Tuesday, January 29, 2013

16 Things I Wish I'd Known About Babies Before I Had One

I am not a baby expert.

In fact, when I had my first child, I knew very little about babies. There were a lot of logistical and developmental things I had never heard about, and a lot that surprised me. Now, with my third child at 3 months of age, I can look back to my first experiences with some trench perspective, and think about the things I REALLY wish someone had told me about that first time. Because knowing what's 'normal' can make it soooo much more likely that you will not want to stab yourself in the eye with a baby monitor. 

Hope you find this helpful!

1) Your baby may not like the carseat, or may wake up whenever you stop driving. You picked out the perfect coordinated travel system in the colour/pattern you wanted, and the child in the photo on the box is either smiling or sleeping. The handle is decked out with a fun musical toy, you've got padded shoulder straps and an extra headrest for that sweet, floppy little neck. Then you buckle her in and she screams - every time. Or she's fine as long as you're moving - but how dare you stop! I've had two babies fall into this category. Both of them would start to stir at every red light or stop sign, and I would perfect my "inching forward while pumping the brakes" routine to avoid the full waking/crying that always seemed to follow. I've been known to twist my arm around behind me and gently shake the carseat to mimic motion. It also even affects what route I take on a car trip - downtown areas with a lot of stops are not my friend. Take the long way around... wouldn't you rather add an extra 20 minutes of peace than listen to 10 minutes of screaming? Ten minutes seems VERY long when your dear little nugget is choking on wails and making that desperate, breathless, shaky-lamb noise. Other friends of mine have had the babies that just plain hate the carseat. Once those straps start slipping up over their arms, it's freak-out time. See what you can do to change the way things feel (remove extra padding or add it, change the seat angle a little, while still keeping it in the safe range), or try to always leave the house when baby is tired and about to fall asleep. But it may just take time for the little one to get used to it. You're (probably) not doing anything wrong. If it keeps you from wanting to go anywhere, try just letting her lay free-style in the flat stroller bottom and go for a walk instead.
2) Your baby may only sleep well if he is on you/beside you or in a swing, and may hate the crib/ bassinet, or sleeping on his back. I had to laugh at my 5-year-old when I was pregnant with my third and she told me "I know how to get babies to sleep!" Yeah, sure you do I said to myself with a smirk. Good luck with that! You know that image you had in your head of you sweetly humming a lullaby, while rocking your baby in a rocking chair, then setting him gently down on his back in a quiet crib, limp arms up peacefully by his head? And enjoying three hours of free time while he naps? Only the lucky ones, I'm afraid. The majority of babies need sleep aids to get to dreamland (and to stay there): nursing, soothers, swaddling, white noise, motion, or human contact are all things to try, alone or in combination. I always assumed babies cried because they needed a clean diaper, were hungry, or were in pain. Not once did my kids cry over a soiled diaper; no, the majority of tears and screams happened when they were tired (or bored), and I was trying my best to convince them that sleep helps. It's also good to realize that your baby might fall asleep nursing or drift off by simply being held at first... but this can change as they get older and more aware. My firstborn was about 6 or 7 weeks old when she stopped falling asleep nursing, and I had no idea what she wanted or how to get her to sleep anymore. After that, we developed an "eat, awake, sleep" routine, but I really had to figure out which aids worked best for her (umm... all of them). Even with the assistance of some tools, she still fought me on pretty much every.single.nap until she was three (and stopped napping altogether). It's not your fault; some babies just don't love nap time. You may find yourself in tears, beyond frustrated holding a flailing, tired, angry little person. You may for the first time understand the need for anti-baby-shaking awareness campaigns (which is a serious thing, and not to be taken lightly. If you worry about the rage you're feeling, put baby down in a safe place and WALK AWAY. Go in another room and scream or bite down on something, hard. Cry. Cool off. Regroup. Try again. Feeling this way does not mean you don't love your baby).
3) Swaddling is worth trying.
And I don't mean some half-effort, arms-out packaging job with a flannel receiving blanket the size of a washcloth. A good swaddle takes a large blanket (or two), and tight wrapping. Thin muslin ones are great for this, and you can find tons of online tutorials if you can't get the method figured out. As baby gets older and stronger, you might want to invest in a commercial swaddling blanket like the Miracle Blanket or SwaddleMe, which feature things like inner arms flaps and velcro closures. And listen, if baby cries when you swaddle her, it doesn't mean she hates it or that you shouldn't keep trying. Most will struggle the first few times. If your baby sleeps great without, be glad; but if she's waking up every 10-15 minutes and crying, chances are her arms are startling her awake and she needs them tucked in tight. My 3-month-old now smiles at me after I swaddle her. Go read this if you don't believe me. My son never needed swaddling, but both of my daughters needed constant straightjackets to get any decent sleep. Speaking of sleep...
4) Your baby may take steps back in sleeping. I can't tell you how many friends of mine had babies that seemed to sleep through the night, or almost through the night, by a month or two old, only to start waking up multiple times a night at 4 months or 6 months. Here's the thing. Nothing about babies developing or progressing is linear. Two steps forward, three steps back, do the hokey pokey and pour yourself some coffee, because this baby isn't done turning itself around yet. I can't tell you exactly what your baby is going to do or what pattern he will follow, all I can tell you is not to get frustrated when setbacks seem to pop up. Developmental milestones, growth spurts, teething, illness, travel... all of these things can trigger a regression. If you expect and accept them, it's much less frustrating to deal with. No less tiring, but not as discouraging. Don't waste your brain power with the "why is this happening when he was doing SO well!" It doesn't matter; if there is an obvious solution or cause, try to fix it. If not, wait a few days or weeks and it will likely work itself out.
5) You need a network. That old saying about "it takes a village"? It's true. Our North American culture typically lacks built-in natural community and support for new mothers, so we have to seek it out and create it. I wish I'd known that earlier, because I was fairly isolated with my first. Find a local mom/baby group. If you don't like it, try another one until you feel like you mesh with the other people there. If you can't find supportive and friendly moms in your area, look online. Either existing friends via facebook or topical online communities are great options for reaching out. When I was pregnant with my first, I connected with a friend's cousin that I sort-of knew and we were having babies around the same time. Fast forward 6 years, and we each have three kids and have gone through pretty much every baby/toddler/preschooler stage and issue together  - all online. You need people who you can vent to and ask advice from, people who are willing to be real and non-judgmental. If the moms you've connected with pretend their kids are perfect and that they've never felt like jumping out a window... they might be the wrong friends.
6) Breastfeeding might hurt for awhile, even if you do it right. This myth really bugs me, because breastfeeding flag-wavers everywhere are perpetrating the lie that if it hurts, you're doing it wrong. Hey, I'm VERY pro-breastfeeding, and yes it will hurt very much if you're doing it wrong or have developed a problem like thrush or mastitis, and yes I recommend that people should power through and stick it out if they are able. But I would like to change the phrase to "breastfeeding doesn't hurt after the first month or two if you do it properly." I'm sorry, but an infant with a strong sucking reflex suctioning on your very sensitive boob all day every day, plus engorgement, plus potentially painful letdown (which I get, for several weeks, each time I have a baby) is NOT painless. I'm sure some people have no pain, and that is great for them. But I feel like too many people get discouraged with how painful it is, assume they're doing it wrong even though everything seems to be just like they've been told is the right way, and give up before it gets really great. Trust me, for the first month at least, I curled my toes and winced for the first few moments of every latch. And shielded my ultra-sensitive boobs when I stepped under the shower head.  It gets better. Just don't feel like a failure if you're not pain-free.
7) Babies grow. You must think I'm an idiot for not knowing this one. I did... I just had no idea how fast. My babies were all between 7 and 9 pounds at birth, but they were LONG. The size newborn and 0-3 month clothes lasted maybe two weeks, at best. If you have a tiny baby, you may get much more use out of tiny items; however, best to start with only a few pieces and add more if you need them. The 3-6 month stuff will likely get more use. When you're pregnant and shopping, don't buy every piece you like/want in the smallest size. Mix it up, buy some 6-12 and 12-18 month sizes so you have something to look forward to.
8) Certain cloth diapers may not fit at first. New babies often lack the deliciously chubby thighs that keep cloth diapers from leaking. You really have two options here: either buy a few newborn-sized cloth diapers that may get outgrown in 3 weeks (see #7, above), or use disposables until baby chunks up a bit and fills out the diaper size that will last them several months. Personally I've gone with the second option, especially because babies poop so much more often in the first couple of weeks and you would need about ten diapers a day to keep up.
9) There're these things called cluster feeding and growth spurts. So...bad news. That baby's only going to stop crying if you feed her. What, you just fed her 10 minutes ago? For an hour? Doesn't matter. It's all she wants. Hand her off to Daddy and all she does is turn her face and start sucking on his arm. Mine used to look at me apologetically and hand her back. Sorry to break it to you, but this happens and it's best to just accept it and park on the couch in the evenings for the first few weeks. Grab your remote, a snack, some water and your phone. Friends for company if you need them. Pray baby has a good latch, because she's probably just going to go from boob to boob for a few hours. There's nothing wrong with her, just take a deep breath and know that it's normal. Frustrating, but normal, and most often in the evenings.  
10) It's okay to sit and hold them while they nap on your chest, and okay to sleep with them in your bed (if you do it safely). If you enjoy it or everyone is happier that way, proceed. But it's equally okay to set them down and let them cry for a minute while you pee, or make coffee or speed-eat lunch with your hands free. You don't have to follow any set of rules when it comes to "attachment" parenting or fostering independence. Do what works. Bad habits can be broken later when everyone's had more sleep and baby is older and easier to work with. And no one is going to die from crying for three minutes. It's really okay. And on that note...
11) You might need someone to tell you it's okay to leave your newborn.
I had a friend message me one day to tell me how burnt out she felt with her baby, who was a few months old. She said she just never got a break. I said hand that baby to your husband and walk out the front door. Go anywhere you want, it really doesn't matter. She was almost shocked, and said "thank you. I had never really thought about leaving her before." It's almost like we need someone to verbally say we have permission before it occurs to us we CAN. I'm actually so glad my mother-in-law came over when my firstborn was a week old, and told me to go to the grocery store. To take twenty minutes for myself and just remember what it's like to feel like a human apart from my baby. It felt crazy, and I was hesitant, but I needed it. And I needed someone to actually SAY that I should. This is especially important for breastfeeding mothers, because we spend so much time glued to our babies and we emotionally carry the weight of their entire nourishment and comfort on us, so we end up thinking we can't be away from them for even a minute or they'll die. See cluster feeding, above. So it might be a good idea if your first time driving/walking away from your precious little one is in the daytime when you think she can go half an hour without a feeding. It has to be with someone you trust - your partner, a grandparent, your sister, etc. After this ice-breaking outing, you can work your way up to longer stretches of time apart from baby, so that by 2 or 3 months old you may actually be able to get two good hours and go out for dinner nearby! It's important to start early because leaving them for the first time isn't going to get any easier the older they get. If you wait until she's 2, you're going to be a wreck and so is she. Baby steps.
12) Overtired is a terrible place. So is overstimulated. Common sense might tell you that keeping a baby awake longer or tiring them out with activities and multi-sensory play would help them sleep better and longer. But it could not be more wrong. New babies cannot/should not stay awake for long periods of time (2 hours is probably too much until they're at least 3 months old, maybe older. Here's a great chart). A baby who is kept up for too long will get overtired, which means his adrenaline starts pumping to compensate. This results in a cranky, wired, impossible-to-put-to-sleep baby for a few hours. Overstimulation works similarly... little babies don't need 7 coloured toys hanging above them while music plays and lights flash. Most newborns, once they can see and respond to things, would be most content to look quietly at a single toy for a few minutes, then have it replaced with a different one once they start making complaining boredom noises. My youngest currently likes to look at and touch the corduroy on my couch cushions. If you're playing music or sounds for him, try to limit any intense visual stimulation at the same time. A baby with too much going on is not going to be a happy baby for too long. And trying to stimulate a tired baby's senses is just the worst thing you could do.
13) Some babies catnap. I've had two of these babies. Forty-five minutes is the length of one infant sleep cycle. Who knew? I did not. I couldn't understand why other babies seemed to sleep for 2 or 3 hours with no trouble, and I drove myself insane trying to get my first to sleep longer. Turns out some babies just biologically don't have the rhythm yet, and you kind of just need to go with the flow. It's frustrating, but it does give you a little more freedom to come and go and be busy. You don't have to block off a whole afternoon camped at home until baby wakes up, so that's a bonus. There is one trick I've found helpful, and that is to try stretching one of the midday naps into a 'double'. When she wakes at the 45-minute mark, go immediately and shush/rock/soothe her back to sleep as best you can. For my baby, this means I leave her swaddled and keep the loud white noise pumping as I hold her and pat her diaper, soother in her mouth. Allow about twenty minutes for her sleep cycle to go from light/unsettled sleep into a deep sleep, which will allow her to likely be set down again undisturbed. In that 20 minutes, she may cry or fuss for a minute, open her eyes, and make some strange faces before hitting deep sleep; mine follows a funny little routine where she squirms, opens her eyes a few times, then her soother falls out, then she does some weird breathing and makes CRAZY  FACES. I'm talking smiles, almost-laughs, cry sobs and eye twitches. In her sleep. Once crazy faces stop, it's usually been about 20 minutes and I can generally put her down and she'll do another hour sometimes. Worth a shot.
14) This isn't directly about babies, but you'll discover it quickly when you have one. There are a lot of opinions out there about controversial parenting topics, and people will tell them to you whether you want to hear or not. You probably found that out when you were pregnant. It's frustrating, sometimes insulting, sometimes hurtful, and only occasionally helpful. Bottom line: your choices on vaccination, circumcision, diapering, feeding or anything else are not going to make or break you as a parent. Educate yourself and do what you and your partner think is best. And think up snarky things to say to people who cross the line.
15) You might be the strangest combination of bored and busy that you've ever experienced. For me, this was the hardest thing to get used to because I thrive on balance. After the first few weeks when she started being awake for longer stretches, I didn't know what to "do" with her. She was still too young to play with toys or be responsive to much, but didn't just sleep all the time anymore and needed constant attention. It's an awkward phase, albeit short. And as a new mom, you're still figuring out how to do "normal" things like grocery shop or hang out with friends, so you maybe haven't quite figured out how to keep socially busy yet, despite feeling like housework and other commitments are piling up on you and adding stress. As a new mom, I was lonely but stretched thin; understimulated and somewhat unfulfilled, but not able to keep up with simple things like laundry and dishes some days. It's a unique phase of life and a challenge to juggle. I hope that just knowing other moms experience it will get you through to a time when baby is a little more interactive and a little less demanding of your time and body, and some balance is restored.
16) You'll be "that" parent. You know, the one that thinks their child is the first to ever roll over or smile. What's the big deal? Everyone smiles. Everyone knows how to pick up a toy. What's so amazing about milestones? Everything. Because you see firsthand that yesterday he was this little lump with a face that looked at you, and today that face smiles when he recognizes you. And that? That will grab hold of you like nothing you've ever known. Marveling at life as it develops in a tiny body is unlike anything else. So go ahead. Brag. Beam. Take photos. You're allowed to be this amazed.

What about you? What do you wish you had known or were surprised to experience?