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Learning the ropes Postpartum

Learning the ropes

A new mom’s guide to navigating the initial weeks with her infant.

For months—and then weeks, and then days—on end, I looked eagerly at my due date, circled in bold ink on the kitchen calendar. Especially as that date drew nearer, it began to seem like the X on a treasure map, the destination I had spent three long trimesters preparing to reach. And for good reason: Delivery marks a life-changing turning point, the moment when a baby, and ultimately a mother, is born.

As tempting as it is to think of the final few weeks of pregnancy as the last leg of a race, what you’re running full-speed toward isn’t a finish line at all—it’s really just the starting gate.

“The first six weeks postpartum is a transformative and often vulnerable time for new moms,” says Ann-Marie Christian, an international board certified lactaction consultant and mom of two in Northern California. “But knowing what to expect can be very helpful and ease anxiety.” So take a deep breath and use this guide to get set for the first bleary, blissful weeks of motherhood.

You again
Looking back, I can only shake my head at my former self, the naïve mom-to-be who packed nothing but prepregnancy nightgowns into her hospital suitcase—nightgowns that, of course, stood no chance of stretching over my just-had-a-baby shape. Typically, by the time you’re ready to give birth, your body will have spent 40 or so weeks growing and changing to nurture your little one. Looking and feeling like your old self again will take some time.

For a few days after delivery, you’ll likely feel mild contractions—similar to menstrual cramps—as your uterus shrinks back to its normal size. Also expect a heavy flow of vaginal discharge, called lochia. This discharge will last for several weeks, gradually tapering off and changing from bright red to pink to brown. To help protect against infection, use sanitary napkins rather than tampons to absorb the flow.

In the meantime, do your best to keep up the healthy habits you worked so hard to maintain while pregnant, says Mary Rosser, MD, OB/GYN at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “That great, healthy diet you were on during pregnancy? Let’s keep that going,” Rosser advises. “Same with smoking—if you quit during pregnancy, don’t start up again.”

If you’re feeling up to it, Rosser says, you can begin walking for exercise almost immediately after birth. But hold off on more rigorous activities, such as an aerobics class, swimming and even sex, until your doctor has seen you for a follow-up visit. If you have a vaginal birth with no complications, this visit probably will happen about six weeks following delivery, and you can expect it to be a thorough one. Your doctor may conduct a pelvic exam to ensure you’re healing properly, and she’ll also want to talk about sleep, diet, exercise, birth control and maybe even child care plans. “It’s a radical change, both physically and emotionally, to have a child,” Rosser explains. “We want to know how you’re doing, how the baby’s doing, how you’re adjusting.”

If you have a Caesarean section, you’ll likely see your doctor sooner—within a couple weeks of giving birth—to check that the incision is healing as expected.

Rise and shine
In the weeks after my daughter was born, a simple morning shower became a luxury unmatched in its power to relax and rejuvenate—the day just went more smoothly when I was able to steal those 10 minutes for myself. As a bonus, my newborn found the sound of running water deeply soothing. I rolled her bassinet into the bathroom, and she usually napped peacefully for as long as it took me to clean up.

Even if that’s not the case for you and your baby, it’s worth making time for the little things that help you feel normal again. “It’s very, very important to build into your day those things that make you feel human,” says Shoshana Bennett, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. “Never stop doing those things. Take a shower. Get dressed. Brush your teeth. A myth of motherhood is that mom’s needs don’t matter anymore. That’s very damaging.”

Despite your best efforts, it’s common to feel anxious, overwhelmed and weepy—a combination of feelings typically referred to as “the baby blues”—in the days after your infant’s birth. “It’s a very normal part of adjustment,” Bennett explains. “It’s mild, and it should be gone by about two weeks postpartum.”

If the feelings are more severe, don’t go away, or interfere with your ability to care for yourself and your baby, seek professional support to get you through what might be postpartum depression. “It’s nothing the mom caused, it’s not a weakness,” Bennett says. “The most responsible and wonderful thing a mom can do is reach out and get help.”

Outside in
Don’t be surprised if, even before you leave the hospital, there’s a long list of visitors who can’t wait to greet the new arrival. Of course you’ll be grateful for their love and attention, but go easy on yourself. “You really want to limit the number of people who come to your hospital room, and the same thing goes at home,” Rosser suggests. “You and your partner need to get your sea legs. You need some time to adjust.” Tell eager visitors something like, “We know you guys have been waiting a long time to meet this baby, so we’ll let you know the minute we’re settled and up for visitors.”

If your spouse is returning to work, having extra hands around the house could offer you some relief. “Before your partner goes back to work, have a plan for where your support is going to come from,” Bennett advises. “That can be a scary and overwhelming switch. It will give you peace of mind to know that you’re not suddenly going to be on your own. We’re not meant to do this all by ourselves. Even the best mommies need emotional and physical support.”

Christian advises new parents to establish visiting hours to avoid a revolving door of guests. Invite friends and relatives to come in 20-minute shifts so boundaries are set ahead of time and you’re not overwhelmed by lengthy visits. Consider having a list of to-dos ready—things like emptying the dishwasher and folding a load of laundry—for when visitors ask to lend a hand. “Get used to asking for help,” Christian suggests. “You might feel guilty about it at first, but ask for the help anyway.”

Above all, experts say, resist your inclination to play hostess, and leave the clutter where it stands. “Never, ever should you be in the position of entertaining,” Bennett stresses. “They are taking care of you. Your feet are up. They are serving you.”

Fueling up
You’re no longer eating for two, but your nutritional needs post baby are still important, especially if you’re breastfeeding. During the first few weeks, you might be lucky enough to have friends who generously leave casseroles and quiches at your doorstep, but those acts of kindness tend to taper after a month or so—and you’ll still need to eat.

Debbie Koenig, mom of one in New York City, was a food writer for years before son, Harry, was born. “I never in a million years imagined that I would have trouble making dinner,” says Koenig, author of the cookbook Parents Need to Eat Too. Nonetheless, she and her husband found themselves on many nights eating fried egg sandwiches and pasta with canned sauce. “We were completely unprepared for how hard it was to cook with a baby in the house,” Koenig confesses.

She now advises expectant parents to start early—perhaps in the second trimester when energy levels are relatively high—and stock their freezers with a supply of premade meals, stored flat in freezer bags. When you’re making a dish that freezes well, such as a stew or a tray of enchiladas, simply double the recipe and save a portion to enjoy later. You might lose a little flavor quality after three to six months, but the food will be safe to eat for much longer, says Koenig.

If you’re in the mood for something fresh, take advantage of nap times to prepare a complicated meal in short stages. You might chop vegetables in the morning, for example, then store them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to move on to the next step. “I realized that I could take a recipe like roasted vegetable lasagna and break it up into stages during my son’s naps,” Koenig shares. “I would get a little bit done, and I would still be able to rest myself. By the end of the day, I would have this fabulous, filling, healthy dinner.”

Keep in mind, though, that after the baby arrives, it’s not just cooking that’s a challenge—eating can be tricky too. “Nothing is worse than actually cooking dinner and not being able to eat it because the baby won’t stop crying,” Koenig says. “It always seemed like Harry would go nuts at that hour of the evening.” To make dinnertime easier, she suggests, try preparing meals that can be eaten one-handed. Use pre-made pie crusts and pizza dough to make handheld chicken pot pies and calzones that can be enjoyed with a baby nuzzled in your other arm.

Father time
You have a wonderful spouse who is an equal partner in household chores. Of course he’ll be hands-on when it comes to middle-of-the-night baby care, right? “Never assume anything,” Bennett says. “He might be waiting for direction, assuming that you want to be in charge. This can lead to all kinds of resentment and arguments, and often, the partner feels hit upside the head when you finally explode in frustration.” Instead, Bennett suggests, talk about how you will divide responsibilities before the baby arrives. Who will take charge of diaper changes? Bath time? Laundry?

Try not to limit dad’s involvement just to diaper detail, Christian suggests. “Dads are always looking for meaningful things to do beyond changing the dirty diapers.” He can act as the family’s gatekeeper when it comes to energy-taxing visitors, a filter for discouraging comments and unwanted advice, or your strongest cheerleader when you start to doubt yourself and your mothering abilities. “That encouragement is so important,” Christian says. “It helps a lot to hear him say, ‘Look how much our baby loves being next to you.’”

If you’re exclusively breastfeeding, your partner might feel disconnected from the new-parenting experience and unsure of what his role should be. Asking him to bring the baby to you for nighttime feedings invites him to be part of the process and helps you feel less isolated, says Bennett. “Tremendous bonding can happen at nighttime,” she explains. “It’s not easy—we’re tired, we’re bumping into walls—but it’s very special. The more dad can be involved at nighttime, the better it is for the relationship.”