The Real Truth After Having a Baby

We do so much to prepare for having a baby, right? We read the books, take the classes, choose the right attendant, choose our birthplace, and buy all the right the cute fuzzy pastel-colored “stuff.” And then we learn that the gorgeously decorated yellow-and-sage green gingham-covered room with the hand-painted tree mural on the wall is really only used for changing diapers for the first year, and that the crib can hold really a lot of laundry. Really. A lot. Which is great because really, who has time for laundry anymore, and have you SEEN how much laundry a seven pound human can generate in a week? Ahem. I digress.

The point is, no matter how well we prepare for childbirth, and no matter how much we think we’ve prepared for the arrival of a new little human, the aftermath of baby-having can be shocking.

The books say things like:

“Sleep when your baby sleeps.” (And do laundry when the baby does laundry, too?)

“With a proper routine, things will be flowing smoothly for everyone in no time.” (Babies are lousy at telling time.)

“Breastfeeding is easy, natural, and free!” (And leaky!)

We’re prepared for all of the warm-fuzzy, soft-focus moments that the magazines are full of. Somehow, we think, with the right amount of preparation and the proper accessories, new motherhood can be just like this:

“Oh, yeah. I’ll totally have time to dress noodly little newborn legs in pants with a button and zipper, and my white shirt won’t ever have leak stains on it. Plus earrings.”

And then, reality hits. Fact of the matter – being a new parent includes a lot of weird, bewildering, or just-plain-gross parts that the books don’t tell you, your friends are too embarrassed to share (because they think they were the only ones it happened to), and your mother doesn’t remember. But, hey, this is what doulas are for! (Sidenote: Don’t invite doulas to dinner parties. We forget that most people don’t talk about placentas in polite company.)

So, here are the REAL things to be prepared for.


1) The Baby

Babies are beautiful, but sometimes they’re a little funny looking. Their heads come out in strange shapes, and it can take several days for it to look properly head-shaped. Also their eyes are puffy and their faces look squishy. That’s ok. Some babies get newborn acne worse then any teenager. That’s normal – it’s your hormones leaving their body. Their skin may look flaky and dry in the first couple of weeks, which is also normal. It’s because they were soaking in water for a long time before they came out. It doesn’t need to be treated with lotions or oils – it’ll pass. Also, they cry. Sometimes, they cry a lot. Three hours a day of crying is normal for a three-week-old. It doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong if you can’t figure out why he’s crying. It’s not your job to make sure that he never cries. It’s your job to be there and let him know that he doesn’t have to cry alone.

2) Bonding

Some women have “OMG I Love you so much and I’ve waited for you my whole life!” feelings about their babies immediately. Some don’t. That’s ok. Sometimes it takes time for those so-in-love feelings to kick in. Sometimes it takes a little time to get to know each other. It’s also normal to feel overwhelmed by the thought of being entirely responsible for another human being. If you are having thoughts of doing harm to yourself or your baby, then do reach out to your practitioner for help. If, however, you’re feeling like one new father voiced so well when he said, “I don’t even really know what to say when I’m talking to a baby,” that’s normal. Babies don’t keep up with current events much. It’s ok to talk about what you’re doing while caring for the baby. “I’m changing your diaper now. First, we take the wet diaper off, and then we’ll put this clean one on. Please don’t pee on me, ok?”

3) Your Bottom

Your lady-parts may be very sore. This is true if you tore a little, it’s true if you tore a lot, it’s true if you had an episiotomy, and it’s true if you didn’t tear at all. In the first few days, ice packs are your friend. If you want to be really clever about it, soak some pads in water and then freeze them to make the best ice packs in the whole world. Just maybe don’t post pictures of the process to Pintrest. (You won’t have time for that anyway.) It helps to keep your knees together when you’re sitting down, and to keep them together when you’re moving from sitting to standing. When getting up from lying down, bring your legs, knees together, over the edge of the bed first, and then sit up and rise to standing. This keeps the delicate healing tissues from being stressed the way they would if you were sitting cross-legged. (I don’t really know what that’s called anymore. When I was a kid, it was “indian style.” When I taught preschool, we called it “tailor sitting.” My daughter’s teacher calls it “applesauce,” which makes no sense at all. Anyway, don’t sit that way in the first week if you have stitches. It hurts.) Some women feel a lot better in a couple of weeks, and some take a good six weeks to feel back to normal. It’s normal to worry that your bits might never be the same again. Don’t worry. Everything will eventually settle back to the way it was pre-baby. The first time you are ready to even think about having sex again (the guideline is six weeks, but I’ve heard of women offering to bribe their doctors to not say that within earshot of their partner) you might be really nervous. That’s normal. Go slow, and remember that Astroglide is your friend.

4) Bleeding

Most women bleed for at least a couple of weeks, and sometimes off-and-on for up to six weeks post-birth. For the first few days, it’s heavier than the heaviest day of your period, which is a polite way of saying that you might pass a clot the size of a goose egg and flip out because clearly you are dying here, only to have someone with medical knowledge tell you that it’s no big deal and totally cool. You will laugh and roll your eyes at the ridiculous mesh underwear and mattress-sized pads that the hospital gives you. That is before you discover that they are awesome and you want to steal some and stash them in your bag to take home. Remember “spanky pants” – the unders that you wore when you were five? The cotton full-coverage kind that nobody wears anymore? Unless you want to use your maternity underpants for just a while longer, get some before you have a baby. You’ll be wearing big pads and you’ll still have a belly for a little while. More on that later.

5) Breasts

If you are breastfeeding your first child, your milk will come in around day four or five. Before that, your breasts will feel soft – about the same as they did in pregnancy. Your baby will be getting all of the nourishment he needs from colostrum, which is what you are producing before you make milk. Colostrum is very concentrated, and comes out in tiny amounts. It’s very thick and fatty, and ranges in color from light yellow to deep gold. You likely won’t see it dribbling out of the corners of your baby’s mouth while he feeds. You may not see it at all, and that’s normal. You might leak, or you might not. Either way is ok. As long as your baby is having adequate wet and poopy* diapers, you’ll know that he’s getting what he needs. He’s not starving. If your midwife or pediatrician have concerns that your situation has some unique factors that make supplementing necessary, they’ll talk with you about that. It’s a good idea to find a good lactation consultant in your area who can talk with you by phone or do a home visit, if that’s necessary.

(* While we’re on the subject of poop, it’s important to mention that newborn poop looks like tar. It’s black and sticky. That’s meconium. It will only be that way for a couple of days. It stains everything it touches, though. Don’t use your cute cloth diapers just yet. And don’t wear white. After milk comes it, it starts to look like dijon mustard, and smells like buttered popcorn. Truth.)

Breastfeeding, while normal and natural, might qualify as the weirdest-feeling normal-and-natural thing you’ve ever done. Lots of women find the “learning curve” of the first few weeks to be challenging. You are not alone in that. Most of us, before having children, haven’t been around very many breastfed babies, at least not in an up-close and personal enough way to see how it’s done. Learning to breastfeed when you’ve only seen pictures and videos of breastfeeding is a little like learning to ride a bicycle when you’ve only seen pictures and videos of people riding bicycles. Seek out a local support group. Call a lactation consultant. Call your doula. Ask for help, sooner rather than later. It shouldn’t hurt unbearably – don’t suffer and grit your teeth to get through it if it does. Problems that cause pain can usually be remedied, some very easily.

On the day that your milk comes in, your breasts might feel hot, and sore. They might swell a little (and by “a little,” I mean that you might look like the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders plastic surgeon got ahold of you in your sleep.) This might be especially true if you had IV fluids during your labor. More fluids in your body make for more swelling. If you run a fever, call your provider. This is another time when ice packs are your friend. Bags of frozen peas are great. Some women say that heat feels better than cold. Find what works for you. Some of this swelling if from milk, but most of it is from lymph, extra fluids, and swelling from the milk ducts as they are being put to work for the first time. It should pass, usually in a day or so. Don’t pump to try and make your breasts empty again. Milk works on a supply and demand basis – the more milk that is taken out, the more your body will make to replace it. Nursing your baby and pumping “all of the extra milk” out tells your body to make lots more. Basically, you’re sending the message to your body that you’ve just had twins! (Or quads, if you really did have twins.) Gentle massage may help, if your breasts are feeling hard. Hand express a little, just enough to relieve discomfort, if you need to. There are good how-to videos for this online.

6) Body

After your baby is born, you might still look about seven months pregnant, even if your weight gain was not any more than average. It takes time – a few weeks, usually – for your uterus to shrink back down, and for all your muscles and organs to go back to where they started.Breastfeeding helps burn the baby weight off faster. It took nine months for your body to reach your full-on-pregnant shape, and it may take another nine for it to all go back to where it was. Be gentle with yourself. This is not a time for crash-dieting or hitting the gym. It’s normal to feel like you don’t really recognize yourself for a little while. Some things may return back to their pre-baby state, and some may not. Remember that this strong body is the same one that grew and birthed an entire new person. Working on a better relationship with your body is never easy, but now is a great time to start.

7) Blues

Remember when we talked about the day that your milk comes in? Wait, there’s more. Day four or five, women turn into rivers. This is when everything that CAN flow, is flowing! Your breasts are leaking, you’re bleeding, you’re peeing every ten minutes, and having night sweats (all that extra fluid you’ve been toting around has to come out somehow!) And then, the tears come! There’s the “pastel blues” – You might be staring at your baby, and out of nowhere, the waterworks start up because he’s “just so beautiful!” There’s the “midnight blues” – when you cry because you’re “just so tired.” You might have the “moody blues” when your moods may swing like a trapeze from one moment to the next. Happy/sad may feel like the on/off of a lightswitch. You might also have the “peacock blues” – happy moments of realizing that you DID it! Your baby is here! This is all normal, normal, normal. Most of it is your hormones sorting themselves back out. Some of it is fatigue. You just did a lot of work to grow and birth this baby. Also, babies aren’t the most predictable sleepers, and you may be feeling the effects of that. Some of it is adjustment. Becoming a new parent FEELS like something! It’s a major life transition, and that comes with an emotional process, just like any major life change.

Gentle self care helps. Lower your expectations. In the first two weeks, if you have brushed your teeth by noon and have changed your shirt by dinnertime (and by “shirt,” of course I mean out of your pajamas and into other clean pajamas), then you’ve had a great day. This is the time to let everyone else do everything else that needs doing. Let your mother, your partner, and your friends who have offered to help take care of you, so that you can take care of your self and your baby. My great-grandmother, who lived through the Great Depression, once said, “Be grateful for your dirty dishes, because they mean that your family is eating well. The dishes don’t mind being dirty. Just walk by the sink and wave to them, and then go sit down and nurse that baby. The dishes will be there later.”

Remember that this time in your life is temporary. This will pass, and all will be well.

What would you add to the “need to know” list? Please comment below.

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