I am a new father as of a couple of weeks ago. It has been incredible and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned in such a short time. Since I’m new to this and I still remember what I didn’t know, here are some quick suggestions for expecting fathers based on things I wish I’d known when I had my baby a few weeks ago.
Plenty of articles exist that talk about the emotional aspects of fatherhood: be a good partner, spend as much time as possible with your baby, and in general be a good husband (Google: Tips for new fathers). This is all great and definitely worth saying but I found there was a lack of tactical tips on what having a newborn entails; a quick cliff notes. To that end, below are 6 things I’ve learned in the past few weeks. If you don’t know the difference between a swaddle cloth and burping cloth, this is for you.
A few prefatory notes:
Note 1: Parenting discussions on the Internet are full of crazy — they are like a bad sub-Reddit; if you are one of the crazies, please leave; kthxby.
Note 2: If you have to look online, make it YouTube. If you haven’t looked on YouTube, you’re doing it wrong (e.g., how to change a onesie)
Note 3: All babies are different; I’m trying to keep this at a high-level but keep in mind that every baby is unique and I have n=1 experience.
Note 4: This is all for newborns; I have no clue about anything after the first few weeks and I’m not going into anything pre-birth. I’m also still figuring everything out so take what you will and leave what you won’t.
1. The Calming Reflex: The 5 Ss
Alright, you have a new baby. Congratulations! It’s a magical time. One of the first things that will happen once the baby is in your room is he/she will start crying. Guaranteed.
So, what do you do?
There is something called “The Calming Reflex” and it is your new best friend.
The best approach I’ve found is from the book, The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp. The main framework you need to know are “the 5 Ss” which basically replicate the experience of being in the womb and calm babies down. Start from the first S and add Ss as needed.
- Swaddling: comfort the baby by putting him in a piece of cloth in a constrained fashion (more on this below)
- Side: put the baby sideways; it has a calming effect
- Shhh: make the soothing sound of shushing loudly (sound like the womb); usually done much louder than you’d think since when the baby is crying he can’t hear your shush if you do it quietly
- Swinging: a gentle rhythm also works wonders
- Sucking: initiate the sucking reflex by touching the top of the baby’s palate (can be your pinky finger)
Here is a video showing how this actually works (an old Dr. Phil episode no less). The 5Ss are like baby magic.
The most important S for me has been Swaddling. Chances are they’ll teach you how to do this at some point. I’d been taught a few times before my baby’s birth and thought I understood. But when I had to put it all into practice, I was terrible. It took a dozen tries with a squirming baby to kind of get it.
The most common approach to swaddling is the basic swaddle that they teach you in the hospital. This is done with one big piece of fabric (usually a swaddle cloth) and it works really well if you do it properly (i.e., the right level of tightness). However, chances are you won’t do it right the first handful of times. Here are some tips:
- It’s all about the arms: If the arms aren’t constrained enough, your baby will probably escape the swaddle and then it doesn’t work. (Babies can’t control their limbs yet and for some reason they bias towards not having them by their sides but once they’re there, they get calm)
- The V-neck: One way you know you’ve made a proper swaddle is that the neck is in the shape of a V (when you fold the sides over each other, they should make a little V-neck).
- Don’t worry about the legs: those will need room to flex and extend but mostly your goal here is just to cover them up like a burrito. In fact, you shouldn’t tighten the legs since they can get hip dysplasia and I don’t mean to sound alarmist but this seems real. The arms are more important.
So, then you get home and soon enough you’ll realize that American capitalism has been at work for you. We’ve innovated the swaddle! Here are the best innovations I’ve seen and used. They all just use velcro/snaps and pre-sewn fabric to make things easier. The main differences are the exact places of the velcro/snaps and the materials: some are lighter (cotton) and some warmer (micro- fleece) — you’ll probably want a mix.
At some point you’ll want to move with your baby and carrying him/her in your arms isn’t going to cut it. Enter the carrier: a great way of moving with your baby and also (often) a great way of calming him/her down. Your baby loves it because it feels like the womb, you love it because you have your hands free and can leave or move around the house. It also has benefits from keeping the baby upright (e.g., improves digestion, vestibular system).
Buy one and learn how to use it. Here are the main types:
- The Ergo: seems to be better for women and can be used with older babies
- The Baby Bjorn: fathers seem to prefer it, better for broader shoulders
- Rebozo / sling / baby wrap: a big piece of cloth that you can use to strap on your baby to your front or back
YouTube is full of pros/cons. Only thing to note is over-heating: if you keep the baby in the infant carriers too long or if there is warm weather, it might be too hot for your baby. Keep an eye on the temperature.
Sleeping and eating are the most contentious issues in newborn parenting and I’m still a rookie. These issues are likely what you will spend most of your time thinking about and trying to work through. They are also the most polemic.
Unfortunately, there is no one way of doing things: there is on demand feeding, there is scheduling, there is “routine” (different from scheduling but similar) and the list goes on. Different cultures do it differently (some books on this below). I will stay away from this topic but the most helpful book for us has been The Baby Whisperer (there is the original + a more detailed sequel). This book recommends an EASY routine (Eat, Activity, Sleep, You) — the goal is to move the baby to a 3 hours feeding cycle and eventually to get them to sleep through the night (varies by size of baby, etc.). Some like this approach, some don’t. We’re still figuring it out so find your own path.
The one thing I will say about sleep is that I didn’t realize how noisy babies’ sleep is. It takes them a long time to get to sleep and once they are asleep they will make a lot of noises. There are roughly 3 Stages of Sleep as per The Baby Whisperer, and the main challenge seems to be getting them through Stage 3, “Letting Go”: you’ll think the baby is asleep but you’re wrong. Your baby will jerk and will wake him or herself up time and again. Getting through this stage seems to be key — still figuring it out but the following table is useful.
Note: Also, recently discovered this article by Dr. Sears which does a great job explaining the light-sleep to deep-sleep transition better than any other source I’ve found.
After or during each feed and often while feeding, you’ll change diapers. You’ll get good at it.
Watch a video on YouTube to learn how. After a few diapers, you’ll have it mastered — it’s not that complicated. Note that if you have a baby boy, he will pee on you. My tip: keep a towel nearby and sharpen your spidey-reflexes.
On a related note: Burp cloths are your new best friend. They are basically soft cotton rags. You can’t have enough of them. They are cheap: have them everywhere in your house. You’ll use them to clean everything, burp the baby and they will come in handy for diapering too…
6. Car seats*
For car seat basics, meet the car seat lady. My favorite YouTube car seat instructor. Watch her videos on YouTube (her channel is here). Dead ernest and very clear. Here is an example:
Other books I’ve found helpful
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, 6th Edition: Birth to Age 5
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, 6th Edition: Birth to Age 5 [American Academy Of Pediatrics] on Amazon.com. *FREE…
Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 by the American Academy of Pediatrics: There are so many things that can happen in the first few weeks of a baby’s life that it’s good to have a reference book you can trust. If you look online you’re bound to run into madness; this book was recommended by a friend that is a doctor and is the best I’ve found for balanced, reasonable advice. Turn to it for any non-urgent questions.
There are many ways to raise a baby: useful cross-cultural grounding
These two books and movie are fantastic to keep it all in perspective. There is no one way to raise a baby. In fact, the global approaches are so different you have significant latitude in your approach.
How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm: And Other Adventures in Parenting (from Argentina to Tanzania)
Having a baby is an amazing experience. Enjoy the ride!
If you found this useful, click Recommend below. Any other things you personally found useful, leave me a response below, leave a comment inline or find me on Twitter (@gascasf).
Postscript: Additional suggestions from other new fathers: