Advice for New Parents That Actually Helps
So, you're about to become a parent? Good luck. No, really. As the mom of an 8-year-old, I can say from experience that you are going to need plenty of it.
When you're expecting, everyone and their dog has a piece of unsolicited advice to share. Most of it is crap. But, if you'd like some advice for new parents that's legitimately useful, keep reading.
Discuss Parenting Styles Before the Baby Arrives
Think you know your partner? You won't find out how much you don't know about each other until you're both running on six shots of espresso and a concerning level of cortisol. You will find out fun tidbits about your spouse like how well they function on one hour of sleep, how much of a worry wart they are and how much they care (or don't) about organic produce.
Minor annoyances become major ones when you're under stress, so prepare for life with a newborn as best you can. Sit down with your partner and talk about your expectations and vision for your child's first year. Plan for the first few weeks of recovery post-childbirth, sleep schedules, chore delegation, breastfeeding options, childcare if both parents are returning to work, preschool waitlists to join, general parenting philosophies and pretty much everything else.
You're supposed to be partners, and you can only work as a team if you're on the same page. It'll be a lot tougher to sort out if your husband is on page 10 while you're on page 60 in the middle of a diaper blowout at three in the morning, so plan ahead as much as possible. While you're at it, put regular date nights on the schedule. Having a baby means your relationship with your partner is more important, not less. Taking time to take care of each other will make you both better parents, so don't feel selfish for taking a break from baby duty once in a while.
Lower Your Expectations
Whatever you think parenting looks like, lower the bar by several notches right now. You know that lady you went to high school with whose Instagram feed looks like the cover of a parenting magazine? She's a liar. She's probably one mental break away from getting roped into a pyramid scheme, and her pristine living room only looked that way for eight minutes. What you see on social media isn't real. That may be obvious, but it bears repeating. Behind all the snapshots of color-coordinated, clean outfits and dreamy trips to the park are tantrums, multiple changes of clothes and Goldfish ground into the carpet. Instagram makes parenting look much prettier than it is.
Note that we said prettier, not more beautiful. Parenting is, in many ways, a mess. It's ugly. You will find yourself in Trader Joe's wearing a T-shirt with dried spit-up dripped down the back. Miraculously, you won't care that much. That's what happens when you're up all night trying to get a tiny, screaming dictator to tell you what they want because the stuff you read in the stack of parenting books on your dresser isn't doing jack. Does that sound pretty? Hell no! But as your exhausted, desperate tears mix with theirs, something magical happens: They finally fall asleep. You look at their tiny, peaceful face and realize, "I did that. I'm doing this. We're doing this."
That's bonding, and it's born from the ashes of the ugliest parenting moments. The process isn't pretty, but the outcome is beautiful.
Some Newborns Are a Dream. Some Are a Nightmare. Both Are Normal.
OK, no newborn is a nightmare. They're all beautiful, but they're also all different. That's why the advice your sister gave you that worked like a charm for her baby might fail miserably for yours. Sleep training and tummy time only go so far because every baby has their own personality and their own timeline.
Your friend's baby might have slept through the night at six weeks because she put him on a strict nap schedule, but he could also just be wired that way. If your 6-month-old still won't fall asleep without being rocked for an hour, that doesn't mean you're doing something wrong. Some babies need to be held more than others. Some take longer to crawl than others. Some are easier than others, and wherever your baby falls on the spectrum is fine. The CDC does have a list of milestones to look for, but as long as your baby is meeting those, taking longer to sleep through the night is nothing to lose sleep over. (Figuratively, at least.)
Sleep When the Baby Sleeps Doesn't Always Work
This glorious piece of advice is amazing and terrible at the same time. It's a good rule of thumb, but it doesn't work in every situation. For example, if you're trying to build up your milk supply by pumping after nursing, you'll just have closed your eyes when you hear your baby start to fuss again. Sigh.
Those blissful moments when your baby's asleep are also the easiest time to let the dog out in the yard, do the laundry or shower. If you have older children, sleeping when the baby sleeps is rarely an option. Do try to prioritize rest, but don't beat yourself up if sleeping when the baby sleeps isn't always feasible.
Put Your Mental Breakdowns on the Calendar
Speaking of sleep deprivation, it gets to a person. After 24 hours without sleep, it's possible to start hallucinating. It's unlikely your lack of z's will go that far, but no new parent survives the first few months without sleep loss having at least some impact on their lives. Stress from lack of sleep, adjusting to your new role as a parent, the loss of independence and going back to work can lead to some (understandable) emotional meltdowns.
While postpartum stress is most significant for mothers, dads have to deal with sleep loss and added stress, too. Since you can't plan breakdowns, plan breaks instead. Schedule mom and dad duty in shifts, giving each other some much-needed time to recharge. For example, the days that dad is working long hours, mom can do the heavy lifting. Come the weekend, it's his turn to step up to the parenting plate. The exact breakdown doesn't matter, as long as you're factoring in time for each of you to rest up.
Don't Be a Martyr and Ask for Help
A schedule can help, but the odds are high that at some point, it happens: You both reach the end of your ropes at the same time. You think it won't be that bad, but it will be. You'll find yourself saying words you never thought would come out of your mouth, and your partner will do the same. What then?
For one, don't take anything anyone says at 3 a.m. seriously. Try not to be a jerk, but everyone loses it a little when they're tired enough. Secondly, call in the big guns: the grandparents, or aunts, uncles, cousins, friends or anyone else who's trustworthy, willing and able. It freaking does take a village. Those first few months are rough. You can hack it on your own if you have to, but if help is available, take it. Have you learned nothing from the 47 episodes of Daniel Tiger you've watched? There's no shame in needing help, so swallow your pride and ask for it.
If You Feel Off, Don’t Ignore It
Baby blues are normal, and feeling stressed or burnt out is pretty common, too. If your feelings of anxiety or sadness are impacting your ability to take care of your baby or yourself, however, it may be something more. Read up on postpartum care with your partner before you give birth, so both of you know what to look for. Postpartum depression isn't always as extreme as it's portrayed on TV specials. You don't have to be suicidal to need help. Other symptoms include:
- Mood swings
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Feeling unfocused
- Having no appetite
- Trouble sleeping, even when exhausted
If you're experiencing any of these let your doctor know, or try a telehealth visit if you can't bring yourself to leave the house. If you are having thoughts of harming yourself or your baby, call 988 immediately and find a trusted friend or relative to step in until you've gotten the care you need.
Put Everyone’s Opinions on Mute
People have a lot to say about parenting. Friends, in-laws, doctors, lactation consultants, sleep trainers, child psychologists and pretty much everyone else has an opinion about how to raise kids. Learning how to care for your new baby is a requirement, and reading up on child development and different parenting philosophies is a great idea. Beyond the basics, however, even professionals have differing opinions. One pediatrician will say co-sleeping is amazing, while another will say it's outdated and risky. So, who's right?
You absolutely should follow current guidelines for feeding your baby and putting them to sleep safely, but beyond that, just do what works. Too many cooks in the kitchen results in a bunch of angry cooks and a confused customer. You and your partner are the cooks. Everyone else is just an assistant. Treat their advice as menu suggestions, and only add what you like.
Babies Are Babies. Don't Forget.
Seriously, don't. It might feel like it's taking forever when your baby still won't sleep through the night no matter what you've tried, but it's only been a few weeks. Imagine if you moved to a different country, didn't speak the language, didn't get the culture and had no idea how to use the bathroom. You'd cry, too, and you have years of life experience.
Your baby is like the least experienced unpaid intern of all time. They have no idea what they're doing. They've only known how to breathe for a few weeks. If they're crying, it's because they need you. They're not being manipulative, they're just being babies. Stick that on a Post-It next to their crib, on their car seat and pretty much everywhere else because you'll definitely need the reminder from time to time.
They’re More Durable Than You Think
Letting your baby fall off the bed? Not good. Don't do it. That said, it happens. Bumping their little soft spot against the door frame is also a possibility, as is nicking their finger while trying to trim their razor-sharp talons. Uh, I mean, nails.
Be as careful as you can, and babyproof early, but if (when) their first bump or bruise happens, don't panic. You're not a terrible parent. Babies are delicate, but they're not nearly as breakable as they seem. As an adult who fell face first onto an ugly, shag carpet floor circa 1993, I'm happy to report that some minor head trauma hasn't affected me in the slightest. I'm not Elon Musk, but I'm doing pretty OK.
All jokes aside, keep a baby First Aid kid on hand, know the hours of your local urgent care and relax. Read up on what types of injuries and illnesses can be handled at home, and what warrants a trip to the doctor or ER. If it helps, some pediatricians are willing to share their off-hours numbers in case you need immediate advice.
If Your Baby Cries the Most With Mom, That’s a Good Sign
If your baby blissfully coos or snoozes through dad, big brother and grandma holding them, only to burst into tears when someone hands them back to you, take it as a compliment. A baby's cry is their only way to communicate their needs. When a baby's needs are consistently met by one primary caregiver, they form a secure attachment with that person. In addition to forming the basis for all their future relationships, that attachment means your baby trusts you to take care of them above everyone else.
When they're tired, hungry or overstimulated, and you walk in the room, their tears are saying, "Oh good, you're here. Grandma is nice, but now I need you." It would be nice if they'd chill out in your arms like they do with Grandma, but that trust you have is a bond even Grandma can't share. It's sacred, so strengthen it by consistently responding to their cries as quickly and affectionately as you can.
Mean What You Say From Day 1
The real parenting starts once your baby is old enough to start crawling, toddling and talking. It happens sooner than you think it will, and even before that, your baby is paying attention to your every move. They're constantly listening, so only say what you really mean.
If you say you'll take them to the park tomorrow, do it unless it's truly impossible to pull off. If you say no more TV today, do not cave in. You're only as good as your word. If they learn your words don't mean anything, they'll stop trusting you, and they'll stop listening. Don't make promises you're not sure you can keep, not even small ones, and follow through with any rule or consequence you set.
Don’t Forget That You’re Raising a Future Adult
Adulthood seems very far away when you're holding a chubby-cheeked 6-month-old, but 18 years go by in the blink of an eye. In the first year or so of life, a baby's wants and needs are the same things. After that, keeping them happy 24/7 isn't the best goal. If you're looking out for their long-term happiness, let them be bored once in a while. Let them make mistakes, make them work for rewards, and help them learn how to navigate the real world.
This isn't an overnight endeavor, obviously, but when you're raising your toddler, keep in mind that you are raising someone who will one day be someone's friend, coworker, spouse or parent. You're raising someone who will experience setbacks and disappointments. Give them the skills to deal with real life. They'll learn life lessons one way or another, but life will be a much harsher instructor than you.
Comparison Is the Thief of Joy
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Every baby is different. Every mom is different, every family is different, and that is fine. Don't worry about what your neighbor or friend is doing. Don't worry if your first baby walked at nine months while your second is still crawling at 12. They are all different, and it's fine. Has anyone asked you in a job interview when you said your first word or what type of preschool you went to? If they have, you should probably start looking for a less toxic workplace.
Don't stress so much about the details, and focus on giving them a warm, supportive environment to learn and grow. That's way more effective at giving them the best possible start than stressing over how they measure up to all the kids from your mommy-and-me class.
Put the Camera (and Phone) Away Now and Again
Capturing memories is important, but so is helping to make them. If you're so busy trying to document every milestone and cute moment, you might miss out on being a part of them. Take a few photos, and then put the phone away. Ignore the texts. Send pics to Grandma or work on that Shutterfly album later.
Be with your baby. They may not remember it, but they'll feel it. So will you, and you'll love it. Just put your phone on "do not disturb," and trust us.
Make 'This Too Shall Pass' Your Mantra
The crying will pass. The four-month sleep regression will pass. The endless diaper changes will pass. In the toughest moments, remember that none of this will last forever. Before you relax completely, remember that it also applies to the sweet moments.
One day, your toddler will reach up their chubby arms to be picked up for the last time. One day, you'll carry them upstairs to bed for the last time. They'll beg you for one more story and never do it again. If you never know when a phase will end, what's a parent to do? Appreciate all of them.
You’re Going to Learn a Lot About Yourself, and You Might Not Like It All
When I became a parent, I was fully prepared for the diaper changes, potty training, board books and tantrums. I was not prepared to find myself arguing with a smaller version of me, with even more stubbornness in the mix. As your child grows, you begin to recognize elements of your own personality, some of which you may not have totally figured out how to deal with yourself. As you parent your child, you might find yourself parenting yourself along the way.
No matter how old you are, you've never figured it all out, so keep an open mind, admit your mistakes and keep on growing. You've got this. (Mostly!)