Breast pumps & messy rooms: The newborn photos I wish I had taken

February 3 2016 | Guest post by Antonina Mamzenko
This is one of my favorite newborn photos.
This is one of my favorite newborn photos.

My little four-year-old is going to become Mr five-year-old in a few short weeks, and here I am looking at his newborn pictures and feeling just a little sad about all this time that flew by in a blink of an eye.

When he was born I was already a photographer. I knew I wanted and needed to capture these first few precious weeks. So, apart from arranging for a photographer to come and take a few, I also prepared all my gear and resolved to practice taking the most perfect newborn pictures.

What I didn't know then was those "cute-baby-on-a-white-blanket-curled-up-in-a-perfect-pose" pictures would not be the ones I will treasure in five years time.

Sure, they are cute and pretty, but he's just one of many equally cute babies curled up on a pretty blanket that Pinterest is full of. It tells me nothing about him as a baby and us as parents, nothing about those first weeks and I can look at that picture as long as I want and I won't remember a thing.

But there are a few precious pictures — snaps, really — that I almost deleted back then, because they were so damn imperfect. A few snaps that tell a whole story about our trials by fire and learning all about being parents.

A picture of my husband in the hospital ward, his tiny newborn son asleep on his chest — the only position he'd sleep in for many more months to come. My hubby gained a few more wrinkles and grey hairs since, and it's amazing to see him in his picture, before he truly became a dad, before the sleepless nights and arguments about the best way to change a nappy.

A picture of a hospital breast pump, that reminds me of those four horrible days when, after the perfect labour and birth, my baby just. would. not. nurse.

A picture of our messy bedroom, me just waking up and the baby asleep (or not?) in his basket — from the days when we still tried to have our son sleeping separately — and the mess on the shelf a story by itself…

A phone with an alarm clock as I was told to feed every three hours on-the-dot (oh I wish I didn't listen to this particular piece of meaningless advice). A sheet where I recorded the times of feedings and nappy changes (oh god, really?!). An empty bottle of expressed breast milk as we my little boy still struggled to latch on. A pile of pillows by the bed, as that was the only way I could even attempt to feed him. Nipple cream, because they hurt like hell. Glass of water, because I was always thirsty. A remote to switch the night light on when I was done feeding.

I didn't think I remembered any of it, but just looking at this picture triggered an avalanche of memories of those early days that I thought were lost in the haze of early parenthood.

I wish I'd had more of those pictures. Breastfeeding. Changing the nappy. Getting dressed. Going for a walk. Shopping for a new buggy. Reading a parenting book trying to figure out this sleep thing. Working with a baby on my lap/chest/arm.

But I didn't know I'd want those, so I didn't take them, and didn't ask them to be taken, and now I don't have those memories.

I know better now and I urge you, new parents, and photographers, to ditch the perfection and embrace the imperfection. In five years time that may be what you will treasure the most.

  1. When my son went into the hospital at six months old, once we were settled into the room and just waiting, waiting, waiting to see if he improved or if he needed to go to the PICU, I took a couple pictures. It felt inappropriate so I waited till everyone was out of the room, even his dad, because I felt like someone would say "Really? You're taking a picture right now while your son is struggling to breathe?" But looking back now I can see that it wasn't just my maternal imagination going overboard, he really was that sick and looking like not himself. And I can see in the next pictures, a few days later once he started to recover, that he looked like he had just been ill but the light was back in his eyes and he was feeling better (although not 100%). I wish I had taken a picture of the "cot" (calling it a cot is being generous, it was an arm chair that folded out) where his father and I slept night after night after night, even though the rules said only one adult was allowed to stay over night in the PICU.

    I'm grateful for my smartphone and the camera it carries. I try to take random pictures now and I'll worry about editing in a few years. I take thirty second videos here and there, especially of him and his father when daddy doesn't realize I'm there because he always makes a face when he knows I'm taking pictures and I want to capture those sweet little every day moments. I also try to limit my picture taking so I can be in the moment, but I know I'll treasure those little captured moments later.

    9 agree
    • Wow, when you describe you feeling ashamed of taking a picture in such a sad situation I feel you, totally. I'm the same and I think people might think me weird and insensitive sometimes but it's my way of remembering and dealing with things.

      3 agree
  2. Love this. My little one is three weeks old and are in the midst of the baby chaos described above. My favourite photo I have of her so far was taken at 6am, she is zonked out in the crook of my arm, after a wakeful night of feeding. In the background her dad is visible on the pillow next to me also fast asleep. They both have their mouths wide open and the same expression of blissful slumber, whilst I am awake, exhausted and proud to have finally got my family to sleep.

    7 agree
    • Aww, that's so sweet! Imagine looking at that photograph in a few years time?! I have a similar one that is one of the few with me in them (hubby is NOT snap happy at all). I was asleep in bed, my son next to me, and we had our arms under our heads and heads slightly turned in exactly the same way. It's amazing to look at it now.

      1 agrees
  3. I don't know that I want some of those pictures that you described… and, you obviously still have the memory of those events, good and bad. Those are the things that are burned in our memories forever, whether we take a physical picture of them or not. Also, I don't want the pressure of needing to document ever. little. thing. while I'm trying to figure out this new parenting thing. FWIW – I'm currently prego.

    3 agree
    • I wish I had more pictures from that time. I had severe postpartum depression, and I honestly have no recollection of my newborn aside from snips of sleepless nights, shared tears, and pain-in short, really not positive things. I'm grateful for my snap-happy husband who documented silly games, tantrums, spit-up, nappy piles and dirty laundry to fill in those voids of when I was really just not around either mentally or physically. To give you an idea, evidently there's a LOT of down time with a newborn, so these videos kept both daddy and baby sane, and today we all love to sit around on rainy days watching baby videos and looking at baby pictures.

      6 agree
    • Another lady face: That's just the thing – you don't know you'd want them until several years down the line. Hindsight is an amazing thing. So while you think you don't want those messy pictures, I urge to to take a few. I PROMISE you'd be glad you did in 5 years time!

      7 agree
    • "Burned into you memory forever" can actually fade faster than you'd think… Pics definitely help bring those times back. Our baby is 4.5 months now, and has already changed so much. I understand about the pressure to document every little thing and haven't been going crazy with it, but it's really surprising to look back at the picture and videos we have taken over a relatively short time and see details in the background and recall, "Oh, that's the swaddle that we gave up on 'cause she hated it," or "Remember her super spit-up phase?" Good and bad, but all part of the journey. And useful to have in mind if/when we have a second child!

      The first few weeks of our daughter's life, she was so fussy that more than once I wondered, "How can anyone have a second child? No, seriously? How does anyone have more than one?!" But things got better. I think people can forget over time as a coping mechanism, and it will be easier for me the potential second time around having those pics documenting that it was tough, but we got through it.

      7 agree
    • From a scientific perspective, your body is flooded with chemicals during pregnancy and childbirth specifically meant to dull your memory – because if we remembered clearly how rough it all is we probably wouldn't be willing to do it again, or would develop PTSD like some women do. You shouldn't get hung up on documenting "every little thing" but if someone is sitting in your living room checking Facebook while you nurse, don't be afraid to say "Hey, can you snap a picture and send it to me?" or if your partner is being particularly cute with the baby, reach over and flip on video mode for 30 seconds or so. Don't obsess, but don't rely on biological memory.

      Also, my son LOVES looking and pictures and video from when he was a baby. And I think he found it comforting, now that we are expecting a new "cute little baby," to have a visual reminder that he was one, too, and this new kid isn't going to have anything he didn't.

      8 agree
  4. One of my biggest regrets in the first couple months is that I did not have professional photos taken. My son has a cleft lip & palate that was corrected in his first year, and while I have tons and tons of casual, fun, intimate photographs, I don't have those crisp, piercing newborn photos of his face up close. When I talk to other parents in the same situation as me, I tell them do the newborn shoot.

    Just as you said: It's a memorable time that goes quickly and by the time you realized you wanted the photos, it's too late and your baby has a different face.

    5 agree
  5. I think it is a brilliant idea. We try to do this at home as well. The first year after our oldest daughter was born we took crazy many pictures. And the cute ones are still cute, but .really.not.That.interesting. What keeps me lookimg through the photoalbum is the funny pictures. Æike when she painted herself and most of the livingroom with my entire batch of red chanel lipstick. I was so furious at the time, and now i just look at the picture and it completely cracks me up, every time. I have a few photos like that from my own childhood, and they are so full of life and sparkle.

    4 agree
  6. A thouuuuusand times this. I've photographed many newborn sessions, and have even photographed two births, and they were incredible. The pictures that struck me most were the honest ones, the ones which basically tell you exactly what was happening at the time. (The rammed nappy bin in the corner. Bottles and baby books everywhere. Piles of clothes because you would change the baby's clothes 10 times a day. Not because they made a mess – no. Because you wanted them to wear everything at least once before it got too small.)

    I've recently made the decision to stop doing these sessions, because the struggle in getting people to understand exactly what you've said, is very real. I did a session recently where, everything gorgeous was completely ignored (newborn baby, happy family, precious moments) was overlooked for all the things wrong which were out of my control. I felt desperately sad.

    My own computer has an entire 1tb hard drive attached, which is JUST photos of my boys from birth until now, taken on my phone, my dslr, my film cameras – even scanned in polaroids. And they show EVERYTHING. And I love those photos almost as much as I love the boys themselves.

    You make hugely valid points, in this article, and I can only hope that people continue to take them onboard. THANK YOU for writing this. It's perfect (and oh boy does that nostalgia feel really bloody good right now. 😀 ).

    2 agree
  7. When our twins were born our son was hooked up to so many machines. My husband said he didn't want to take pictures because he looked so weak. I said take them it's part of his life. He got over it and took some especially when our son was transferred to another hospital and I wasn't discharged and couldn't see him for 2 days. Photos were all I had of him for those days and part of me was forgetting there was another baby waiting for me.

    2 agree
  8. I could have written this post myself (except for being a year behind you – my kid is four in a few days!) – I'm a photographer too, and I specialize in newborn sessions. And I love those classic newborn shots, I really do. But I think it's so, so important to have the context of your child's life – not just the styled studio shoots, but also snapshots, informal photos, capturing the "stuff" of life with your kid. I'm looking at one of my son's newborn session pics now, as it's printed and framed on the wall above my computer, and I adore it, but there are tons of other photographs from his early days and the messy, noisy, crazy years since that really show me what life was like then and is like now – they're not all technically perfect, some were just taken with my phone (which has an awful camera!) but they all mean something, and they all flesh out his life, and our life with him.

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