Before I had my first baby, I packed my bag for the hospital with all sorts of handy things: tennis balls for my husband to roll around on my back, the cutest nursing nightgown I could find, and a whole box of nursing pads. Reality: I didn't want my husband to touch me, the slits on the gown were too small for my new double Ds, and my milk didn't even come in until I got home. Yep, labor hindsight is 20/20. Learn what other moms, obstetricians, and labor nurses suggest for making the hospital visit as pleasant as it can be.
Do your paperwork
When you go on your hospital tour, find out if you can preregister and fill out any information right then and there. Ask for copies of forms you'll have to complete, and pack the ones you've finished in your hospital bag to take back with you -- it's nearly impossible to focus on paperwork while contending with contractions. Also, talk with your doc about your ideal delivery; for a list of points to consider, visit americanbaby.com/birthprep. Now you're ready to have a baby. (See Your Blueprint for Labor, below.)
After Baby is born, if you've delivered vaginally, your nether region will probably be sore. "Ice it immediately," advises Jennifer Gunter, M.D., an obstetrician in Marin, California, who is also board-certified in pain management. While you're awake, apply an ice pack for 15 minutes and then take it off for 15 minutes. Some hospitals offer sanitary napkins that have a twist-activated cold pack inside so they cool while absorbing postpartum bleeding. (What will they think of next?) If your room has a freezer, chill a witch hazel hemorrhoid pad and tuck it on top of your sanitary napkin. After the first 24 to 48 hours, warm water tends to be more soothing. Chances are, the postpartum goody bag that the nurses give you will include a plastic bottle with a nozzle. Fill it with warm water, squat over the toilet, and use it as a portable bidet. The warm water makes it easier to urinate after delivery and helps reduce any burning sensation.
Narcotic pain relievers such as Percocet and Darvocet offer almost guaranteed relief after delivery, but they can also constipate you, so ask for a laxative and use it right away. "You do not want to get backed up and have to push all over again with a tender bottom," Dr. Gunter says. For the same reason, drink lots of fluids, eat high-fiber foods, and walk the hospital halls as much as you can: Before birth, gravity gets a baby moving; after, it helps move other important business.
Sleep it off
Most moms are so excited after giving birth that they feel as if they drank a gallon of espresso, which can make it difficult to rest and recuperate. Cue up a mellow playlist and try to grab some winks. First, though, ask your nurses if they'll take your vital signs when they bring Baby to you for a feeding, so they won't have to wake you twice.
Take some time alone
Yes, your baby is exquisite, and it's only natural that relatives are lining up to get a peek at their new family member. Still, after you deliver, you'll probably want to limit visitors to your partner, the grandparents, and a best friend. Don't feel bad about that: You certainly don't need an audience while you're figuring out how to feed, burp, and change the baby. "I've actually seen moms delay feeding because they don't know how to ask their visitors for privacy," says Gloria Newman, manager of outpatient women's services at Mercy Hospital, in St. Louis. Rather than presiding over a crowd, ask your husband to upload photos of your sugarplum to Facebook or a personal website to satisfy the curiosity of pals. And if you change your mind and decide you do want company, just call -- your closest friends will come running to your side.
Get ready to meet your roomie!
If you're not in a private room, when the curtain separating the beds is pulled aside, greet the mom next door warmly. Ask about her labor and her baby; she'll probably ask about yours too. Poof: You're pals! If you need something and your family isn't there, she's got your back, and vice versa. As you might recall from college dorms, a little consideration goes a long way toward happy cohabitation. Say things like: "Let me know if you need some quiet. My parents are here, and we can go to the lounge." With any luck, she'll extend you the same courtesy. (Pssst: You might also want to pack a pair of silicone earplugs in case she snores. Offer her a fresh pair if you do!)
Don't nix the nursery
Rooming in is great for bonding with your baby, but when you're sleeping, you won't be bonding -- you'll be sleeping! For safety's sake, it's best not to nod off with your baby in your arms. "With my second son, I used the baby nursery so I could sleep for a few hours. The nurses brought him to me whenever it was time for him to breastfeed," says Liz Richards, of Portland, Oregon. "Once you're back at home, you're on your own, so take advantage of the extra helping hands while you can." If you want to breastfeed only, ask the nurses to place a sign above Baby's bassinet that specifies No Bottles. They'll bring your hungry little one to you when she cries.
Baby your body with good grub
You're going to be plenty hungry post-delivery, and the hospital tray isn't always brimming with the most appetizing options (understatement alert). So have vitamin- and antioxidant-fortified snacks on hand, such as granola bars, fruit, and juices. "Dairy can be constipating, which is why you'll want to wait until your normal bowel function returns before adding it to the menu," says Roberta Kline, M.D., an ob-gyn in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Healing requires adequate levels of zinc, selenium, and vitamin D, along with many other nutrients; a good multivitamin also helps, Dr. Kline says. Be sure to drink plenty of water, especially if you're nursing. "To help you get into the habit of drinking when you breastfeed, keep a glass of water within easy reach of the hospital bed," says San Francisco nurse practitioner Barb Dehn. A refillable water bottle can come in handy too.
Make the nurses feel appreciated
Nursing staff can be so overloaded these days that at times it may be difficult to get their attention. Become a favorite patient by being polite from the get-go. Cluster your requests for acetaminophen, juice, and baby advice. And a little buttering up never hurts: Have a candy dish in your room, or preorder a basket of fruit and enclose a card from you and the baby. That's what Sara Abbott, a mom of two who lives outside of Boston, did before the birth of her second child. "My husband and I actually chose to spend Thanksgiving at the hospital when I could have been released early," she remembers. "It was like being in a hotel with a bunch of sweet grandmothers."
When in doubt, ask
Your postpartum hospital stay is pretty much the only time you'll be surrounded by so many baby-care experts at once, so don't be shy about asking for help. "Many problems can be prevented or easily solved by simply asking a few things," Dr. Kline says. "There are really never any stupid questions!"