Baby's on the way and you're seeing the doctor, taking your prenatal vitamins, and getting the nursery ready. Fine, so far. But don't overlook the fact that having a baby -- whether it's your first, your second, or even your fifth -- is going to have a profound effect on your life and the lives of those around you.
"It's a huge change," says Claire Lerner, LCSW, child development specialist at ZERO TO THREE, a national nonprofit organization devoted to promoting healthy development in a child's early years.
"Having a baby is life-altering," Lerner continues, adding that it's important for parents (especially first-timers) to know this ahead of time. Otherwise, she says, they can be thrown for a loop when they're confronted with feelings of insecurity, jealousy, being left out, or misunderstood.
"Anticipate the feelings that most new parents experience," says Lerner. Moms, for example, are frequently exhausted and overwhelmed, and can feel that "nobody does it better," so they have to do everything themselves. Dads might feel that they can't do anything right, and have no place in the newborn's life. This may be especially true if the mother is breastfeeding, says Lerner, who suggests that mom use a breast pump so that dad can feed the baby, or have dad sit with mom and baby during feeding times, perhaps even singing or reading to the infant.
Brainstorm before the child is born, says Lerner, to come up with ways of coping with the situations that are bound to arise once the baby has arrived. "If you see this as an opportunity to become closer, and not an obstacle that is going to drive you apart, you'll be able to minimize the sense of aloneness that many new parents feel," says Lerner. "Try to feel what the other parent may be feeling, and then figure out ways together to deal with those feelings."
No matter how much a couple wishes for a baby and feels that their life is in order, the reality is always a major challenge, adds Mary Margaret Gottesman, PhD, RN, CPNP, president of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners.
"Your life becomes completely disorganized and many fond prenatal dreams are not realized because of physical exhaustion from the work of labor and delivery, as well as the stress of trying to meet all of the new baby's needs and be 'perfect' parents," says Gottesman. "Babies change the very fabric of everyday life."
Babies are, however, worth all of the hard work at adjustment, Gottesman adds, and she offers these tips to smooth the way:
- Read together about baby care and baby parenting from reliable sources such as Penelope Leach, Barry Brazelton, ZERO TO THREE, and Johnson and Johnson Pediatric Institute.
- Attend prenatal classes together. Attend more than just the classes for coping with labor and delivery. Look for classes on early newborn care, breastfeeding, infant and child CPR, home safety during infancy, and anything on parenting in the first year of life.
- Be sure you know how to use your car seat, stroller, and other equipment. Have the car seat installation checked by a knowledgeable safety-seat expert.
- Talk about those things in your daily life that you cannot change and think about how to preserve them with the least stress. If it's pressed dress shirts, hoard coupons for the dry cleaners. A clean house? Put coupons for home-cleaning services on your baby shower list or accept vouchers from friends to come and help with household chores. In fact, some of the best shower gifts cost little in terms of money (babysitting for a specified number of hours, help with grocery shopping, babysitting while mom takes a nap during the day, volunteering to collect older children from school or take them to sports activities). Like home-cooked meals? Experiment ahead with frozen items to see what you like and stockpile these items, enough to carry you through at least two weeks by just adding prepackaged salads or fresh fruits.
- Commit to making your new family the priority for at least the first two weeks at home, longer if possible. Learn about and care for your baby together. Encourage each other in your new roles.
- Make time to go out as a couple to do something you both love. Take the baby to a reliable sitter and cuddle together at home. Talk to each other about what is hard, what is joyful, and what is satisfying about your new lives. Make "parent play time" a priority. You cannot give to your new baby if you are running on empty yourselves.
Having a baby affects not only the parents, of course. If you already have a child, the older brother or sister may have a difficult time understanding that someone new is coming into the home.
Ann Douglas, author of the mother of all pregnancy books, has these tips for making your first-born continue to feel special:
- Tap into your child's natural curiosity about babies. Even young children are fascinated by them. Look at picture books together and talk about what's going on inside your body right now and what the baby will be like after birth.
- Find ways to involve your child in your pregnancy. Have him accompany you to prenatal checkups so that he can listen to the baby's heartbeat or help the doctor or midwife measure your growing belly.
- Give your child a sneak preview of what babies are really like by visiting other families who have newborns. (You can also drop by the playground, the children's section of your public library, or some other family-oriented spot where you're bound to find moms and new babies.) Check with your hospital to see if it offers classes on sibling preparation.
- Encourage your child to help you pick out clothes and other items for the baby.
- Buy your child an inexpensive gift from the new baby. When friends and relatives show up with gifts for the new arrival, your child will be less likely to feel left out.
- Don't oversell the new baby. Make sure your child knows that his new brother or sister is not going to be ready to ride a bike or play ball together for a couple of years.
- Ask a friend or relative to give your child some extra time and attention after the baby arrives. This will help him know that he's still special.
- Teach your older child how to gently hold the baby's hand or carefully pat his tummy. Don't enforce a totally "hands off" policy.
- Remember to take photos of your older child when you're snapping shots of the new baby.
- Don't panic if your older one doesn't take to the newborn at first sight. Sibling love sometimes takes a while to blossom.
Children aren't the only ones who need an adjustment period to a new baby. When planning for the new arrival, don't forget your "other" baby -- your pet.
"Many of us practice parenting on our beloved pets," says Gottesman. "In many ways they are like siblings -- cautiously accepting and prone to jealousy and acting out."
Here are some suggestions for making sure both baby and pets are safe and happy:
- During pregnancy, take your dog to obedience training if you have not done so already. Take your pets for a checkup and make sure all vaccinations and preventive care are up to date.
- After delivery, bring home a blanket the baby has been wrapped in for at least 24 hours. Talk softly and pet the dog while the dog sniffs the blanket. Consider wrapping the blanket on a doll and praising your dog for good behavior around the doll. There should be no jumping, pawing, or barking.
- When you come home from the hospital, greet the pet when you first come in. Expect a lot of sniffing for foreign scents picked up in the hospital.
- Every day spend special playtime with your pet. It's a great break for you, too.
- Never leave the pet alone with a baby.
- If crying makes your pet nervous, reassure it in a calm voice.
- Include your pet on outings when you can.
- If the pet is nearby when you're taking care of the baby, talk to it about what you're doing and praise its good behavior.
- Do not allow roughousing, playing, and barking in the baby's room.
- Do not force your pet to interact with the baby.
Wash your hands after handling a pet before you handle the baby.
- Keep litter boxes and feeding dishes out of children's reach.
- If pets become aggressive, stay calm and use the training procedures you learned in obedience class.
- Always praise good behavior around the baby.
The bottom line when it comes to smoothing the transition for yourself and your entire family when expecting a baby, says ZERO TO THREE's Claire Lerner, is to anticipate and to empathize. "Everything will go much more smoothly if you can put yourself in another person's shoes."