may wait a lot longer for that first sniffle, and your baby is far less likely to become really sick.
Stomach flu may be mowing down family members one by one, but the breastfed baby might well escape the family bug. Second, if your baby is feeling a little under the weather, her more frequent demands to feed ensure that she gets the fluids she needs and help her stay comfortable, and maybe even a little more cheerful.
Having a healthier baby really enhances your mothering. It’s so much easier to be a happy mother to someone who is behaving pleasantly, and having a way to make an unhappy baby feel better makes you feel more competent and confident.
My list of reasons for breastfeeding would also include a heading about breastfeeding being better for mothers. Breastfeeding will help you lose the weight you gained in pregnancy, and you won’t have to go on a restricted diet to do so.
Nursing lowers your chances of getting breast cancer. For the first six months, provided your baby is exclusively breastfed (using no pacifiers, bottles, or solids) and you haven’t menstruated, your risk of getting pregnant again is less than 2 percent—comparable to rates cited for various methods of artificial birth control.
Breastfeeding affects biology in ways beyond your milk supply. The skin-to-skin contact probably helps to reduce stress reactions in mother and baby alike.
More impressively, the two hormones that are associated with milk production and the release of the milk (prolactin and oxytocin, respectively) help you to have good feelings about your baby. Prolactin is associated with feelings of calm, and in some animals it regulates mothering behavior.
Oxytocin, too, produces pleasant emotions and contributes to the formation of bonds between human beings. It is released during sexual intercourse and in labor, as well as during breastfeeding sessions. After noting oxytocin’s role in these three intense interpersonal acts, one wise researcher dubbed oxytocin “the hormone of love.”
You will notice a feeling of relaxation coming over you as you feed your baby—perhaps not in the first few days when both of you are learning what to do, but soon. Sitting down to relax and breastfeed your baby can release tension and even lull you into one of those naps that new mothers need but may be reluctant to take.
Breastfeeding is a joy, an experience not to be missed. It may not fill you with profound wisdom. You may not have brilliant insight about the meaning of life while you’re nursing (though you may find yourself thinking about it). But nursing will help you fall in love with your baby and feel proud of yourself as well.
5. YOU CAN SOLVE BREASTFEEDING PROBLEMS
So you’ve heard that breastfeeding is not so simple? That some mothers just don’t have enough milk? That sore nipples are not just sore, they’re excruciating? That your breasts will leak, you will smell like a dairy, and you will feel like a cow? That some babies are barracudas—ouch!—and others just don’t take to it? You’ve heard that there’s a down side to breastfeeding?
Perhaps there is, for some women, but these problems can almost always be prevented or solved. For example, you don’t have to put up with sore nipples. They’re not inevitable. Nipples get sore when babies aren’t latching on properly.
During breastfeeding, your nipple is supposed to be far back in the baby’s mouth, where it can’t get hurt. If the baby doesn’t get enough breast tissue in his mouth, the nipple ends up in the front of the mouth, where the motion of the jaws and the tongue can damage the nipple’s tender skin. Some babies latch on like experts from the first suck, but most need some guidance so they’ll get it right.
One of your first jobs as a mother is to teach your baby the right way to latch on and suck, so that your nipples won’t get sore. If you’re reading this too late to avoid sore nipples, then you’ll know what to do to get them to heal quickly.
Breastfeeding is not terribly difficult, but it doesn’t come entirely naturally, either. These early days are a learning period for you and your baby.
(For more information on a proper latch, visit the Sears’ website.)
You’ll get a lot of advice as a breastfeeding mother. Some of it will be useful, and some of it may send you down the path toward early weaning before you know this is happening. So that you can tell the difference between the good and bad, learn all you can about breastfeeding ahead of time. Attend at least one La Leche League meeting.
If you have a problem, seek help from a League leader (to find a good one, call 800-LA LECHE or visit their Web site at www.lalecheleague.org) or a lactation consultant. Most breastfeeding problems can be solved.
6. NEW MOTHERS NEED SPECIAL CARE
Societies all around the world have ways of taking care of new mothers. There may be a special place for them to stay, certain foods they are to eat or avoid, rules about when they can leave their beds, go outside, or return to their usual work. Not all of these customs make a lot of sense outside of the cultures in which they originate, but all of these societies agree on one thing—new mothers need to be cared for.
One of the best things you can do for your new baby is to take care of your baby’s mother. Don’t take this responsibility lightly. This is a stressful time for you, and being well rested, well fed, and unharried will help you cope with the changes and demands of your new life.
The birth itself may leave you feeling sleep-deprived, especially if you labored all night or went into labor after only a few hours of sleep. Immediately after your baby is born, you may experience a “high” that keeps you awake, but this feeling will end with a yawn and a crash. Unfortunately, hospital routines may keep you from getting the rest you need, so that you go home feeling tired.
Try to take it easy during your first weeks of motherhood. Don’t get dressed; take a shower and put on a fresh nursing gown or something to lounge in. Put on street clothes only for taking walks. This reminds you and everyone else that you’re off duty except for baby care. Put your feet up. Read a good book. Limit visitors, both the number and the length of time they stay.
There is one kind of visitor that you and your family need in the days after birth, and that is the kind that does housework. If you can afford to hire help, pay someone (or several helpers) to clean, cook, run errands, and entertain the baby’s older siblings. This is a much smarter investment than hiring a baby nurse. You should be the one caring for your baby, not some stiff-uniformed expert who isn’t even related to her.
Do take some time for yourself every day. Soak in the tub or take a long shower. Fix your hair. Find something comfortable to wear that looks nice (easier said than done in the first weeks postpartum—how about sweats in a pretty color or leggings and a big print top?). Rent a favorite video to watch while the baby nurses. Indulge in your favorite carry-out food.
Relax, enjoy, and don’t feel guilty about being pampered. You’re doing all these things for your baby’s mother, which means that you’re also doing them for your baby.
7. ALL YOUR ENERGY GOES TO THE BABY
In the days before you had a baby, did you ever spend time with friends who had just become parents? Do you remember noticing that they could talk of nothing else but their baby? Were you puzzled at how one tiny creature, who did little besides sleep, eat, and cry or fuss, could take over adult lives so completely?
Now you know.
Parenting a new baby is an intense experience. It’s joyful, it’s scary, it’s time-consuming. For a while, at least, all your energy must go toward the baby. You learn on the job, and you’re on the job all the time. You want to do everything you’re supposed to, everything you can to help your baby be healthy and happy. This is no small task to set for yourself, and, as with any big goal or dream, reaching it takes commitment.
Emotional adjustments are an intense part of new parenthood. You feel a fierce attachment to your baby, but it may not be quite what you expected mother-love to be. Your self-image is altered by motherhood, and the changes you are going through may threaten at times to overwhelm everything you thought you knew about yourself.
Other stresses in your life can take your energy away from the baby. These might include problems in your marriage, criticism from your mother or mother-in-law, financial or career pressures, a move, or major remodeling. Any of these things can disturb your mental peace and affect your maternal emotions. For a while, at least, you need to minimize the demands and worries that divert energy away from your baby.
Your newborn infant has an intense need for you right now. You are the comforting one and the connecting one. You have the familiar voice, the smell, the rhythm, the milk—all the things he needs to feel secure.
Putting all this energy into your baby in his first weeks of life will teach him to trust you, and you will discover that you can trust yourself as a mother. The months ahead will be much easier because you have dealt with this intense time of change directly, getting to know your baby and yourself as his mother, rather than letting other people take charge and much less important matters distract you. Doing this hard work in the beginning will save you from having much harder work to do as your child grows up.
8. YOUR BABY NEEDS YOUR HELP WHEN SHE CRIES
Cries are a baby’s language. They are her most direct, most urgent way of communicating with you. If she called out, “Mama, come help me,” wouldn’t you rush to her side? Crying calls for the same kind of response, and while you can’t make her stop crying, you can help her to calm down and pull herself back together.
If you’re like most mothers, you really can’t stand to hear your baby cry. This is the way it’s supposed to be. A baby’s cry has that compelling, gotta-do-something-about-it quality to ensure that the baby gets taken care of, preferably right away. Often, just picking her up, walking with her, talking or humming, and rubbing her back will quiet her quickly. Offering the breast works also. Many mothers intuitively know that holding and nursing keeps a baby content, so they just do that and avoid a lot of crying.
Even though a crying baby needs her mother’s comfort, it’s important to remember that you are not the reason your baby cries, nor do you have to stop the cries. Babies cry because of their own inner needs and their individual temperaments. Some cry more and harder than others even when they are being held (though being held more may reduce the crying). They do this not because their parents are less capable, but because the babies have come wired that way. Remembering this can help you stay calm when your baby is very fussy. It’s not your fault that your baby is crying, but it is your job to help and support her until she feels better.
You may also need to do some research on the cause of the crying if holding and nursing are not working. First, of course, you should have the baby checked by a doctor to rule out certain physical problems like reflux.
Responding to your baby’s cries is one of the most important things you do in the early months. When you pay attention to her cries, you are teaching your baby things that are very important for her healthy development.
When your baby is new, don’t bother debating with yourself about how soon to pick her up when she cries. This is a waste of energy. Just pick her up. Try different approaches to comforting her until you hit on one that works. Being there with some kind of a response is more important than getting the right one on the first try. Babies cry for a lot of reasons. Hunger is one, boredom is another, being too hot or too cold is a third. Some babies hate being in a wet diaper. Others don’t seem to notice.
Most often, the answer to your baby’s cry is you—a person, not a clean diaper, not a fancy mobile, not a cradle or a baby swing. If holding your baby much of the time keeps her from crying, then that’s what you should do.
So when your baby is crying, don’t think that you have to make her stop just for the sake of ending the noise. Try to discover the reason for the cry, and you will both be on your way to healthy mother-and-child communication. And you can feel good about finding what works when your baby cries.
Having a baby can be overwhelming, but by focusing on yourself and surrounding yourself with community you can embrace motherhood and learn more about your child. Part 2 is coming soon!
Excerpts from “25 Things Every New Mom Should Know” by Bill and Martha Sears. Used with permission.