It’s common knowledge that pregnancy is divided into three trimesters, but no one tells you about the fourth period: life with a newborn. Some people actually refer to the early postpartum period as the fourth trimester, and it’s rough, especially for first-time parents. I’m 17 days into parenthood at the time of writing this, and I’m learning more now than I ever have about just how much I never knew about life, and what happens after the baby enters the world. The sleeplessness is probably the most obvious, but there are a lot of other things that have me constantly wondering, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
I still have a lot of learning to do as a new mom, but at two weeks in, I’ve already learned a lot of lessons about adjusting to life with a newborn and postpartum survival. I’m not an expert, but after battling a newborn and my hormones, I know a little something about the struggle and want to pass on whatever helpful information that I can. Here are 10 ways you can prep yourself for what will be one of the most difficult experiences of your life.
That beautiful bundle of joy will make you deliriously happy, but every time you move to feed or cuddle your little munchkin, your body will remind you of the major task you just pulled off: pushing something the size of a watermelon out of a lemon. Your pelvis and vaginal area will be sore in the beginning and possibly for the next two to three weeks—maybe even a month (everyone’s body is different, so this can vary).
You will also begin what will most likely be a monthlong period called lochia, so get used to the idea of being in diapers along with your baby for the first few days. The nurses at the hospital will provide everything you need to help with bleeding and pain management (Dermoplast, a sitz bath, Tucks pads, a perineum bottle, witch hazel, pads, stool softener, Motrin, Percocet, etc.), but you should stock up on your own supplies at home anyway just for backup. Also prepare to feel like hell, and don’t try to do too much. Just chill and enjoy your baby.
You’ve probably heard that new babies mean lots of sleepless nights. That is an understatement. Babies have no circadian rhythm, so they don’t distinguish between day and night. They sleep when they sleep, for a majority of the day. Usually it goes something like this: They sleep for one-and-a-half to three hours and then wake up to feed.
Don’t be fooled by cute photos on Instagram featuring women who make it look super easy. Those women had to work toward that for weeks, sometimes months. Breast-feeding can make you sore and generally be exasperating because there’s a lot involved (like your baby’s latch and your chapped nipples, for example). It’s a natural process, but it needs practice, and if you commit to it, just know that you will be tethered to your baby for at least a month (which you will have learned by now in your breast-feeding class).
Nurses and lactation consultants will tell you to avoid giving your child a bottle for four to six weeks to avoid nipple confusion (you can totally cave in earlier if need be; it’s just a precaution, but it's still up to you). Breast is best, but I understand moms who decide just to go with formula. No judgment here.
Having a new baby is like being in a vortex where all you do is miss sleep, lose track of time, and cuddle and soothe baby. It’s easy to forget or just not feel like doing anything else, including eating, but try to remember to nourish yourself. Eat a lot of protein, fruits and veggies and stay hydrated. You’ve lost a lot of blood during the birthing process and need all the energy you can get, since you’re not getting any sleep. This is also especially important if you’re breast-feeding, because you’ll burn extra calories.
Speaking of eating, the best thing any visitors can do for you is bring you food. It can be groceries, delivery or, even better, home-cooked meals. Back to that whole vortex thing: Cooking definitely won’t be a chore you’ll want to do. It could help to prepare meals and freeze them before going into labor, but if you’re like me and most other women, labor will have a way of sneaking up on you. (I went in for a routine checkup, only to discover that I was in active labor.) My baby was about two weeks early, so all my plans went out the window.
Again, you will need someone to come help you. It doesn’t even have to be with the baby, but if your friends and relatives can help with cooking and chores, it will be a tremendous weight off your shoulders. If there is someone in your life generous enough to stay with you and your partner—Grandma, for example—let her stay for as long as she can. A week is good, but if she can stay for up to a month of your baby’s life, consider yourself lucky.
There’s a difference between baby blues and postpartum depression. I’m no expert on this stuff, so you will have to look it up, but I can tell you that I did deal with the baby blues. You may find yourself being moody and weepy over things that probably wouldn’t usually bother you. I cried knowing that my husband only had two weeks of paternity leave. I cried at the thought that one day I’d be left alone with the baby. I cried because I had to leave the baby to go to the dentist. I cried because my mom kept telling me what she did back in the day that didn’t kill her kids, versus what’s being done now (some OG-mom philosophy is just different). I have also been quite snippy toward my husband.
I’m starting to feel better in general, which means that I’m not moving into postpartum territory, thank goodness. However, mental health after baby is something that needs to be monitored, not just by you but also by people around you. They need to be understanding and not take your behavior personally, so have this conversation before having the baby. Sometimes you might need a therapist, and that’s OK.
I know this may seemingly contradict what I said about having help, but too many people will overwhelm you. Pace your visitors and keep it to a minimum of only a certain number per day or week. That number is up to you, but I recommend not going over one or two per day. I found that having visitors actually helped me with the baby blues and to feel like myself again, but more than two at once felt overwhelming.
Remember that you will get some visitors who will probably ask a lot of questions about how your labor went and how you feel now, and they’ll probably offer advice that you didn’t ask for or be overzealous about helping you. They all mean well, but it can be a bit much, so keep their number in check to avoid sensory overload.
The first week is pretty much hell week, but you will get the hang of things fast. Seriously, at two weeks in, you’ll likely start to have a better outlook on life with your new baby. You’re still going to doubt yourself at times, but new parenthood is pretty much like someone knowing you can’t swim but tossing you into the pool anyway, and now you’re trying to flail your way toward the floater in the middle.
Keep in mind that even though it does get better, your child will troll you. For example, there will be a lot of moments when you think you finally got baby to go to sleep, only to discover that he is wide awake five minutes later. Or you feed your baby, she shows signs that she’s full and then she wants to feed again 30 minutes later—and again 30 minutes after that.
Nos. 1-9 were brutal facts, but this new phase, as rough as it is, can also be amazing. Your new favorite pastime will be staring at the beautiful life you created and feeling amazingly happy. The happy moments creep in out of nowhere and provide the bright spots amid the rough patches. It sounds cliché, but it’s so true. You have never felt a love like this before, and you won’t be able to imagine your life without your new little one—even with the hazing.
Starrene Rhett Rocque is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer who often fantasizes about becoming a shotgun-toting, B movie heroine. Follow her on Twitter.