Recently several newly pregnant friends have asked me if I had any advice for them, which has given me occasion to think over all the things that have kept my partner and me going throughout my pregnancy and our first nine months of parenting. While pregnant, I read as many pregnancy and parenting books as I could get my hands on, and learned a lot, both about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do.
But a lot of the most helpful ideas weren’t in the books at all. They were things we figured out by trial and error (often weeks after they would first have been helpful), things we learned from other parents, or things we learned from frantic e-mails or phone calls to midwives, doulas, and doctors! As I was writing this advice up for my friends, I thought it would be fun to share it with the Offbeat Families community, and ask you to share what tips you think are most essential for new parents!
Of course the first, most important advice, is do what works for you. So if any of my thoughts seem helpful, great! If not, disregard them. We’re in parenting for the long haul, so we all have to find ways of doing it that we enjoy and find sustainable, and that make sense to us.
Before getting pregnant
Take a photo: I didn’t do this, but I wish I had. Take a photo of yourself naked before you get pregnant. Your body will change so much, that you won’t even be able to remember what it was like before. I really have no idea what I used to look like, and I wish I did!
Dealing with uncertainty: I kept hearing from people that you shouldn’t have a kid unless you’re absolutely certain that that’s what you want to do. I was never certain. I loved my pre-child life, and had very mixed feelings about the idea of changing that. Now of course I’m super glad I have a child, and so glad I didn’t let my lack of certainty prevent me from taking this leap.
Early weeks: The first weeks of pregnancy aren’t a reflection of what the rest of your pregnancy, or the rest of your life will be like. It’s such a major life change that it’s very disorienting, and on top of that, your hormones are completely different than you’ve ever experienced before. For many people, these first few weeks are really rocky — I know several couples that almost broke up then – but hang there and it will get better! (And if it doesn’t get better, see a doctor for help — it is possible for the hormonal changes to really throw people off-balance.)
Bras: Don’t rush out and buy four new bras (like I did) the minute your breasts get a bit larger. I did that, and the next month my breasts grew even more and I had to buy more bras! Just buy one at a time.
Maternity clothes: A lot of my best maternity clothing was just stretchy regular clothing and long shirts. (Maternity jeans were helpful though). You can buy nursing/pregnancy tank tops which you will be able to wear during pregnancy and after. In retrospect I should have just bought just those, rather than maternity tanks, and then nursing bras (which I almost never wear). Black is the most helpful colour for the pregnancy/nursing tanks, since they won’t show so much if you leak milk (which you will, at some point!) And high-waisted, v-neck crossover dresses made out of stretchy fabric are your friend before, during, and after pregnancy!
Body changes: Books don’t seem to mention all of the changes that take place — and some of these are things you really might want to know about! Two things that caught me by surprise (but that my midwife reassured me were normal) were that my vulva changed shape and my body odor changed during pregnancy, and again during lactation.
Teeth: The books do say to take care of your teeth during pregnancy, but they don’t emphasize this enough, or explain why this is so important. During pregnancy, you may find it hard to brush and/or floss because of morning sickness, but it’s super important to find a way to do so anyway, because you are more prone to tooth decay because of increased stomach acid and changed hormones. Also, you will probably end up snacking during the night while pregnant and/or breastfeeding. It turns out that it is even more important to brush (or at least rinse) after night-time snacks than during the day, because you salivate less and food sits on your teeth and causes decay. (I was a little lax about dental care, because of morning sickness and exhaustion, and ended up with 8 cavities!)
Food: Late pregnancy is a good time to buy a chest freezer, and fill it full of meals you would like to eat in the weeks/months after the baby is born. (And it’s a good time to get an ice cream maker, if you haven’t already!) Also, stock up on nourishing, high protein snacks to stash around the house, because breastfeeding makes you really hungry!
Birth: Don’t get too wedded to any one vision of how the birth will go. While avoiding unnecessary medical procedures appeals to me, I feel like a lot of the natural birth oriented books gloss over the fact that a significant number of births do have complications that require interventions. I ended up needing several unexpected interventions, and I feel like I was more scared about them than I needed to be, just because of how the books I had read talked about them.
Breastfeeding: I feel like the message I got was that “all women are able to breastfeed”, but in reality, there are a few people who aren’t able to produce enough milk. If you know something is wrong, trust your gut, and keep searching until you find someone who can help you.
When I started using a bit of formula to supplement, books and people made me feel like my milk would surely begin to diminish, and I’d end up not able to breastfeed at all. But it really wasn’t like that. I just make sure to breastfeed my son as frequently as he would take, to pump when I’m away from him for more than a couple of hours, and to only give him formula after he has breastfed. I wish that earlier on in this process, people had simply told me how to keep my milk supply as high has possible (by frequent feeding and pumping) rather than scaring me about how I would end up not breastfeeding!
The books all tell you that breastfed babies will need to feed every 1-3 hours around the clock for the first few months. In my experience, this actually continues for the first nine months, and counting!
Sleep: We spent the first few weeks trying to get our son to sleep the way we wanted him to — on a separate mattress, on his back, the way they tell you babies should. He hated it, and woke up every time we put him down! After a while we figured out that it goes a lot better if you figure out how the baby wants to sleep, and then help them sleep that way. And of course what our baby really wanted was to sleep on or touching us. So we figured out ways that my partner or I could sleep with the baby on us (usually in the middle of a queen mattress, on the floor, so if he rolled off — though he never did — it would just be on to the mattress). As he got bigger, I switched to sleeping next to him holding his hand, and that worked really well too.
At the beginning I was worried that I might roll on the baby, so I slept on a futon on the floor, next to the queen mattress. After a while I figured out how to position us so I knew I wouldn’t roll on him. Then when our son started rolling around in his sleep, I got some pool noodles to put under the sheets so he won’t roll off the sides or top of the mattress, or roll into the area where I’m sleeping.
The safe co-sleeping guidelines tell you not to use any blankets or pillows if you are sleeping with a baby, but we found that a bit unrealistic. We got some loosely knit cotton and wool blankets with lots of holes in them, so that if one accidentally got on top of our son, he’d still be able to breath through it, and a couple of fairly rigid, small pillows (that would just fall off him if they got on his face). At first I dressed quite warmly, especially on top, and just had the blankets around my waist and legs (tucked underneath me) so they were nowhere near the baby. Now that he’s older, I do pull the blankets up around my shoulders (but I always check that they’re easy to breath through, just in case!)
First weeks: Take it easy for the first two or three weeks after giving birth. (The advice I was given was to stay in bed for the first week, around the bed for the second week, and in the house for the third week). I was feeling a bit stir-crazy, and wanting to get up and do more stuff, but my doula told me that there are a lot of hormones at the beginning that make women feel energetic, but actually the body needs to take time to recover and if you don’t rest enough at the beginning, recovery will be much slower in the long run. I don’t know if it’s because I followed her advice or not, but I did recover pretty quickly.
Make sure you take enough time away from work and other responsibilities at the very beginning that you can really settle into being a parent, and not be trying to keep the rest of your life chugging along at the same time — you eventually get back to the other things you were doing too, but it comes gradually and trying to rush it only makes you frustrated.
Equipment: You don’t need to worry too much about getting stuff before the baby is born. All you really need are diapers, blankets, and a safe place for the baby to sleep! Everything else can be gotten afterwards, as you see what you need. (And you do not need to baby-proof until the baby is approaching crawling age.)
That said, there are a few things that we wouldn’t have wanted to do without. We found the automatic rocking swing really helpful. Babies often only want to nap in someone’s arms or while being rocked, and it is really great to be able to put the baby down! And baby legwarmers are also really helpful. They’re easier to put on than sweaters or pants. We used them a lot as arm warmers when our son was sleeping in the first few months when he liked his lower half swaddled but wanted his arms out.
Babysitters: We started having a babysitter come and spend some time with our son starting at about two months because we wanted him to already be familiar with his babysitter before he got to the age where he was suspicious of strangers. So far it’s been going great. Now we have two babysitters who he sees regularly, and he loves them both. At first we always stayed home while a babysitter was here, so he’d know we were around too and I could feed him (and it’s easier to find babysitters who you feel comfortable watching a young baby when you’re home too than babysitters you would leave a newborn alone with), but now we spend lots of time out too.
Finally, I’d suggest watching this nice mother and baby gorilla:
I feel like I learned most of what I really needed to know about being a mother from these gorillas!
I’d love to hear the advice that all of you found most helpful!