Pregnancy, childbirth and caring for a newborn baby are exciting and rewarding experiences. They are also times of immense anxiety.
Every baby has different needs that you as parents will discover over time. I dare not offer advice on how to raise your child, because what is right for one baby may not be right for another.
Instead, here are four insights that I hope will ease the stress and tension that most new parents experience. The first and second thoughts are for the expectant mother. The third and fourth thoughts are addressed to her partner.
1. Babies don’t care how they are born
In preparing for the birth there is a great deal of focus on the birth plan. This covers everything from your choice of music in the delivery room, to your choice of pain relief. Many parents are eager not to ‘medicalize’ the birth and seek to avoid harsh hospital environments and medical intervention.
Choose whatever you want for the birth plan — water birth, doulas chanting, candles, whatever — but make the choices that will make you, the person giving birth, most comfortable.
Understand that the birth will almost certainly not progress according to the plan. Medical intervention may be required to assist the delivery and you may even require a surgical procedure.
When the birth becomes more medicalized than your choice, do not give it a second thought. Do not avoid medical intervention because of a misplaced sense that the child needs to be born ‘naturally’. The kid simply does not care about this, and the manner in which they transition from womb to world will have no effect on their future personality.
2. It’s fine if you don’t breastfeed
Nothing is the subject of more debate, and nothing is the cause of more guilt and worry, than the choice over whether or not to breastfeed.
Look, breastfeeding is indeed nutritionally optimal for the kid. There are certain nutrients found in breast milk (especially the colostrum) that are not found in formula milk.
Breast milk is also free, which is another benefit over formula.
However, the health benefits are only a marginal improvement on formula milk. Modern recipes have been iterated many times over. Those on the market right now are nutritionally well balanced and good for your baby.
Its true international bodies make a blanket recommendation in favor of breast feeding. But remember, those guidelines are for the entire world, including people living in situations with poor sanitation, an absence of healthcare, and no clean water provision. If you’re living in a place with access to clean water and good health care, then bottle-fed children will flourish just as well as breast-fed children.
Bottle feeding has two advantages. The first is that you can know exactly how much milk the kid has drunk in any given feed. The second is that your partner (and indeed, other people) can share the task of feeding the baby.
Some mothers find breast feeding incredibly uncomfortable. They end up dreading the prospect and become scared of feed times. In such cases, what should be a mother-child bonding experience becomes the exact opposite. In such cases a transition to the bottle will make both the mother and the baby happier. Make the change without a second thought.
Paediatricians also report cases where a child is not feeding from the breast, but the mother steadfastly refuses to bottle feed because she believes that to do so would ‘make her a bad mother’. The result is a malnourished child! Clearly this is madness and a bottle is better than a breast in these cases.
Make your choice. Change it whenever you wish. Never let anyone send you on guilt-trip you over your choice. Here’s the insight: it simply doesn’t matter as much as everyone says it does.
Right, time for two pieces of advice for the other parent – the person who did not give birth.
3. When she gets up, you get up
In the very early days of parenthood, the child has no conception of day and night and will wake for food at all hours. If you are bottle feeding you can and should share the responsibility. But if your partner is breastfeeding then there will be several moments overnight when she has to wake up to feed the kid.
When she wakes up, you wake up.
The struggle of breastfeeding is a little more stressful when your partner is happily snoring in the bed beside you. Let’s not breed resentment, eh?
So wake up and ask her if she needs anything, like a snack or a glass of water. If she does, then go and get it for her. Otherwise, wait to be dismissed.
4. The hardest work is looking after the kid and don’t you dare suggest otherwise
Caring for a newborn baby is a unique form of torture. They deprive you of sleep and scream at exactly the register guaranteed to send your synapses into a frenzy.
Going to a place of employment is a break from this purgatory. You get to converse with adults and you get coffee breaks. So while you have a baby in your life, you need to rethink your definition of ‘work’.
Your new definition is this: When you leave your house or apartment, leaving your partner with the kid, you are not ‘going to work’, you are escaping.
Your attitude to your time at home with your child and your partner should reflect this new reality. This means that you should never expect any household tasks (whether that’s cleaning, cooking, or paying a bill) to have been done in your absence. All that crap is the job of the person who has just had an eight-hour break from the kid.
Some couples tell me that during the difficult early weeks, the husband actually slept in the spare room in order to get a good night’s sleep ‘because he has to work in the morning’. In my opinion, that is one hundred and eighty degrees wrong. The person who should be getting the extra sleep is the person who carried the baby for forty weeks and who is now nursing the baby. That is the real work.
Being the ‘bread winner’ does not earn you any special privileges – being the bread winner is the privilege.