If babies could speak at birth, they’d tell you being launched into the world is quite a shock. One minute they’re curled up in your warm, cozy womb and the next, they’re out in the bright, wide open in a constant stream of new sights, sounds, and sensations.
And for moms and dads, it can be equally shocking. Your formerly predictable home environment is now upside down as you wrap your brain around keeping a human alive. On top of that, your body is healing, your hormones are fluctuating, your marriage is adjusting and you’ve never been so tired in your life—a shock, indeed!
So, how do you proactively manage this window of time?
We suggest adopting a flexible, no-pressure approach to minimize your stress and create a smoother transition.
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Some fourth trimester tips
Re-Create Life Inside the Womb
For nine months your baby adapted to a womb environment, so the easiest way to help her feel comfy is to mimic that vibe. In the womb, babies get used to being in motion, so look into a swing that moves front to back and side to side to match a pregnancy movements. Using a baby sling/carrier gives your little one that snuggled-up, attached feeling and lets you move freely about. And white noise machines and apps provide womb sounds (it’s loud in there!) and help soothe your baby to sleep.
Let Go of Expectations
Placing unrealistic expectations on yourself, your baby and your spouse sets everyone up for stress. Like with any human you meet, it takes time to get to know them and your baby’s no different. She comes from your body, but that doesn’t mean you’ll instantly know her cues and needs, so stay patient while you get the lay of the land.
Follow Your Baby’s Lead
If you’re an organized, scheduled kind of person, going with the flow and following your baby’s lead may take some getting used to but it definitely pays off. A newborn’s circadian rhythm develops over time, so their waking and sleeping periods aren’t always predictable. At this stage, know that, slowly but surely, your baby will settle into a routine and things will become more manageable.
Parenting as a team sets the tone for your home environment and your future. Communicate your feelings and needs so Dad knows how best to support you. Trust that he’s capable of caring for the baby, so you’re able to take time for yourself. Stay on the alert for when “gatekeeping” sabotages your ability to lean on him. And know that teamwork is key to creating a solid family foundation.
Get Out & Connect
The fourth trimester can feel isolating, and it’s easy to get so cocooned in your house you can’t recall the last time you got out. Resist feeling isolated by getting fresh air, going for walks and keeping in touch with friends.
Don’t Fear ‘Bad Habits’
In the early days, don’t increase stress by worrying about “bad habits” your child won’t be able to break (like pacifiers and thumb sucking). The goal is to get through this adjustment period as comfortably as possible, so make decisions that are best for your family and don’t compare yourself to others: if you’re thriving, so will your baby.
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So, your first major challenge is identifying your child’s temperament: Who is she? Once you know her personality, you’ll have the key to unlocking how best to care for her and help her thrive in the world.
Embracing the belief that your baby has unique, pre-wired traits means:
- You’ll focus on your baby, rather than books, for the perfect technique.
- You’ll rely on your instincts, a method has proven effective for millenniums.
- You won’t blame yourself if your baby is a crier, poor sleeper, or tense. If your baby is shy, you’ll accept he came into the world that way.
- You’ll quickly learn what she needs; following your baby’s lead makes interactions more productive.
- You’ll worry less about doing things wrong; doing what doesn’t work leads to what does work and deciphering her personality.
Feeling intimidated from not knowing what to do may be unsettling, sometimes as soon as you drive away from the hospital. Anyone who’s had a baby knows that mixture of amazement at what you made and shock that people are letting you take a little human home. This is when you remind yourself nobody knows what to do at first; it’s a gradual process of trial and error and fostering teamwork that leads to growth and discovering what works best for your family.
Remember: You don’t have to be a baby expert; you just have to get to know yours. And if you’re worried you’re not ready for the job—you are. Every mother goes through the same learning curve; soon enough, you’ll know exactly how to “read” your little one.
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How to Speak Baby
Before babies learn to speak, they’re already skilled at sending clues to get their message across. Understanding your child’s needs takes time and trust that you’re able to do what billions of mothers have done before you.
Though often confounding, there are a few challenges all new babies present, mainly eating, crying and sleeping. Some cues are clear (fussing when hungry or rubbing their eyes when tired), and other cues are more elusive (an open-eyed look suggesting curiosity or a wrinkling of the eyebrow to convey discontent). Through following your baby’s lead and observation, you’ll learn which cues get his message across and the result is a beautiful, symbiotic relationship.
Baby’s Super Powers
Babies are incredible at getting Mom and Dad to do their bidding. The oxytocin surges they trigger lead to a deep and complex love between you. It’s a good thing because this love will see you through challenges like long, sleepless nights.
New babies have multiple fine-tuned senses:
- A baby’s hearing allows them to perceive your varying vocal tones as subtle clues to how you feel.
- Even with fuzzy eyesight, your baby is drawn to your face and will “read” it for clues to what you’re communicating.
- A baby’s sense of smell and taste is keenly attuned and, even when half-awake, she knows the difference between Mom and Dad.
- Her sense of touch is superb and a gentle massage from Mom or Dad has excellent, soothing benefits.
Nature has endowed babies with the ability to utilize these skills in a purposeful way to get their needs met. As you’ll soon recognize, their objectives go far beyond just surviving. Your baby’s sensory skills help him form an enduring bond with Mom and Dad and as he grows, his senses continue to help him understand his world.
Nurturing Baby’s Nature
During pregnancy, your baby kicks away and complex biological processes of human relationships are well underway. At birth, babies show a capacity and drive for human connection and an extraordinary ability to respond to our expressions; you’ll see his natural curiosity about the world and a desire to connect with you. A newborn’s intense gaze is the greatest sign he’s not just a passive creature but a fully engaged individual from the get-go.
For many decades, scientists debated whether nature (genes) or nurture (environment) was responsible for how human beings turned out. A consensus was finally reached that both contribute to our personality.
Beyond the basics of comforting, feeding, and keeping him warm, safe and clean, a baby’s key need is for mom and dad to embrace his pre-wired self. And deciphering his personality at this stage of the game prepares you for when he’s even more complex (those teen years!).
When observing your baby, what do you see?
- Is he mostly sleepy or very alert?
- Does he cry with gusto or just whimper when he needs something?
- Is he apprehensive, sensitive or feisty?
These early observations will help you decode your baby’s unique characteristics and preferences: if there’s ever a beneficial time to “be present,” this is it. Try to avoid labeling your baby’s traits as good or bad. You may feel he’s “high maintenance” because he cries intensely and is difficult to console because this isn’t typically thought of as “good baby” behavior, but this intensity may later translate into qualities that are dynamic and productive.
While a child’s core temperament is fixed, the intensity of traits is influenced by how parents react to their child’s behavior. For example, if your baby is shy in social settings and you avoid them, their shyness gene is strengthened, but if you gently encourage him to grow comfortable in these situations, the gene is subdued.
Babies who talk early and often get lots of verbal interaction with their parents, which enhances cognitive abilities, but the child who talks less is the one needing the interaction more. If a baby doesn’t respond well to affection, most parents provide less, but it’s the very opposite that reduces the gene’s power.
And how your temperaments interact will also influence your child’s behavior and personality. He’ll tune into your cues and be sensitive to touch, words, expressions and feelings, including stress. Over time, you’ll develop a mutual understanding and create a language all your own.
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“He goes into his brain and then you just see he is in another world. He still does that. Now I just leave him be, because I know he is designing a new rocket or something.”
- Maye Musk, Mother of Elon
Temperament & Self Soothing
For babies, self-soothing relates to how easily they independently calm themselves: an important factor in learning to fall asleep on their own.
Some babies are born with self-soothing tools like thumb sucking, but many aren’t sure what to do and would rather be rocked or carried. Knowing your baby’s temperament tells you what they need to self-soothe and sleep easier. If your baby is sensitive to sounds, you know she needs a calm, quiet space to fall asleep. If she has a hard time relaxing after a lot of activity, you know to factor in additional time for transitions to sleep.
Again, the most important element is that you’re paying attention. The simple act of observation draws us closer to our child and naturally attunes us to their individual needs. The next couple of decades will be a profound journey of discovery, and while you can’t predict what type of temperament your baby has, you can set a course for a parenting style that allows your whole family to thrive.
Working together to understand your baby’s needs and support one another in your new roles leads to faith in each other’s abilities and fosters mutual respect. When you team up, it lowers tension in the home and enriches your relationship with each other and with your little one.
So what does teamwork between parents look and feel like?
Trust, collaboration, lots of tag teaming, communication, respect, synergy, working out problems, sharing the load, a common vision, backing each other up, a positive attitude, appreciation for each other’s needs, optimism for the future, and balancing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Of course, this won’t be the case every day, but with commitment and some work, it can be accomplished (most days!). Before your baby is born, talk about what teamwork will look like in your house. Keeping communication open and staying flexible makes all the difference because how you each handle baby care reflects individual style and deserves to be appreciated.
For more information, see our list of teamwork challenges and solutions in the “Becoming a Family” section.
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It Does Take a Village
Many generations ago, new moms were taken care of by the women in the “village” and so were their newborns. This gave them a chance to learn under the guidance of moms who had been through it. Moms were nurtured through their recovery with lots of helping hands present to care for the baby while she slept, got her strength back, and received plenty of advice on adapting to her new responsibilities.
At Boot Camp for New Dads, men talk about the pressure and societal expectation women feel to “just know” how to take care of their babies and the guilt and lack of confidence women experience when they don’t. But remember this: You’ve never been a mom before.
This is a brand new experience for both you and Dad, and you’re supposed to be learning as you go and figure out what works best for your baby and family. Even pediatric nurses are surprised by the learning curve involved with their own newborn. They may know medical procedures, but they still have to learn 24/7 baby care when they bring their baby home.
Both you and Dad will make mistakes that you’ll learn from (get used to that!), and as you figure things out you’ll gain confidence in taking care of your baby. In the meantime, (have we mentioned this before?), cut yourself some slack and remind yourself that your mommy instinct comes from getting to know your baby, which happens in due time.
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“At the beginning, if someone offered help I thought, ‘No, it’s OK. I can do it myself. You don’t need to come over.’ But let them come over; let them do the dishes; let them do the laundry.” –Veteran Mom
Edel & Ryan: It Takes a Village (or at least a Dad) (1:02)
“Sometimes, I would panic when my husband wasn’t around, because I would feel like I had to resolve the issue by myself and I didn’t know what the problem was to begin with.”
Some parents have all the baby support they need, but others are truly desperate for an extra pair of hands. Hiring a caregiver ensures you’ll have help with childcare while building your skills and confidence. When hiring, conduct a thorough interview, confirm CPR certification and check multiple references.
Some support options to consider:
“We thought we were pretty well-prepared with birth classes, etc., but we were still lost for the first two months.” –Veteran Mom
- Trained to provide non-medical support during the first days and weeks following childbirth.
- Assist with newborn care, feedings, light meal prep, and supporting mom through the emotional and physical recovery from childbirth.
- Postpartum doulas are available days and nights, including overnight, and rates start around $25/hour (doulas in training may offer a sliding scale or work pro bono for certification hours).
- To find a postpartum doula in your area, contact: dona.org, findadoula.com or cappa.net.
Babies can be an unpredictable and time-consuming business, and while organizing in advance definitely helps, you’ll still need to make peace with a host of adjustments. Your baby may sleep hours at a time one day and then opt for cat naps the next; you may be able to shower at 11 a.m. one day then not until 4 p.m. (or never!) the next—and it’s all normal.
Flowing with your baby’s needs each day allows you to be a happier mom who feels successful rather than a disappointed mom who fails to meet expectations. So put things in place ahead of time to make your day-to-day living easier, then concentrate on sleeping once you bring your baby home. Everything you’ve heard people tell you (stock up on diapers, prep and freeze meals, pay bills in advance), really does make those initial weeks more manageable. And you’ll find that slowly establishing routines pays off. Children love predictability and as they get into the rhythm of sleeping, playing, and eating, eventually, the days and nights become more consistent.
Proactive planning plus flexibility is key.
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Edel & Ryan: Dealing with Visitors (2:02)
Matt: Dealing with Visitors (1:23)