Our children gave us the ultimate gift. When choosing the dates on which we would fly to be with them when their first child was to be born, they opted for the dates that gave us the maximum time together, 19 glorious days. Coincidentally, we arrived in New York the day after our granddaughter did, and the day before she came home from the hospital – the same hospital where both her parents were born and where we, her grandparents, worked 32 years ago. At the time, among other things, I was teaching infant development in the medical school. How funny to come full circle and live in the "in vivo" laboratory of our family and how special to watch how beautifully they parent. Not to be taken for granted in 2018.
Newborns spend much of their day sleeping, eating and pooping. Along with their parents regaling others with stories about the delivery, these activities take up a tremendous amount of time in the early days, as getting each of those well-established is no small feat. In return, babies reward the adults in their lives with an occasional gassy smile, encircle their fingers around ours and look in our general direction. They smell delicious and one could gaze at a baby forever. No longer considered a "tabula rasa", a blank slate, we know that infants are truly capable of so much more than once thought. Those early days offer a perfect opportunity for growth for both the baby and his parents as they begin to appreciate each other's rhythm and learn to dance together without stepping on each other's toes. Babies know how to command an audience, quickly training those around them to heed their call. Everyone learns that the real boss is the tiny, sweet, precious bundle who at times might cause his parents to wonder just what they've done, when insistent cries pierce the air and initially they have no clue as to just why.
Bringing home a new baby is not easy, and new parents appreciate all the help they can get. There's much that family and friends living with them or helping out can do to help make the transition to parenthood an easier one. Here are some suggestions.
- Encourage new parents to sleep whenever and as much as they can, even if it's a short power snooze. Unpredictable awakenings, especially when frequent and at night, can make new parents feel psychotic. There's no such thing as a schedule.
- If a new mom plans to breastfeed, there is much that you can do to help out. Be there with a glass of water, offer to change the baby and do your best to be as supportive as possible. While it might seem that nursing should be easy and instinctual, until a new baby learns just how to feed properly, it can be incredibly frustrating and scary, especially if the baby cries, seems hungry or has initially lost weight. While totally normal, it may not feel that way and it is easy to doubt oneself. An offer of help from someone who has "been there", or a consultation with a professional lactation consultant can go a long way. A short hospital stay with a sleepy baby and frequent interruptions is not the best environment for encouraging success.
- If a baby will be bottle-fed, take the opportunity to offer help making bottles or feeding the baby. Perhaps a late night feeding or an early morning one will give new parents just a little more time to sleep.
- Recognize that a new mom's hormones are often totally out of whack. In addition to having "labored", being in pain, and being sleep deprived, new parents are attempting a task with no parenting manual individually tailored to their baby's needs. They are going to be sensitive to every gesture and word, said or even thought. This sensitivity will help them nurture and be wonderfully attuned to their baby, but they will also pick up on the nuances of your behavior so be very careful about what you do and say. Less may be best.
- Limit visitors. Even well-meaning visitors who say they'll only stay a few minutes, once enraptured by a baby, lose all track of time. New parents often won't say anything but feel totally exhausted after a visit, may be frustrated if the baby is fussy and often feel it's difficult to feed when others are around, offering unsolicited advice. If the baby is actually asleep, they may be desperate to get some sleep themselves and not have much patience for small talk.
- Remember that babies cry for all kinds of reasons. With time, a parent can distinguish between tummy pain, being cold, having a dirty diaper, being hungry or just crying for no apparent reason. Growth spurts in the early days and months often cause increased fussiness, leaving babies wanting to eat more and causing someone to ask if they are sure the baby is getting enough. It's all a learning curve and it's important to choose who you want to glean information from.
- Gifts come in many forms and shapes and don't have to cost a fortune. While some parents may register for what they want or need, you can also buy diapers, offer to cook, clean, buy groceries or do laundry. Babies love to look at faces and at black and white. Check out the internet for some easy toys to make. Perhaps organize a meal rotation - providing meals nightly for the first few weeks, or pick up and return their laundry, or anything else to help out with the essentials that no one has time to do in the early postpartum period.
- Never assume a thing! Ask what you can do to help during this difficult time, while also trying to anticipate what could be helpful. Know when to take a step back and give parents space as they work to understand their baby's ever-changing rhythms.
- Remember, in the early months, you can't spoil a baby when you attend to their needs. A new baby is one of the most magnificent gifts in the world. When you have to make room for someone else in your life who takes over everything, when everything changes in an instant and takes on new meaning and your life is turned totally upside down, it takes time to make sense out of it all. There is a difference between baby blues and postpartum depression so one should ensure a couple is making a normal healthy adjustment. If in doubt, always seek professional guidance.