Congratulations. You are now a parent. For months you have been on the sidelines, cheering and coaching as your partner was growing and giving birth to your baby. Then, in the space of your baby’s first breath, it is your turn to step into the game. It’s exciting and exhilarating but it’s also exhausting. It is not unlike stepping in as the quarterback with the team rushing ahead and you are not quite clear on the play just called.
Not only are getting to know your newborn, but you are trying to figure out how to support your partner who seems like a different woman. She is exhausted from giving birth and in a hormonal flux that makes her cry over everything. She seems so overwhelmed with caring for your baby, you wonder if she even needs you anymore. You may struggle to discover where you fit in. So, for those first weeks, here are some things a new Mom might want her partner to know (even if she hasn’t realized it yet.)
Make it a “Babymoon.”
A honeymoon is a time set aside from the distraction and demands of everyday life to get to know each other. Similarly, a “babymoon” is a time for getting to know your baby and adjusting to becoming a family. Take as much time off work as you can – it will be well spent. And, don’t plan home projects. If you must return to work, keep work-related demands to a minimum.
You are proud of your new baby want to share your excitement with friends and family. However, it’s important to limit visitors in the first days as Mom is recovering from birth and learning to breastfeed. She will be exhausted, hormonal, and vulnerable. She’s also sore, self-conscious, and overwhelmed. There is plenty of time for visiting later. Allow only visitors that she would be comfortable with seeing her shirtless and nursing, will respect if the baby needs to be with Mom to nurse and bond during the visit, and not expect to hold a swaddled baby. If she is struggling with breastfeeding, call your midwife, OB or pediatrician, get an IBCLC lactation consultant to come to your home or take your partner to a breastfeeding clinic. Her breastfeeding success relies on your support.
Remember, the more rest and privacy your partner has now, the quicker she will recover and develop confidence. Good friends and family will understand you asking them to give your new family some space. They can help by bringing food, running an errand, or doing a household chore.
Give her a break.
If you must go back to work, the moment you come home is critical. The house may be a mess and Mom still in her jammies, in the same chair you left her in with the baby. Don’t ask her what she has done all day. She has been busy walking, holding, rocking, comforting, feeding, and burping your baby. Don’t give her advice. She doesn’t want to hear, “you could have ____ while he was asleep.” If he did sleep, she probably used that precious moment to get some sleep herself. And don’t dare ask about other household tasks. She is tired – even though it looks like she has done nothing except sit in the chair and snuggle the baby- this is a critically important job of the first weeks of life! Hug Mom and ask her what you can do to help. Then follow through. Refresh her drink, get her some food and offer to hold the baby or take him for a walk while she gets a moment to herself or a shower.
Have a carrier or sling ready before your baby is born and learn how to use it. This is a convenient way to give Mom a break and give you quality time with your baby. Babies who are carried cry less and you are able to learn your baby’s cues more readily.
Never comment on the mess.
There will be mess – baby equipment, laundry (how does one tiny person create so much?). Many household tasks need to be put on the back burner. Pick up after yourself (and her) and don’t expect praise. She doesn’t want to hear that you loaded the dishwasher – really? You found the detergent and pressed the buttons? If you work long hours or feel overwhelmed, too, enlist someone to help. Hire a cleaner or ask family or friends for help.
Make sleep a priority.
As if there isn’t enough to adjust to in those first weeks of parenting, there is also sleep deprivation. You will be tired, too, but Mom needs rest to recover from growing, giving birth, and making milk for your baby. Promoting her rest now will speed recovery and ensure that she will have energy to enjoy being a mother – and have more energy for having fun with you sooner. Take your baby after the early morning feed and let her sleep in. In the evening or on weekends, send Mom to bed and take baby for a walk in the carrier or a stroller. Every moment of sleep is precious.
Tell her you love her. Often!
Share your gratitude for your beautiful baby. Tell her she’s beautiful. It’s hard to feel beautiful and worthy of affection when you are covered in milk and spit-up and other baby secretions and can barely find time for a shower and a change of clothes because you are so busy walking, holding, rocking, comforting, and feeding and burping your baby all day. And if she is irritable with you it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love or need you. Remember, she is exhausted, hormonal and vulnerable. It’s normal for her to be emotional or teary. But, be attentive to her mood, and support her to get help if she needs it. One in five women will develop depression postpartum. This is an illness. It is treatable and the sooner the better. If you are concerned about how she is feeling, call your midwife, OB or primary care provider.
You are a team now.
You’re not “helping out” your partner. You’re parenting! Family, friends, and complete strangers will give you advice on everything. Always take your partner’s side, no matter what your mother and friends say. If your parenting choices are different than family and friends, read up, be informed, and discuss with your partner, so you can defend your choices as a team (remember, your partner is exhausted, hormonal, and vulnerable).
If you’re not comfortable doing something, like dressing or bathing your baby for fear you might do it ‘wrong,’ or hurt the baby, just do it anyway. Take a class on infant care. Keep trying. The more you try, the easier it will be. And, when you are going out, get yourself ready then help get the baby ready while your partner gets herself ready. Again! Pitch in and help get everyone out the door. “Stepping up’ and being a team player at the start is an investment in your relationship with your baby and your partner.
Tell her she’s doing a great job. Every day.
Be specific so she believes you. Tell her, “I love the way you…..” Or “I love watching you…….” She will get loads of advice, but hardly anybody tells a new Mom she’s doing a great job. You don’t get much positive feedback from a newborn – they don’t smile for weeks! Remember, she’s exhausted, hormonal, and vulnerable. You need to supply the praise to help her make it through the tough parts.
Keep calm and hang in there.
Babies cry. Often you won’t have an idea why they are crying. Neither will she. He has been fed, burped, diapered, held, rocked, walked, and comforted. Babies still cry! So, don’t ask, “What is wrong with him?” Remember, she could take this as criticism. Instead, ask, “How can I help?” Ask for advice from a trusted resource such as your pediatric provider and trust your parental instincts. You will both work things out and it will get easier.
Remember, you have got this. You are going to be an awesome parent!
Sandra Wood, APRN, CNM, is a certified nurse midwife at The University of Vermont Medical Center and clinical instructor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM.