For couples entering the amazing adventure that is parenthood for the first time, certain elements of the newborn stage and postnatal recovery can come as a bit of a shock. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, so here is what to expect on the thrilling roller-coaster ride that is recovering from childbirth and bringing home a newborn.
Some of it might sound a bit scary (it’s not: you’ll get used to it), while some should be reassuring, but it’s all intended to prepare you so that you realise your experience is totally normal.
And don’t worry: you got this…
Babies are generally far sturdier than you think
You might feel like you're going to pull an arm off or break something when you're fighting with a onesie, but you're probably not... “Caring for a newborn baby can be very overwhelming at first but, essentially, all you'll need to do is make sure baby is warm, fed and loved!” says Dru Campbell, midwife and lactation consultant at Healthbay Polyclinic. “It's natural to worry you're going to hurt them when they're so tiny, but the only way you'll get used to handling your baby is to do it and keep doing it. The most important thing is to ensure babies' necks are well supported at all times - whether you're picking them up, holding them or feeding.” It won't be long before you're an expert and feel totally comfortable. “Don't forget, dads need to develop the same skills and confidence too, so let them get involved! adds Dru.
Your baby might go through an award phase
Don't worry; the wizened, dried-out, spotty, skinny stage doesn't last long. “Babies change significantly from birth, and even days after birth; it's common for them to appear different as the weeks go on and they adapt to the environment around them,” says midwife Dru Campbell. “They often have very dry skin in the first few weeks, so I recommend using a few drops of olive oil in baby's bath to help moisturise as it's a natural moisturiser with no perfume - perfect for baby's sensitive skin. Baby acne is also very common. All you'll need to do is make sure baby's skincare regime is kept totally natural, with only water being used on his or her face. See your paediatrician or family doctor if you have any concerns.”
You’re probably going to be a bit emotional
If you find yourself deliriously happy one minute, and sobbing into your cereal the next, don’t worry. “Many women expect or hope to have a smooth pregnancy and uncomplicated delivery and the reality, as with many things in life, can be quite different,”.says Dubai-based psychiatrist Dr Yaseen Aslam. “Pregnancy - particularly the last trimester - can be challenging, with back pain and difficulty sleeping, and a taxing labour followed by establishing breastfeeding and going through sleepless nights. Many women are left feeling emotionally and physically exhausted. On top of this, profound hormonal changes can leave you feeling weepy, emotional, irritable and sensitive, and experiencing mood swings that take you from being hugely excited to desperately sad in seconds. All of this, known collectively as 'baby blues', is relatively common - as many as eight in 10 new mums say they experience this following childbirth - and it should be transient, resolving by itself as you settle into being a mum. Plenty of rest and a supportive partner can help the settling process.”
If you're still experiencing low moods, tearfulness, anxiety and negative thinking a few weeks after birth, though, or if these feelings are intensifying, it might be a good idea to check in with your doctor. “Around one in 10 mums go on to develop a postnatal depressive illness - due to many factors, one being hormones - and might need some help to get through it.”
Your body will do a load of weird things
And we mean weird. Bleeding, swelling, emitting fluids... Not much of it is pleasant but it's par for the course. Expect heavy, clumpy vaginal bleeding known as lochia, along with after-pains that can be nearly as tough as early labour pains and increase during breastfeeding. “Clearly, your uterus is still a big organ in the first week post-birth and your abdominal muscles are still stretched, so your tummy will still be big - something that's a shock to many new mums!” says OB/GYN Dr Elsa de Menezes Fernandes. “Fluid retention can get worse before it gets better, too, so you might have puffy ankles.”
Around day three, you can expect your breasts to blow up before your eyes. They'll get heavy and firm, with veins that look like road maps! As your milk comes in, you can expect a few tears to roll too; it's all hormonal and normal, and isn't helped by the sleep deprivation. Hot showers can help with milk letdown and make the process a bit easier and, if you're struggling with the sensations, savoy cabbage leaves inside your bra can help. If your breasts appear red and/or you've got a fever, you'll need to rule out mastitis but remember supply, demand and latch issues can take around three weeks to settle so if you do want to continue breastfeeding, don't make a decision to give up before this.
If you've had stitches, you can expect your nether regions to be tender and swollen for a few days and ice packs can help. Keep the area clean and change pads regularly, and if you feel new pain, check with your doctor that there's no breakdown of stitches or local infection.
You can expect to feel pretty roughed-up in the first week after birth, but if you think something's wrong, do check with your doctor. Common causes of illness post-birth are mastitis, perineal infections and urinary tract infections and you don't need those making you feel worse.
Your entire concept of sleep will change in an instant
Do yourself a favour - try to sleep when the baby sleeps (although not many people actually manage this). Newborn babies will wake to be fed on average every two to three hours, day and night. If you don't rest or sleep when baby sleeps, you'll soon find yourself exhausted, and that won't be good for anyone. It's vital to remember if you don't take care of yourself first, you won't be able to take care of your baby - your rest is far more important than a spotless home or looking immaculate, so that stuff can wait.
If you can't manage the day sleeps then attempt to get early nights - even with regular wakings, if you're at least in bed for 10 or more hours, you'll probably get some decent shut-eye.
And if you struggle to follow any of this sleep advice, don't worry - you will be amazed at how used to your erratic new sleep schedule you become. That sawdust-eyed exhaustion doesn't last for long, and within a matter of weeks or months you will probably have adapted in a way you would never have imagined before.
You don't need to go out - at all
Sure, we all know those influencers or friends who post snaps of themselves out and about proudly pushing their cult stroller within days of the birth, but trust us, take a lesson from the pandemic and stay home. Preferably in your pyjamas...
Unless you’re really craving some outside and social time, resting post-birth is vitally important. Trauma varies between new mums and if there's swelling, it's best to avoid long periods of walking - after an episiotomy and a difficult birth you can end up with very achy bits. “I recommend ice packs and resting with a pillow under your hips to tilt the pelvis, especially in the first few days,” says Dr Elsa de Menezes Fernandes. It's not a good idea to lie flat for too long at any one time, though, as this can lead to all sorts of problems. Bed rest carries the risk of deep-vein thrombosis, so it's very important to move around for short periods, and make these periods longer as the days go on. If you're feeling particularly stingy and sore, try having regular salt baths to help with healing.
Take any offer of help going
Holding the baby while you shower, delivering frozen lasagne, a quick sweep and mop; it all helps. Nobody gets a medal for being a martyr post-birth. You just delivered a baby and your body will take about 12 months to recover from making and bringing a new person into the world. You need and deserve some help, so take every offer going and do so guilt-free.
You can trust your instincts
Whatever you do, don't doom-scroll or obsess over baby manuals. It's hugely difficult to have confidence in what you're doing, especially when it's your first, but have faith in yourself. And remember, things have changed quite a bit since your mum had you...
Everyone has a huge amount of advice for new parents and some of it will be immensely useful; however, some of it will be totally useless. If you want help, ask for it, but the most important thing to remember is that you are the best parent for your child, you know your child better than anyone else and following your gut feeling is the most important thing you can do.
You need to eat
You also need to drink. You'll likely find yourself totally ignoring any requests your body might be making because you're far too busy working out how to look after this new little person, but you shouldn't; you need to take care of yourself too.
Think about when you're listening to the safety announcement on an aeroplane, and they explain you must put on your oxygen mask before seeing to others... Well, the same principle applies to new babies. You must look after yourself: feed yourself, sleep, shower, all the things that matter! This will ensure you're fit and well and able to do your best for your baby.
You might not get that 'rush of love' for baby immediately
Don't panic. Sure, you know you love them, but you might not be in love with them straight away. And that's absolutely fine. Whether it's three days, three weeks or three months, it'll come. And in the meantime, don't panic and don't beat yourself up. “As with our expectations of a perfect pregnancy and birth, most women also expect to experience a perfect bonding experience with their newborn and fall in love instantly. And as with the post-pregnancy and birth experience, the reality can be very different,” says Dr Yaseen Aslam. “All the factors that make you end up feeling so emotionally battered and bruised after pregnancy and birth can also affect the bonding process between mother and baby, and, as with the 'baby blues', this is very common, affecting lots of mums, and should be transient. You're getting to know a totally new person, after all. Cause for concern would be if the difficulty bonding is extended, or a postnatal illness develops, and in these situations talking to your doctor is essential.”