Some Unsolicited Advice for New Parents
1. Never underestimate the effects of continued interrupted sleep. If you have never had children you might think to yourself, “Well, I stayed up all night in college to study for exams or write papers.” Or, “I am a night owl anyway. I can get by on a few hours of sleep here and there. Plus, don’t infants sleep something like 20 hours a day anyway?” Getting six to eight hours of sleep (if you are lucky!) in one- to two-hour chunks in a 24-hour period is NOT the same as getting six to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Studies have shown that interrupted sleep can be just as harmful as sleep deprivation and can wreak havoc on your mood and energy levels, as well as your overall general health. Asking Dad or a grandparent to take on the overnight feedings even just one day a week can be a lifesaver if you have a baby that wakes you up several times per night.
2. Do whatever you can to make nighttime feedings as easy as possible for all involved. No one told me it’s not a good idea to get out of bed, go into Baby’s room, get the baby, turn on the lights, sit up in a chair and watch TV during the 3:00 feeding. All I learned from doing that is that there is a lot of really bad TV on at that hour. Eventually, I learned for me the preferred method was to have Baby in a bassinet near my side of the bed. I installed a dimmer on my bedside lamp and would only turn on the minimal amount of light needed to see where to aim the baby’s mouth.
If you are bottle feeding, have everything prepared before you turn in and set up as close to your bed and the baby as possible. Use a cooler, warmer, whatever portable electric device you need so that no one has to get up and go into the kitchen. Although it might give me a “terrible mother” stigma, I will admit that I never once warmed a bottle for my kids. They drank cold milk and liked it because they didn’t know any different. If it was really chilly (read frozen), I would run it under the hot tap for a brief period.
3. Do not register for every baby item the store registry “suggests.” (Or if you do, at least keep the tags on and save the receipts, because you will be exchanging some of them for diapers or formula). Take an experienced mom with you to help you register. Stores have baby registries for one reason only: to help them sell baby products. Do a little research along the lines of “what does a baby really need in the first year.” Don’t worry about having certain items on hand right away that you can’t use until they are older (such as a high chair, jogging stroller, booster seat, plates and bowls, shoes, etc.). And remember, your baby will not care whether his diaper pail was a hand-me-down.
Babies typically will not wear a great percentage of the fancy outfits you will receive as gifts. Choose one favorite per size range for photos and one or two for special occasions, and that is plenty. Fancy outfits are often scratchy and will have loads of buttons, ties or other difficult fastenings that only serve to drive Mom and Baby crazy.
4. Figure out a schedule that works for you and your baby, then be prepared to change it. Many, many people told me to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” My baby only really wanted to sleep from 9:00 to 10:00 in the morning. This was pretty much the only part of the day that I felt awake and could get anything done. It was light out, and my natural circadian rhythm wanted me to be awake whether the baby was asleep or not. But I fought my natural instincts and tried to go back to bed in the morning because I thought I was supposed to. This was a waste of time, as I would inevitably just lie there and feel guilty because I thought I should be up doing something productive.
What worked better for me was to declare 2:00 to 4:00 naptime each day, whether Baby or I slept during it or not. I got through several good series of books during that time. Only you can find the sweet spot between a routine for your baby and doing what you need to do in the outside world. Don’t apologize for it.
5. Find activities that YOU enjoy doing with Baby and a routine that nurtures YOU. I did not enjoy staying at home alone with my firstborn. It was lonely and quiet. Frankly, it was boring, but I was so sleep deprived that I didn’t have the energy to find something interesting to do. And it felt wrong to complain about having this precious time with my healthy baby. I had envisioned the great projects I would get done around the house that never materialized. Not to mention that newborns want to eat approximately every two hours, and the feeding/changing cycle takes up about half that time. Ask friends with older children what they did to stay sane during this time. Working part time helped for me. Gyms are a good outing (even if you don’t like to work out, you can take a shower in peace), and they often have free child care. Libraries also offer programs for little ones, and some even have toys and play equipment.
Listen to your instincts, not the Greek chorus of friends and relatives insisting that they know the “right way” to do everything. Most importantly, don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. In my experience, friends and family may be more likely to help if you ask them for a specific task, like bringing over a meal or sitting with the baby for two hours.
Laura Miller McEachen is a part-time attorney and full-time mommy. She lives in Overland Park.