PSA: The Person Who Gave Birth Decides Who Meets the Baby First, Not You
My friend Emilia had been talking about her in-laws nonstop for weeks, but at 8-and-a-half-months pregnant, her concerns were developing into full-blown panic. The mom from Lee’s Summit, Missouri didn’t want them at the hospital. Period. Not during the delivery and not immediately after. But they were coming, almost as certainly as the sunrise, and venting to me was her only outlet.
I was more than willing to validate her indignation. As a mother of three myself, I know firsthand just how tender those first hours of a baby's life are and how tricky it can be to keep well-meaning friends and family from intruding. But then again, so does Emilia. In fact, when she went into labor with her now 5-year-old, Emilia silently powered through contractions for hours, waiting until she knew everyone was asleep in their homes to tell her husband it was time to go to the hospital. She delivered 10 minutes after being admitted. Understandably, this time around she wanted to avoid the cloak-and-dagger, but she still didn't want the entirety of her Christmas card list coming to visit before she'd even delivered the placenta. And so far, that appeared to be the plan.
In many ways, expectant mothers are more empowered than ever. We tour hospitals and choose to stay home, we hand-select our doctors and midwives based on careful research, create birthing playlists, and hire doulas. And yet, in an age where women are able to design the conditions of their delivery right up to the line of unforeseen circumstance, so many women spend the last months of their pregnancies stressed out by their inability to control who comes to visit during the first hours of their baby's life.
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Why a Parent Needs Space After Giving Birth
Tamar Blank, Psy.D., a New York-based psychologist specializing in family relationships, understands the well-meaning impulse driving these would-be visitors. "The birth of a new child can be so exciting that others think about what this new life means for them—to be a new grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle, or godparent," she says. But she cautions, we must remember, "this experience is about the mother and child first and foremost and it is important that family members and friends respect the mother's privacy and need for quiet for as long as she requests."
Mothers are going through a healing process. That encompasses two levels of physical experience: an ending and a beginning, says Heather Bartos, M.D., an OB-GYN at Be Women's Health & Wellness Center in Cross Roads, Texas. "The uterus is shutting down as the milk comes in. There is sleeplessness, vaginal stitching, incisions in the belly, and a sudden drop in pregnancy hormones, which can lead to the baby blues. At the same time, your stress hormones are triggered by the challenges of motherhood, and your body is sending out red and white blood cells to heal lacerations and fight infection," says Dr. Bartos.
A baby also needs time to adjust after the journey of delivery. "A fetus that was warm and cozy in the darkness of her mother's womb is welcomed most often by bright lights, cold temperatures, and loud noises," says Dr. Blank. In other words, the parent and baby are busy. And as nature would have it, the best solution to their physical and emotional healing is one another. "Skin-to-skin time initiates an oxytocin cascade that helps mothers and babies' bond, as well as helping with pain control and the body's healing processes," adds Dr. Bartos.
How to Support New Parents the Right Way
Many hospitals have addressed these concerns by instituting a "golden hour," an hour protected by the hospital staff for clean-up, breastfeeding, bonding, and monitoring pain levels. But so often one hour isn't enough, and when grandma is frantically texting for updates from the waiting room lounge, holding her off can feel awkward and unkind. We must empower mothers as gatekeepers, and as friends and family eager to get our hands on the new baby, we have to remember the importance of letting Mom determine the best plan for introducing their baby to the world.
Loved ones can still show support in other ways. Dr. Bartos says they usually just want something to do and typically the best solution for everyone is to give them a task. This is the route Emilia, unmoved by my persistent calls for her to tell her family to back off her birth, eventually chose. She gave everyone a role: babysitting her older kids, dropping off dinner, sending out the birth announcement, and arranging meal plans. And perhaps that's the key to showing up for one another on these life-changing occasions, making sure we always have a tray of coffee and a box of donuts in our hands.
But the hospital isn't the only place where these rules apply. How can you know when to drop the “mother and baby first approach” and resume normal visiting with loved ones after they have been discharged from the hospital? Dr. Bartos suggests that we “check with the new parents and then maybe add a little longer on that time. The new parents may feel obliged to have people come sooner than they really want. And even then, don’t be the guest that lingers.”
Also, always call first.