Nothing is quite as life-changing as having your first baby. No matter how prepared you think you are, nothing can fully prepare you for the moment you hold your new baby and feel like you hold the whole world in your arms. Your life suddenly has a new focus, and it's like a part of your heart is walking around outside of your body.
So much of what you read about preparing for a new baby is focused on the practical side of things, and on all the things you "need" to buy. Those can be pretty fun to plan for and shop for, but to me, they barely even scrape the surface of the things that really matter.
This is what I wish I'd been told about what to expect, and how to cope with and get the most enjoyment from the crazy, precious, exhausting, challenging, rewarding, frustrating and completely amazing experience of becoming a parent.
1. It will be hard
Probably harder than you think. You'll have plenty of moments of feeling like a failure, even if - ESPECIALLY if - you've always been a high achiever in your previous life. Don't feel like you have to always put on a brave face. The more you share with people, the more you'll start to hear about the reality of their experience - the struggles, the dark times, the helplessness and the loneliness.
For some reason, people don't tend to talk about the hard parts of having a baby. You hear all about the trauma of childbirth, and sometimes a little about how hard it can be to deal with the unsettled sleep patterns of a newborn, but there are so many common experiences that people face with newborns that just don't get talked about. People struggle with breastfeeding all the time, and yet you don't hear about it until you are going through it yourself. People struggle with depression, and it gets hushed up. Tongue ties, reflux, mastitis, abdominal separation - so many people deal with them, and you'd never know. People struggle to bond with their babies all the time. They have times where they wish for their pre-baby life back. None of these mean that you are failing as a mother - they only mean that life with a new baby is hard work, and you are completely normal!
Do your part in ending the silence, and discover how many people share your experiences. You never know who else it will help along the way too!
2. Listen to the advice, but listen to your instincts more and your baby the most
You will get a lot of advice. Medical professionals will give you advice. Your friends will give you advice. Your mother-in-law will be filled with advice. Random strangers you meet in the street will have the answers to all of your problems.
Some of it will be really good. Some of it will be terrible. Some will work for your baby, and some just won't.
Listen to it, think about it, and make your own decision about whether to take it on board.
Your instinct goes a long way in telling you what is right for your baby. You are the one who spends every waking moment (and most of the sleeping ones!) with your baby. Even medical professionals only see a tiny part of your story, so while you probably don't want to ignore their advice, don't forget that they won't know the whole picture. If something doesn't feel right, don't just assume they must have the answer because of their role.
Most of all, listen to your baby. Every baby is different, and what seems like a magic solution for one will be completely ineffective for another baby.
This extract from one of my favourite articles from one of my favourite child development experts (see the full article here - it's well worth the read!) says it better than I can:
"Your child has the instructions.
This is why the books and the advice don’t work. They’re not wrong. The people who say them have found that they work for many children, so they’re offering you those ideas, in case they work for you. But they might not. The advice isn’t wrong. But it might be wrong for your child. Or for you.
You can’t find the what to do in my groups or in a book or from another parent or from your pediatrician because the books weren’t written about your child–or about you. They don’t have the instruction manual–your child does. The answers are in your interaction–your child, even in infancy, will tell you when you have hit a home run, and they will tell you when you have struck out. If you keep trying–and listening, with all your presence and energy–you’ll figure it out. Together."
3. Don't take no for an answer
If you really feel like something isn't right with your baby, keep pushing. You'll be fobbed off by many people who don't really have time for you, or only see a little slice of your life and make a judgement from that, not knowing the big picture. If you feel like you need help yourself, then push for it. If your baby spends hours screaming and people assure you it's "normal", keep pushing.
I had a pediatrician literally laugh at me for asking if my son could get some allergy testing done, and was told I was a paranoid mother. Following up with someone who was willing to help turned my little boy from a screaming, sleepless, unsettled mess into a happy, contented baby, and for the first time in nearly three months, we were both able to get some real sleep. Each professional saw him for a few minutes and decided from that that he was fine. I knew what went on for the other 23.5 hours a day, and I knew he wasn't.
4. Practice self care
I'm not talking about spa days and massages - for the first little while, they most likely are a thing of the past. Real, effective self-care is all about the little, daily decisions that you make that help you respect yourself as a person. Spend five minutes getting yourself a cup of tea, and drinking it while it's hot - even if your baby is getting a little restless in the meantime. Eat a good meal when you get hungry. Spend a few minutes each day doing something that feels good. Make sure your baby is fed and clean and has all their basic needs met, and then work on meeting some of your own as well. You can't pour your life out for your baby if you have nothing left to give. Looking after yourself is the kindest thing you can do for both you and your baby.
5. Get dressed every day. Or dont.
Do what feels best for you. If you feel more in control when you are dressed and ready to face the day, then make it a priority, even if it feels hard. If you feel happier hanging out in your PJs and just want to be comfortable, then stay in your PJs. Whatever your decision, do it for YOU. Don't worry about other people judging you, or do it because it seems "right". For me, I felt so much better when I put the effort into getting dressed, even when my plan for the day involved staying at home feeding my baby and hopefully, if all the stars aligned and my wildest dreams came true (I kid you not!), catching a nap.
6. Don't be afraid to ask for help
Looking after a newborn is hard. Yes, you might scrape by doing it all on your own, but it's so much better if you don't have to.
So many people are happy to help or even waiting to help, but don't really know what they can do. In many other cultures and many other periods of history, looking after a new baby was acknowledged as being a full time job, and everyone else took over all the other responsibilities. Now we feel like a failure if we can't do it all - and we shouldn't! If someone offers to do something specific, let them do it. If they offer general assistance, give them a couple of specific jobs that would really help you out. Most people love to feel needed and helpful, so do you both a favour and take them up on the offer!
7. Don't worry about the state of your house - unless you need to for your own sanity
Acknowledge that keeping a baby alive and healthy is a full time job, and anything on top of that is a bonus. Give yourself grace to know that one day, things will be easier and you'll be able to manage things like cleaning your house. It might never look the same as its pre-baby state again, especially once you have a toddler adding their own style of decor, but you WILL get back to feeling more in control - eventually.
8. Take lots of photos
No matter how slow the days seem, this time will soon feel like a blur. I guarantee it. You WILL forget all the little details if you don't make an effort to capture them. Try to photograph the way they fit into their world - how tiny she is in her big girl bed, and how perfect he looks snuggled in Daddy's arms. Photograph the different expressions on his face as he learns about his world. Photograph those tiny little fingers, and how they work so hard to reach for the toy. Nothing can transport you back to those moments like looking through your favourite photos.
Obviously I'm biased, but hiring a professional photographer will let you capture these moments and all your child's personality in a way you never even thought possible. Remember the magic of those early days, and fall in love with your baby over and over again every time you see your photos.
9. Appreciate the great moments
People will repeatedly tell you to "enjoy every moment". I'm sure that the people who say that have blocked out all the times that are just a plain, hard slog! Don't feel bad if there are plenty of moments you don't feel like you can enjoy, especially the 3am ones, but when it's good, drink it in and enjoy it. When your baby is snuggled down to sleep and you can hardly tear your eyes from their perfection, don't feel like you have to stop and get some jobs done or tick the next thing off your to do list. Drink it in, savour the moment, and focus on completely falling in love with this little person and this new life. In ten years, you won't care what your to do list looked like, but you will remember those perfect moments.
10. Go with the flow - your baby's flow
Your baby is unique. They'll sleep on their own cycle, feed on their own cycle, develop milestones in their own time. Along the same lines as number 2, work on finding out who your baby is and how you can work together, not on how you can make them like everybody else.
It's funny how we're quick to acknowledge that adults are all unique, that they have their own preferences and interests and strengths and weaknesses, and yet, when it comes to babies, we feel like they should all fit neatly into the same box. Sure, there are some general trends that all babies will follow, and a general cycle of milestones that usually happen in roughly the same order. Beyond that though, the reality is that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to babies, just like there isn't with adults. The more you stress about finding "the answer", the less you will enjoy your baby - and life - in the meantime.
I see this all the time when photographing babies in my studio, and talking to new parents. Some babies love to be swaddled and won't sleep without it. Other babies won't settle unless their arms are free. Some babies can't cope without routine, and will wake at the same time, almost to the minute, every single night. Other babies will sleep 12 hours straight one night and wake every 45 minutes the next. Trying to force them into a routine would be a losing battle for both of you.
Similarly, expecting babies to only feed every 3 hours, or some other arbitrary fixed period, will be a great way to stress you both out, and probably destroy your milk supply in the meantime. YOU have some days that you are just hungry all day, and other days you are preoccupied and not as interested in eating, right? Why do we expect babies to be any different? If you read one article about breastfeeding, make it this fantastic one. Amongst other great information, it shares how studies have revealed enormous differences between different women's breast storage capacity. One mother was able to store about 75ml of milk per breast - another mother could store around 600ml. The mothers' overall production throughout the day might have been around the same, but when there is such a variation in storage, it's ridiculous to think that every baby should be able to go the same length of time between feeds.
The more time you spend feeling like your baby is broken and needs fixing because they don't fit neatly into the "what to expect" articles, or because they aren't the same as other babies in your mother's group, the less time you'll spend observing and enjoying who they really are. Get to know the real person they are instead of worrying about what they are not.
Our oldest baby was very unsettled and a terrible sleeper. He was NOTHING like the books suggested babies "should" be. I read countless articles on sleep; I talked to people; I tried one thing after another; I stressed and worried and wondered why it wouldn't work. I was exhausted and emotional and worried that my baby was broken. (It turns out, he kind of was - he had food intolerances that were giving him reflux, and he really was feeling uncomfortable and miserable.)
When our second baby arrived, he was also very unsettled and a terrible sleeper. This time around though, I did what I could (we ticked off a list of approaches to try and treatments to cover), and then I held him while he screamed and made the most of who he was. He was every bit as unsettled as his big brother had been, but life FELT so much easier and more enjoyable. I was so much better at trusting my baby and trusting my body, and one way or another we got by. I slept better when I had the chance to sleep; I enjoyed the good moments more; I had so much more confidence that one day, somehow, things would be easier and my baby would be happier, and life would go on.
Even if it doesn't change the situation, accepting that you don't have to have all the answers at once can make everything feel so much easier.
If you've already been through the amazing experience of becoming a mother, what else would you add to the list? What do you wish you had known? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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