If you're about to begin maternity leave and looking forward to all the free time you'll have, WebMD is proud to offer you a reality check. Don't count on finishing home improvement projects, catching up on leisure reading, or watching all those programs stored on your TiVo. Here's how new parents really spend their time.
"Feed, change, soothe, feed, change, soothe -- all day long and all through the night." That's how first-time mother Lydia Lizano sums up life with her 4-week-old daughter, Katelyn. "The toughest part was when she cried and cried and cried and I didn't know how to soothe her. It took time to get to know which cry meant what. Nobody ever tells you how hard it is the first few weeks."
A Time of Challenge
Psychologist Arthur Kovacs, PhD, says expectant parents would be better served by a bigger dose of the truth. "There are a lot of myths about becoming a parent in our society," he tells WebMD. "The first step to good adjustment is to understand the reality. The biggest myth is that this should be a time of idyllic happiness. It's really a time of terrific challenge."
"I feel like I no longer live for myself," says Lori Freed, a pharmaceutical sales representative with a 2-month-old son, Luke. Freed is on maternity leave and says staying home with a baby is "a lot more work than I realized. You can't imagine how much attention they need. Even though you know you will love them, you can't imagine how hands-on it is."
"New moms are always amazed at how much time one little baby takes up," says midwife Elizabeth Stein, CNM, owner of Ask Your Midwife, PC, in New York. "The mother is at the mercy of the baby's schedule."
What might that schedule look like? Every baby is different, so there's no way to predict a typical day with your newborn, but Freed says a typical day with Luke goes something like this:
7 a.m. Feeding
8 a.m. Play for an hour
9 a.m. Feeding
10 a.m. Nap
2 p.m. Feeding
3 p.m. Nap
4 p.m. Feeding
6 p.m. Feeding
8 p.m. Feeding followed by bath
9 p.m. Baby goes to bed
10 p.m. Mom goes to bed
1 a.m. Feeding
4 a.m. Feeding
It looks like Freed has a couple hours between each feeding, but in reality, Luke nurses for 20-30 minutes, leaving her with only an hour and a half between feedings. That time is quickly filled with preparing and eating her own meals, doing dishes and other chores, and changing diapers -- five or six wet diapers and a couple of soiled diapers every day.
Freed says she's glad she decided to breastfeed, but it takes up far more time than she had imagined. "It's hard to get things done with a baby who eats for 20 minutes every couple of hours," she tells WebMD. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, Freed's experience is typical for a nursing mother -- breastfed newborns usually nurse 8-12 times per day. However feed your newborn as often as she wants to be fed, they write.
Sleep Schedules Vary
A typical newborn sleeps 16-20 hours in a 24-hour period. It sounds like a lot, but it doesn't feel like much when that sleep is broken into bits and pieces throughout the day -- 20 minutes here, 40 minutes there, maybe three hours at a stretch if you're lucky. And a newborn's schedule may change from day to day, making it difficult to make plans or schedule appointments.
Don't expect to get much done during baby's nap time. During the first few weeks, you may find you need that time to nap yourself. "I always recommend that when the baby sleeps, the mom should rest, not do lots of chores," Stein tells WebMD. "Mom's main priority should be survival and getting sufficient rest. And trying to relax and enjoy her newborn -- they change so quickly."
As your baby matures, he will not need to be fed as often and will start to sleep for longer stretches at a time. There's no way to predict when your baby will sleep through the night, because there is tremendous variation in when babies reach this milestone. But the American Academy of Family Physicians says a typical schedule for a 4- to 7-month-old might include seven hours of uninterrupted sleep at night and at least two naps during the day.
Freedom Will Return
Once your baby adopts a regular routine, you may find it easier to plan outings or work on projects around the house. But older infants and toddlers require constant supervision, so free time will remain scarce. Whether you stay at home with your baby or return to work, psychologists say it's essential to carve out some personal time.
"Almost every minute gets spent either working or doing things for or with the babies," says Charles Winick, PsyD, a psychologist and father of 10-month-old triplets. "The only nonwork/baby aspect of my life I have retained is going to two or three baseball games a month. My enjoyment of these games is maximized because so little of my time is now my own."
This feeling that your time is no longer your own can be one of the toughest adjustments for first-time parents. Kovacs recommends comforting yourself with the knowledge that your baby won't always be so dependent. "The moment the infant comes out of the womb, a process is starting," he tells WebMD. "The infant becomes more and more self-sufficient... By the time they start elementary school, children are relatively self-contained and can entertain themselves for hours at time. Freedom is coming back slowly."