Babies don’t emerge from their mothers with tips for new dads in hand. They come out with placentas, which have little post-natal value to anyone. That’s a pity because the first five months of parenthood are often profoundly confusing. A dad survival guide would be useful. Luckily, a little guidance can go a long way, especially as parents attempt to establish routines while struggling with sleep schedules, nutritional demands, breastfeeding (moms only), and safety concerns.
None of this is actually as hard as it sounds — though it remains very hard — but it does take real effort, strategy, and a bit of context to navigate. Here you go…
Don’t Sweat the Stinky Stuff
The first diaper changes done by dad can be quite literally disturbing. That’s because the initial few poops a kid takes do not resemble the average adult loaf in any way. Rest assured that the first black meconium stools are completely normal. And as a baby grows, their diaper will contain a rainbow of colors and textures, particularly over the first months. The only time you truly need to worry is if you are seeing red in the diaper.
Establish a Routine. Now.
A solid, baby-led schedule can mean the difference between a kid that eats and sleeps easily and a kid that makes the nights and days a living hell. But parents can’t simply impose a schedule upon their kid and hope it works. The trick is in waiting for the kid to establish their own routine of sleeping, eating, and alertness. They’ll usually have something worked out around the three-month mark. Then they’ll abruptly change it up a month later. It okay, and it’s normal. Parents just need to follow their kid’s lead and keep strictly to the schedule the kid establishes.
Along with that schedule, parents should develop a nightly sleep ritual that primes the kid for laying down. Even though they lack teeth, the routine could include some gum massaging, a story or two, and a song. Kids should be put down while sleepy but not asleep so they can learn to soothe themselves. Starting on day one may feel like it doesn’t make sense, but it will pay off in the long run.
How to Turn a Baby Into a Burrito
An observant dad will likely have noticed how deftly the maternity ward nurses turned their kid into something that resembled a salad wrap with a tiny adorable head sticking out the top. This swaddling is super comforting for a newborn. The pressure on their bodies is reminiscent to the womb and it keeps them from jerking themselves awake or scratching themselves with hands and fingers that, at this point, have a mind of their own.
There is no need to buy a special swaddle. A deft dad can make due with the one sent home from the hospital. Swaddling is a 4-step process that takes a bit of time to master, but totally pays off in the end.
Sleep is Everything
For the first five months, a baby will require 16 to 20 hours of sleep per 24 hours. But parents need to help them learn night and day, and there really wasn’t such a thing when they were in the womb. Now that they’re on the outside, the days should be bright and active and the nights should be dark, boring, and quiet.
Parents also need to know that babies are active sleepers and sleep on a fast-paced 20-minute cycle that might have them wiggling and making noise every half hour. It’s important to fight the urge to pick them up. They’ll likely reorient and snooze again.
A note on SIDS/SUIDS: The acronym stands for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome though it’s shifting to Sudden Unexplained Infant Death Syndrome. While little is known about why it happens in some infants (thus the unexplained) there are proven ways to fight it. The American Academy of Pediatricians recommends children be placed on their back in cribs located close to their parents. The cribs should be free of blankets, bumpers, or stuffed animals, though a taut fitted sheet on the mattress is fine. Children should be dressed in warm, comfortable, but not loose clothing. Parents should also fight the urge to fall asleep with their child on their chest. Many infants have died after a parent has accidentally rolled over their child while sleeping on a couch, or after the infant was trapped and suffocated in couch cushions.
Feeding is a Family Event
For the first months, a baby is either invested in boobs or bottles. While breast milk is recommended for at least the first three months, some women are unable to breastfeed and use formula. Nobody should feel guilty about that.
Whatever the kid has in their mouth, dads can absolutely help their partners with feeding. This is a bit easier when bottles come into play, but even for breastfeeding mothers, dads can help provide comfort while assisting with troubleshooting, research, and lactation snacks.
When it is time to get into the bottle game, dads that take on night feedings are the real MVPs. They just need to make sure they come in quiet, keeping lights dim, and interaction at the minimum. But most importantly dads need to burp that babe before putting them down again.
Many dads might not feel the kid is doing anything particularly interesting over the first five months, but there is a ton happening in their little noggins. And dads who interact during this important time are giving their children an amazing gift.
One of the best ways to make sure a kid’s brain keeps cooking is to simply talk. Like, all the time. Parents can talk about what is happening in the house, naming smells, colors, and objects. They should use funny voices and a variety of emotions. They can even quote scenes from a favorite Tarantino movie. Babies during this time should also be read to. It’s a huge step to literacy, even if they’re just gumming a board book.
When Babies Cry
A baby’s cry is distressing because evolution made it so. It is an alert, but it doesn’t always mean the same thing. Some believe that a baby’s cry can even be decoded. That might be true! It also might not.
Whether or not a parent decides to go to the effort to translate a baby cry, there are some ways to try and make the crying stop. Parents can hold the kid in their arms so that they are positioned face-down or on their side. Long shushing noises may also work because it is essentially white noise. A little swaying or jiggling could create calm, but so too would a quick car ride.
The Outside World
In the first couple of weeks, parents will notice people clamoring to get in and see the new kid. They will be best served by keeping the house locked down as much as possible. One tactic is to ask the new grandparents to coordinate travel schedules so the family has a couple weeks to get situated at home before they arrive. But as for non-relatives, many families look to a close friend to schedule visitors so they don’t have to think about it.
When these folks arrive, parents need to make sure they request that visitors don’t stay for long and bring some food with them. There’s no need to keep the house clean. There’s also no need for parents to look put together.
It’s also important to note that at some point in the first five months it will be important to get the hell out of the house. Parents shouldn’t be shy about taking babies to restaurants. They just need to plan the outing when the kid is dormant, look for a place with space enough for a car seat, and ask for the check to come with the food.
Traveling further afield during this time can actually be easier than when the kid gets older. Babies will often sleep through flights and road trips as long as the itinerary is built around their sleep schedule. The important part is that parents shouldn’t feel tied to their home.
Look. It’ll happen again. The general rule is that it’s safe to start again 6 weeks after delivery, but it may take longer for everyone to be in the mood. Take it slow. Be gentle. Get romantic. Use lube.