Practical answers to the most common concerns that pediatricians hear in the first year.

New mother holding her baby and looking up quizzically
Credit: Andrew Parsons

Eating and Bathing

Forget all those complicated topics like vaccinations, co-sleeping, and baby sign language. Now that your newborn is here, what you really need to know is more basic: How can I tell whether my baby is eating, sleeping, and pooping enough? "By far the most common questions I get from new parents involve issues like these," says Barbara Frankowski, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, in Burlington. We asked pediatricians to give us the scoop on new moms' most common concerns.

Is my baby getting enough to eat?

The proof is on the scale. As long as your baby is growing normally, you can trust him to let you know if he needs more. Let him nurse when he's hungry, even if he just ate an hour ago. And if you're bottle-feeding, don't worry about the exact amount he drinks. "If your baby only wants 6 ounces of an 8-ounce bottle, you don't have to make him drink those last two," says Dr. Frankowski. But if you're worried that he's not eating or growing enough, see your pediatrician.

Does my newborn need a bath every day?

"No," says Mika Hiramatsu, MD, a pediatrician in Castro Valley, California. "In fact, a lot of babies get rashes and dry skin from too many baths." Until her umbilical-cord stump falls off, wash your baby with a soft sponge or cloth instead of putting her in the tub. "When the cord has healed, she only needs a bath once or twice a week," says Dr. Hiramatsu. After a few months, daily baths are fine (though not necessary), but use a moisturizer as soon as she's out of the tub.

Sleeping and Diaper Duty

How can I get my newborn to sleep through the night?

At first, you can't, so don't bother trying. A newborn wakes up frequently to eat, sometimes as often as every two to three hours. "If she's sleeping too much, she's not eating enough," says Laura Jana, MD, coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. Over time, your baby will be able to go longer stretches without food. Meanwhile, you can help her learn to fall asleep on her own by laying her down when she's sleepy but still awake. Try to avoid nursing her to sleep after the first month or two so she doesn't get into the habit of needing milk to drift off. "You'd think that falling asleep is just something people do automatically, like breathing, but it can involve more of a learning process than most parents realize," says Dr. Jana. By 4 to 6 months, babies are usually able to sleep for longer stretches, with just one or two nighttime feedings. It usually isn't until somewhere between 9 and 12 months that most babies truly sleep through the night.

My baby's skin looks yellow. Is that serious?

It depends on his age. Jaundice is a common problem in newborns. "If your infant's skin seems yellow and he's very sleepy, not feeding well, or losing weight, he needs to see a doctor right away," Dr. Hiramatsu says. Fortunately, jaundice is usually easy to treat. When an older baby has yellow skin, however, it's often a sign of a harmless condition called carotenemia, which comes from eating foods with a lot of beta-carotene, such as sweet potatoes, carrots, and, sometimes, less obvious foods like chicken. "You don't need to change your baby's diet; it's nothing to worry about," says Dr. Hiramatsu. The easiest way to tell them apart: With jaundice, the whites of the eyes also look yellow.

How many dirty diapers should my baby have each day?

"There's an incredible range of normal, especially with breastfed babies," says Dr. Frankowski. It also changes over time. "A newborn might have a small bowel movement every time she nurses, while an older, breastfed baby who isn't eating solids yet may have only one a week." Bottle-fed babies tend to be more regular -- going more than two or three days without a stool is unusual. Parents often worry that their infant is constipated because she strains, grunts, and turns red, but that's typical even with a normal, soft bowel movement. (It just takes more work when you can't sit upright.) Think your baby is pooping too much? If she's started to drink juice, limit her to four ounces a day; more than that can cause frequent, loose stools. And if you're still worried, check with your doctor.

Visiting the Pediatrician

The Good-Patient Guide

One of the people you'll rely on most during your baby's first year is your pediatrician. Follow these tips to keep her happy to see you -- again and again.

  • Treat the office staff and nurses with as much respect as you do the doctor. Word gets around.
  • Schedule enough time for the appointment. If you have special concerns to discuss, let the receptionist know.
  • Take along a list of questions and show it to your pediatrician at the beginning of your appointment -- don't wait until she's walking out the door to mention your biggest worries.
  • Show trust in your doctor's judgment. Remember that medicine, like parenting, is not an exact science.

Infant-Care Basics

Make sure you have these supplies on hand.

  • Zinc oxide or a petroleum-based diaper ointment
  • Baby wipes
  • Burp cloths
  • Baby-size nail emery board
  • Alcohol wipes
  • Baby lotion
  • Mild, fragrance-free liquid cleanser
  • Infant thermometer (rectal is best)
  • Infant liquid pain reliever
  • Antibiotic cream
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Electrolyte solution
  • An oral syringe or dropper to administer medicine
  • A bulb syringe to clean your baby's nose

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