So you’re going to be a father!
Here’s a quick primer of tips and tricks for new dads.
Today was an amazing day. Your beautiful wife just delivered your baby! It was incredible. She was incredible. And while mom’s resting take a good look at the little bundle of joy you’re holding in your arms. So helpless. So fragile. So completely dependent. And you’re the primary caregiver for this new life. Soak that in. Has it struck you yet? Don’t worry. It will.
Probably around the time you’re buckling your new baby in the car seat. Your wife will be ready to go, but she’s tired. You’re going to have to carry your baby out to the car, get them all secured, and drive your new, larger family home. And get this: nobody will be racing out from the building to stop you. Nobody will follow you home to make sure you arrive safely. They’re actually going to trust you with a baby. You. There it is. Now you’re getting it.
So what now?
I won’t pretend that I’m going to tell you all the answers, or that I’m even capable of telling you all the answers. Every baby is different. Sure, they have the same basic needs, but they all have different personalities.
Half the fun of being a dad is meeting your child, and learning who they are. This will take years. You’ll love it.
No, what I can share with you is a — no means exhaustive — collection of tips and general wisdom I’ve accumulated over twelve years, nine pregnancies, and six babies.
days 1 & 2
Mom is going to be tired. With good reason. She just ran a marathon and pushed out a baby. This is hard work. She needs to stay down. She may tell you that she feels fine and that she wants to get up and do stuff around the house. These are the hormones talking. Do everything in your power to reassure her that the house will not fall apart without her. She needs her rest. Her body needs to recover. Pretty soon she’ll be burning approximately sixteen kajillion extra calories a day as your baby’s sole source of nutrition. Keep mom down. Keep her hydrated. Keep her fed.
Your baby is sleeping most of the time and not eating much, which is okay because your wife’s milk hasn’t come in quite yet. This is normal. While everyone is sleeping and generally resting, you should get some sleep, too. Everything is going to be calm for about 48 hours, but you’ll be in for your first sleepless night soon.
Make sure you take care of some mechanical considerations. You’re going to have to get comfortable changing diapers. The first several are no picnic. Your baby is going to be passing all of the collected stuff of nine months in utero out of its digestive tract. While not smelly or particularly gross, this meconium is sticky. Like tar. Before this first meconium diaper, make sure you rub a healthy quantity of olive oil on your baby’s bum before you apply a diaper. The meconium will stick to the diaper, and not so much to your baby’s brand new skin. You’ll thank me for this. Once your wife’s milk comes in and the baby starts digesting, the meconium will give way to watery yellow poo. But until then, oil liberally. The olive oil is also good for the skin.
You’re going to need to play bouncer, too. Screen phone calls. Hearing from well-wishers is wonderful, but it’s also going to detract from time your wife could be resting. We ended up starting a blog and updated it fairly regularly. These days you’ll probably do well on Facebook. Rather than tell the same story a dozen times or more, we just pointed our friends to the blog as a single point of information.
It’s important that you limit visitors during this time — and for the next several months, too. Ask me to tell you about RSV sometime. It’s deadly in babies. Don’t think of it as curtailing your freedom, rather as an opportunity to solidify the bonds of a new and growing family.
Your baby has no schedule, no on/off switch. They will sleep when they’re tired, eat when they’re hungry. I’m not telling you to try to get your baby on a schedule. Not at all. It doesn’t work like that. You’re going to need to be sensitive to the rhythms of your wife and new baby. When baby gets up at night, wake up, too. Change the diaper, burp the child, fetch your wife a refill of water. You’re all in this together. Your wife will remember her late night knight with shining burp cloth.
This is the honeymoon. You just had a cosmic shift in your entire life’s dynamic. Soak it in. This is the calm before the (cute and tiny) storm.
- Keep mom down, hydrated, and fed.
- Baby sleeps a lot. This is normal.
- Meconium is sticky. Oil that bottom.
- Limit visitors.
- Take care of yourself. Sleep as much as you can.
Your baby is more wakeful. Your wife’s milk has come in. Sleep is fleeting. Things are starting to get interesting. Time to start getting your balance.
By now you’ve started noticing that your baby tends to get upset from time to time. Probably not really mad, but fussy. These little ones do get fussy. There are four main reasons why.
Hungry. Does the baby want to nurse? Give it a shot. This is a simple and easy solution to many baby problems. Still there are going to be times when nursing just isn’t the answer. Especially if your baby just ate.
Special considerations: if your wife is having trouble nursing, don’t despair. And don’t be afraid to call for help. Give your doula a ring. She’s going to have many useful suggestions to try. Or you can always get in touch with someone from a nearby La Leche League chapter. The thing is, nursing is wonderful and natural and the best thing for your baby, but it doesn’t always come easy. Moms have to learn it, and every baby is different. If nursing is painful, or if baby doesn’t seem to be getting enough, or is always particularly gassy, don’t hesitate to ask for help.
Gas. For my babies this was almost always a very guttural cry. Those little bubbles in the tummy cause a great big hurt. You’re going to have to help those out.
When you burp your baby, hold them upright being sure to support the head. Little pats and taps won’t do. You’re going to have to send some pretty firm agitation to your baby’s system. Don’t use a flat hand. This is painful — it’s a slap. Rather use a cupped palm, like you’re popping air on their back. Practice on your thigh. When your baby burps, you’ll know. If you care about the shirt you’re wearing, you ought to lay a burp cloth over your shoulder first. Often, your baby will be a little too full and they’ll spit up part of their last meal.
(Side note: spit up isn’t vomit. Huge difference. Vomit is a different discussion altogether.)
Sometimes patting isn’t enough. Gently lay your baby on their back and bicycle their legs. Again, I stress gently. Gently cycling your baby’s legs like they’re riding a bicycle can help work those bubbles out.
Finally, try the football hold. Sometimes your little one just needs some pressure on their tummy. Lay your baby face down on the length of your arm with their head at the crook of your elbow. Using a spread hand, hold the majority of their weight right on their tummy. You can let the legs dangle.
Diapers. This is another easy one to check. Most babies don’t like wet diapers. I don’t know any baby who likes poopy ones. Lucky for you, these are easy to clean up and not particularly smelly. The meconium has given way to yellow, watery poo. This is normal, especially for someone on a liquid diet.
If your baby is fussy right after a nap and nursing isn’t working, check the diaper. If your baby starts making little grunty noises, check the diaper. If you baby’s face suddenly turns really red then then stops, check the diaper. And then other times, you’ll hear it from across the room. You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment to get this job done (diaper wipe warmers, for instance). Just be soft. And if you have a boy, and if he’s suddenly at attention, cover him up if you don’t want to get peed on. Trust me.
Diaper explosions are inevitable. Cloth, disposable, it doesn’t matter. These things never fit little bums perfectly, and even if they did, the little bums wiggle around a lot, loosening up fasteners and tape. You’ll become expert in removing a soiled onesie without getting poop in your baby’s hair. As your baby grows, explosions will become less frequent. Once you start heading out into the world again however, make sure you always pack an extra change of clothes. That one time you forget, you’ll wish you hadn’t.
Tired. Your baby is fed, burped, changed, and clothed. Still fussy? Rubbing the eyes? Trying to nuzzle? Good chance it’s time for a nap.
There isn’t any one thing that is going to work for every baby every time. They’re all different. My first born wouldn’t sleep unless I was holding him. My second baby wouldn’t sleep if I was holding her. Another one of my babies liked the football hold. My sixth won’t sleep unless I’m bouncing up and down — jogging around the room usually helps. Almost all babies like motion. Gentle, rhythmic swaying. Shushing is also good. Constant, sustained shushing — almost like a white noise machine — often helps.
Sometimes your baby will be especially tired. Sometimes you’re going to need a little something extra to soothe your baby. Remember, your little one has spent the last nine months in a cramped little space with gentle and constant pressure bearing down from all sides. Now they’re in the wide open world, little limbs flailing about, subject to the whims and indiscretions of breezes and air conditioners. You need to pull out the big guns of security and deep pressure. You need the swaddle.
It’s deceptively simple, but rather than type out the instructions (as I already did, then deleted) here’s a video. (Yes, that’s my daughter’s embarrassingly dirty puppy doll. It was the only thing I could find that was about the right size and shape.)
You’re going to want to make sure it’s a snug swaddle. If they can wiggle their arms up, then it’s all over. Don’t worry: you’re gentle. You won’t get it too tight. A good swaddle can provide the snug security that your baby grew accustomed to for the last nine months.
The phrase sleeping like a baby is… well, it’s a stupid phrase. Babies’ sleep patterns are inconsistent on their best days and downright insane on their worst. One day they might rest for a couple hours at a stretch. Another day might be a string of 15 minute cat naps spread out through the evening. One thing you can count on is that your baby will not sleep very long at a time. They’ll get hungry: their tummies aren’t that big yet. Wake when the baby wakes. Rest when the baby rests. As much as is practical.
Pain. This isn’t one I hadn’t mentioned in the main list of four because it doesn’t happen often. Though the first time you catch your baby’s finger the wrong way in a sleeve, you might hear the pain cry. When your baby is in legitimate pain, you’ll know. There’s no mistaking it. This will not happen often, and the procedure is:
- Address the source of pain.
- Lots of cuddles.
- Probably nursing. Nursing fixes most everything.
You and your wife
That’s the baby. What about you guys? What can you expect?
You’re going to be tired, no doubt, but this is a whole new world for your wife. She’s going to be tired and hormonal, but she’ll be in love with your baby and more in love with you than ever.
When the baby starts to get the knack of nursing, you can start to expect nursing marathons. You may not know this, but it burns an awful lot of calories to make food for the baby. About 20 calories per ounce. That may not seem like a lot, but it quickly adds up. Soon it’ll be like she’s running several hours a day just sitting still. While she’s nursing, she’s not going anywhere, so it’s up to you to keep the water and snacks coming.
All that nursing is also going to make her tender. There may even be some cracking and bleeding from the food delivery area.* Talking about the potential issues with nursing is beyond my scope here, but I can tell you to be on the lookout for certain things when it comes to nursing ointments and creams. We found out the hard way that Heidi has a contact allergy to wool. Apparently there was a wool derivative in the nursing cream that everybody said was the absolute best thing we could buy. You need to be aware of these sorts of issues and help watch for them.
*(Heidi insert – cracking and bleeding are NOT normal, and something to call about. Generally improper latch or thrush are the cause, and something that can be fixed. Please do not ever hesitate to contact a lactation consultant, your care provider, or your doula with nursing concerns.)
Burning calories nursing will mean weight loss as well. Dad, during these next few weeks and months, your wife will be susceptible to post-partum depression and anxiety. The weight loss ties in to this. When your wife gained pregnancy weight, she was also storing up extra hormones. When she starts to metabolize the pregnancy weight, she’s going to reintroduce those hormones into her system. These can sometimes — not always — wreak havoc on her moods and outlook.
You’re an objective witness to this. If your wife starts experiencing mood swings, despair, listlessness, anxiety, or other extreme, extended emotional states that can’t be reasonably explained by a lack of sleep, please call your medical provider as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to make that call, dad. You’re the first line to help your beautiful wife bond with that beautiful baby.
That’s not to say it won’t happen to you, either. With the broken sleep, you’re going to be off balance, too. So watch the depression.
Around this time, you might come up on the rotation for your church’s compassionate service route. Nice people may bring you a dinner or two while you’re getting settled in with your new family. These wonderful displays of empathy and support reveal all that is wonderful and good within our social communities with people taking care of one another in their time of need. But a word of advice: you don’t have to eat it. Sometimes these meals prepared by a well-meaning and loving individual are simply inedible. In these cases, be gracious, and don’t feel badly about tossing out what you can’t stomach. It happens sometimes. Just roll with it.
I truly hope you’re lucky enough to get a couple of weeks off of work for your new arrival. In case you’re not, you can still help out during the day. Arrange for mother or sister to stay with you for a little while if at all possible. If you can’t swing that, work something out with one of your wife’s girlfriends to drop in during the day. That probably won’t be a hard sell — most of her friends probably love new babies. And don’t be afraid to call several times a day to offer love and encouragement whenever you can. Just make sure you change the diapers while you’re home.
Remember, above all, you guys are the parents. You need to trust your feelings when it comes to the care of your new baby. You’re the ones who will know them better than anyone. If you have questions, call a trusted parent or friend. If you have concerns, call your care provider. This is a wonderful, crazy time of your life, and your first baby only comes once. Journal it, remember it, live it, enjoy it.
(First and last photos captured by Rebecca of ThadenPhoto.com.)