Before giving birth to my daughter, Lena, I thought I was equipped for our first week home together. After all, I'd assembled the crib, washed the tiny clothes, stocked up on diapers, and hung the pink butterfly curtains in the nursery. Looking back now, I think: How could I have been so naive?
Sure, I'd done the necessary prep work for my baby's arrival. But all that stuff is fluff when it comes to making it through the maiden days of motherhood. That's when you need to master new skills that you can't prepare for or practice until your baby arrives, like breastfeeding, soothing a crying child, surviving on no sleep, and tackling other areas of uncharted territory. To help you ease into your first week, we've asked experts and moms who've been there how to handle the most common challenges.
Yes, your newborn will snooze as much as 20 hours a day, but it won't be in long stretches -- think one- to four-hour spurts.
Survival Technique: If you're like me, and you can sleep just about anytime and anywhere, then by all means, sleep when the baby sleeps. What if you're not wired for naps? Then enlist help, stat.
Mom Tip: "My mom stayed with us after we brought my son home," says Kim Brown, of New York City, mom of Tessa, 2, and James, 6 months. "Having her there at night to take shifts with the baby allowed me to get stretches of uninterrupted sleep." If a relative isn't available to do a night shift, trade off with your husband. Have your hubby keep the baby in the living room while you get some much needed zzzs and tell him to bring the baby to you only when it's time to nurse.
Soothing the Baby
Infants, fresh out of the cozy confines of the womb, crave constant holding and soothing, says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of the Happiest Baby on the Block book and DVD.
Survival Technique: Don't worry about spoiling your newborn -- it's not possible. Instead, re-create the sensations of the womb, which can trigger a calming reflex in your newborn, Dr. Karp says. To do this, he recommends swaddling, swaying, shushing, holding your baby on her side, and letting her suck on your finger. "These steps performed individually or together can often be a virtual 'off' switch for the crying," he says.
Mom Tip: Experiment to see what works for your baby. "My first one loved walks outside in the Bjorn, even in the dead of winter in Indianapolis," says Donna Belville, who now lives in Olympia, Washington, and is mom to Julianna, 5, and Samantha, 2. "I bundled her up and got outside."
It happens naturally, right? Um, hardly!
Survival Technique: Make plans to see a lactation expert ASAP post-delivery -- before a problem arises -- and ask her to come to your house to help you get the hang of nursing there. "Having an expert with you from the beginning to help you learn about latching, positioning, and milk supply -- and to boost your confidence -- can make the difference between a beautiful breastfeeding experience and giving up," says Giuditta Tornetta, a doula, lactation educator, and author of Painless Childbirth.
Mom Tip: Kim Malin, of Los Angeles, mom of Logan, 4, and Emmett, 20 months, learned that the hard way. "With my first baby, pretty much everything wasn't working -- the latch, the sucking -- and I was in agony all the time," she says. "But I found a lactation consultant who came to my house and stayed with me as long as it took. She came back several times until I had the confidence to feel like, I can do this now."
"Expect to feed the baby every one to four hours -- that's counting from the start of each feeding," says Laura Jana, MD, coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn.
Survival Technique: You're going to be bound to a couch, rocker, or bed while your baby eats, so get as comfortable as possible.
Mom Tip: "That first week, I read Anna Karenina -- all 700 pages of it!" says Nicole Hertvik, of Hoboken, New Jersey, mom of Mia, 19 months. "It gave me something to look forward to during all those middle-of-the-night feedings." Another tactic: arm yourself with a magazine or the TV remote and keep water and snacks close by.
Getting Daddy Involved
It can be tricky to include Dad right off the bat, particularly if he doesn't have time off from work or Mom is nursing.
Survival Technique: Ask Dad to dive right in. Another way to get Dad on board: Leave the room while he's mastering a new task so he won't feel judged, and he'll be forced to figure it out for himself.
Mom Tip: "I encouraged my husband to spend as much time as possible with the baby from the get-go, whether it was bathing, burping, cuddling, or diaper changes," Belville says. "Sometimes I had to bite my tongue if he didn't do something exactly as I would've. But the last thing I wanted to do was discourage his efforts!"
The First Bath
"The saying 'slippery when wet' applies here -- many new parents are very nervous when giving that first bath," Dr. Jana says.
Survival Technique: Relax and take it slow. Because you'll want to work around the umbilical cord (the faster it dries, the sooner it will fall off), a sponge bath is the way to go at this stage. Plus, if your baby has been circumcised, you'll need to wait for the area to heal before completely submerging it in water. Gather the supplies and have them within arm's reach -- this way you can have one hand on the baby at all times. Then place him on a towel and gently wash the areas that need cleaning with a warm washcloth and baby bath wash.
Recovering from Labor
"I was totally unprepared for how much pain I was in after birth and how tired I was," Malin says. "I e-mailed all my friends and asked, 'Why didn't you tell me?!'"
Survival Technique: What you're going through is normal, even if no one clued you in beforehand to the gory details. In time, your body bounces back and you'll regain your strength. But while you're healing, designate a family member to take care of you -- or at least to make sure you don't overexert yourself.
Mom Tip: "My husband was very good about telling me to sit back and let others cook and clean," says Emily Fancher, of San Francisco, mom to Lila, 1.
Between lack of sleep, physical discomfort, and plummeting hormones, even the most excited new mommy can feel overwhelmed.
Survival Technique: Prioritize. Decide what's most important to you -- say, learning how to breastfeed, sleeping, and cuddling your baby -- and focus on those things. Then let everything else go for a while. "I remember feeling pressure to write thank-you notes and get birth announcements out, but some things had to slide," Belville says. Give yourself license to let the house get dirty.
Mom Tip: Also key to staying sane: go outside every day. "Just seeing the sun and getting fresh air was really helpful to my mood. Even though I was tired, I got up, brushed my teeth, and went for a short drive or a walk," Malin says.
Spirits still low? "Remember that it's normal to feel the baby blues for the first couple of weeks postpartum," says Liz Maseth, a nurse lactation consultant at Akron Children's Hospital, in Ohio. "Just make sure that your family understands about the baby blues -- and that if your feelings of sadness or depression last beyond those first two weeks, your loved ones can assist you in getting the help you need."
The Dish on Dirty Diapers
Get ready for all colors of the rainbow. The first poop, meconium, is black, tarry gunk. As your baby eats more (or your milk comes in), her feces will change from brown to green to a mustardy yellow. But don't expect solid stool. "There will be nothing of substance for months," Dr. Jana says. A good indication that baby is eating enough? By day four, she's wetting four to eight diapers a day, pooping three to six times a day, and starting to gain weight. If you see red in the stool, contact your doctor. This could be blood. Call, too, about colorless stool, which could indicate an underlying disorder.
First Week Survival Package
You've got the essentials for baby (swaddling blankets, diapers, and layette), but what about you? Here are items you'll want to have on hand.
Water Jug: Staying hydrated is key, but you probably won't have the energy to go to the kitchen for a drink. Park your jug by your side.
Extra Pillows: Make yourself comfy with body pillows, doughnut pillows (which can ease pressure on a sore tailbone), or regular pillows to prop and cushion as needed.
Handy Snacks: You will need them to keep your energy up.
Sanitary Pads: After birth you can expect blood flow from the uterus for several weeks.
See the next slide for more essential items.
Kati Molin/ istock
First Week Survival Package
Sitz Bath: Find this mini, shallow bath for your perineal area and rear at drugstores. Soaking for 15 minutes or so relieves the pain of stitches or hemorrhoids.
Witch Hazel: This astringent decreases swelling and pain in the perineum and alleviates hemorrhoids. Add it to your sitz bath or line your sanitary napkin with it. For cool relief, put witch-hazel-soaked pads in the fridge.
Peri-Bottle: If sitz baths don't appeal to you, fill this handheld squirt bottle with water to gently clean the perineal area.
Nipple Cream: A must for sore and cracked nipples.
Cool Cups: To ease the pain of engorged breasts, fill two newborn diapers with water and freeze them. Then stick the cool, cup-sized diapers in your nursing bra between feedings for 20 minutes.
Rachel Rabkin Pechman, a mother of one, lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Originally published in the May 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.