It's official: I have just completed my first year of this crazy adventure we call parenting. There were many laughs, tears, and diapers as well as invaluable lessons that I had no idea would become so important before I started this journey. Here is a list of my tips for the first year of your precious baby's life in the hopes that it will give you some insight into what to really expect as you enter parenthood for the first time!
#1 Breastfeeding is not for the faint of heart
My expectations for breastfeeding were so off the mark that I can't help but look back and laugh at my naive self. I was so nonchalant about what it took to breastfeed that I think it only added to the huge blunder that it ended up being for me.
The first 6 days of my daughter's life, I felt like I was sticky and covered in milk 100% of the time (because I was). I felt restricted to the couch because she always wanted to feed yet never ate for more than 5 minutes at a time. I swear, I would no more clean us both up, put away the burp cloths and Boppy, lay her down, and she was up rooting around looking for nourishment again. It drove me crazy! I also hated how when people visited, I'd have to shut myself in a room to feed her because I just was not comfortable with feeding her in front of them. This isn't because I'm that modest or I think it's wrong to nurse in public; it's because I was so bad at breastfeeding that it would have been embarrassing for people to see what a terrible nurser I was. After those 6 long days, I told my husband I was done nursing. The transition to a bottle took a few days to get her comfortable, but it was a huge relief for me. I was still producing a ton of milk, so I began pumping and we had plenty of milk to get her through the first 6 months. Beyond that, my work schedule was so crazy that pumping became too difficult, and we stopped breast milk altogether and switched to formula (I noticed no difference in her growth, demeanor, or diapers in doing so, but that is your personal call).
Overall, breastfeeding was just WAY more work than I prepared myself for. Is it possible to survive nursing? Of course! But with the attitude I had beforehand, it only set me up for failure. Be realistic with yourself; talk to moms who have been through it and will tell you the truth (not sugar-coat it). And my best advice for feeding your child in general: keep an open mind about all options!
#2 Co-sleeping can be safe and rewarding
I had never really considered co-sleeping before Morgan was born. I knew we would have her in our room for a few months in her play-yard that doubled as a crib, but the thought of her lying next to us as we slept seemed dangerous and unnecessary. However, out of desperation one night as we got up for what felt like the thousandth time, we pulled her into our bed and drifted off to sleep, only half intending to keep her there. To our surprise, we all three slept peacefully for the first time since she was born. It was nice having her so close by; it brought comfort, peace, and ease when it came to feeding her as she woke throughout the night. Unfortunately, babies grow up, and at 5 months, ours had to start sleeping in her own room because bedtime became playtime when mommy and daddy were around. The transition to her crib was easy, though, so don't think co-sleeping hinders your child from becoming independent. We still miss her lying next to us to this day, but we have lots of past cuddles to remind us how much we enjoyed her being there!
Now, I know there are horror stories out there about parents rolling over on their children and smothering them, and that was definitely a concern of mine when we started co-sleeping. I don't have a magical way of avoiding that that will work for everyone; all I can give is my testament to the fact that we were ever-conscious about the precious life laying next to us and took extra precaution. When she was tiny (up until about 2 months), we would have her cradled in the nook of our arm. As she got bigger and squirmier, we would place her in the middle of us and distance ourselves a good foot away from her. I noticed that when she was in the bed with us, none of us really moved at all; it was like even in our sleep we were hyper-aware that she was there. That is not to say that those parents who have unfortunately found tragedy with co-sleeping were not conscious of their child. I can only speak from my own experience and how it worked well for us.
If rolling over on your child is a big concern, but you still want to have them close by, I would look into those co-sleeping bassinets that attach to the bed. We did not use one, so I can't give a personal review, but the concept seems to give a lot of the same benefits we found with co-sleeping while eliminating the safety concern. We will probably look into those with our next (way in the future) child.
#3 The "witching-hour" will end
I had never heard of this before we had a child, but when I described to my family how Morgan would get upset for virtually no reason around 5:00 pm every night, they told me that was her "witching hour" and she would get past it eventually. The word 'eventually' is a terrible word for a first-time mom. Morgan would cry so hard and for such long intervals that I felt like I was going to lose my mind and be deemed the worst mother ever. She would refuse to eat or sleep in exchange for non-stop crying for two hours straight. As a parent, it was almost unbearable because the sound of your child crying just sets off this "fix it" alarm in your head, but I found no immediate fix for this unfortunately.
I've read all kinds of articles about why babies go through this tough time period and the only thing I could relate to our daughter was a potential digestive issue. We would bicycle her legs, burp her, and used those special bottles that prevent air bubbles, but the only thing that truly worked was time. For Morgan, it took her about 8 weeks after birth to get past this "witching hour." It was heart-wrenching and frustrating, but I promise you it does not last forever and you are not alone in your suffering!
#4 Have baby socialize with large crowds (family, friends, etc.) often
As a new mom, I was terrified of taking our daughter around people when she was young. I wasn't so much worried about germs as I was about her not being able to sleep or crying uncontrollably making us look like we didn't know what the heck we were doing (which, to be honest, we didn't).
She really didn't go around a large group until the 4th of July when she was 3 months old, and that was a total disaster. When we first arrived to the party, she was okay, but it was nap time for her and once she hit her tired threshold, she screamed non-stop for 20 minutes. As we tried to calm her with rocking and a bottle to no avail, Joe and I decided it'd be best if we just went home. We'd been there less than an hour. Between this party and her first Christmas a few months later, she had very few social outings. So on Christmas Eve as my large family is piling in, she grew more and more overwhelmed and it cut our night early again.
I have since learned that in keeping my child from being around larger groups of people that are a little more interactive and louder, I put off her learning how to adapt to a more social environment. If I could go back, I would not keep her in such a quiet environment for months at a time. I would expose her to family, friends, and public places sooner an more often so that she could learn at a younger age how to adjust. At a year old, she is much better at socializing, but can still get overwhelmed by new faces and loud noises, so I can still see the effects of sheltering her so much as a newborn. My advice: if large group functions are in his/her future, don't wait to get your little one acclimated to that environment. Allow them to grow up social and adaptable so you can enjoy public moments as much as you enjoy the intimate ones!
#5 Swaddling works
At the hospital after Morgan was born, the nurses swaddled her up so tight that we started calling her our burrito baby. To me, it seemed claustrophobic and kept me from seeing most of her, so I was constantly unwrapping her. One of the nurses even snapped at me over it! I understand now why she wanted us to learn and use the swaddle (although I still don't appreciate her "getting on" to us for it!)
Once we got home, Morgan seemed most content when she was in our arms or in her bassinet that kind of cupped around her body. When I would try to get her to nap in her own crib, she seemed to really hate the empty space and the lack of someone or something embracing her. We had received several swaddle blankets that we thought we would never use, but during a long afternoon of no napping and lots of tears (mine and hers), I pulled one out just for the heck of it. It was a Summer SwaddleMe that basically wrapped itself. It still seemed restricting, but that's the whole point I suppose. She loved it and drifted off to sleep almost instantly. We began faithfully using one from then on. The effect it had on her was amazing and I really feel like she got a much better quality of sleep when she was in one. I highly recommend trying one out if your baby is having a hard time falling asleep.
Once she started consistently rolling over from back to tummy, though, we had to stop using the type that constricted her arms because it became unsafe. We switched to an armless Halo SleepSack after that which created the same sensation but allowed for her to roll over if she desired.
#6 Take help when it is offered
I know this is a mantra that many expecting moms hear all the time, but why I never took it seriously is completely beyond me. I guess it was a pride thing, but after Morgan was born, I just refused to accept any kind of help. In those first few vulnerable weeks, I thought I was supposed to be amazing at this already and couldn't justify calling on anyone for any kind of help. I even got defensive when someone would say that I should have called or let them know I needed this or that. It was a total ego thing and I can now admit that.
As a new parent, you will be a novice and there is no shame in that. You will eventually get your stuff together and be the expert on your child, but until then, ask for assistance if you really need it, be grateful and accepting of meals, babysitting, cleaning, etc, and ultimately listen to the experienced parents around you because they have literally been there, done that. There is truly no better teacher than experience, even if it's not your own! And we all need help every now and then, so put away your pride and ask for or accept it because both you and baby will benefit from it.
#7 Boxes really are more interesting than toys
I know people joke about this all the time, but I didn't understand it until the first time I took a toy out of the box in front of my daughter. It was a walker with a big lion face on the front, flashing lights, and musical capabilities. As I'm assembling the pieces, I notice that my daughter has climbed her way into the box and could not care less about what I was dealing with. Even when the walker was put together, it caught her eye for a mere second and then again became less important than the cardboard it had come in.
This is true for other objects as well. Shoes, coasters, water bottles -- all things my daughter would much rather play with than anything store-bought from the toy section. My advice: a few toys will get some use over time from your child, but don't buy too many because they will most likely be stuck in the corner collecting dust while he/she is busy tearing apart a magazine or chewing on the remote.
#8 Letting your child cry-it-out is not child neglect
I am aware of all the research out there that validates both sides of the cry-it-out argument of teaching your child to sleep independently; trust me, I read up on the subject plenty. Yet even after hours spent reading other people's input on the matter, I still ended up going with my gut and what worked best for my kid. That's truly my advice for this topic: whatever you are most comfortable with as a mom or dad is what you should ultimately go with. I do want to offer our experience with this because I know it helps to hear true testimonials rather than just hypothetical situations.
Morgan did not sleep through the night until she was almost 11 months old. The lack of uninterrupted sleep not only affected her, but also Joe and me in many unfortunate ways: our jobs, our relationship, and our overall attitude about our child's development. It didn't seem right that she still needed nourishment and comfort two or more times throughout the night at this age. When she was younger (6 months and up), we would start some nights with the intention of letting her cry herself back to sleep, but it always ended with one of us running to her as soon as those cries came over the baby monitor. What finally did it for us was turning the sound on the monitor completely off at night (we still had a video feed of her) and to let her work it out on her own without waking us up, which would have lead to us running to her. For the first two nights, she slept soundly until around 3 am when she started crying so loudly that we didn't need the monitor to hear her. Joe and I stayed strong and let her cry-it-out while checking the monitor occasionally. It was very hard, but about 10 minutes later she fell back asleep on her own and slept until 6:30 am. Since those first two nights, her body seems to have adjusted not only to falling asleep on her own, but also to staying asleep all night. She sleeps no less than 12 hours every night and we see a notable difference in her demeanor as well as our own. Looking back, I wish we had tried this around 7 or 8 months!
Sleep is a necessity, and the sacrifice of those two nights was definitely worth the end result. So if you're contemplating letting your child cry-it-out but fear the repercussions of it, let me offer you this: our child doesn't hate us for those two nights, she doesn't show any signs of trauma or lack of mental development, and she is ultimately a much happier kiddo. This alone makes us perfectly proud of our decision. Do not get discouraged and do not feel like there is no hope for your child to sleep through the night; part of parenthood is making the tough decisions and this is definitely one of them!
#9 Follow your baby's lead when starting solids
We started giving Morgan pureed apples and rice cereal at 4 months, partly because of what I had read online but also because she showed a keen interest in our food when we ate around her. It was pretty adorable actually; she would stare at us with her big hazel eyes and, I kid you not, start salivating with her little mouth wide open. That was a pretty clear sign that she was curious, so we gradually introduced her to pureed foods and by 6 months, she was eating 3 solid meals a day. Around 7 months we started giving her Gerber snacks and food from our plates. Now she eats pretty much anything we give her.
Side note: we spent a ton on pureed foods from the store, and while I was very satisfied with the products, around 8 1/2 months she started refusing the spoon and wanted to feed herself everything, so we had a ton of baby food left over that she just would not eat. In hindsight, I wish we had started giving her foods to feed herself earlier and not invested in so many pouches and jars of baby food. I had initially wanted to try baby-led weaning, but I didn't look into it enough by the time she was ready for solids. The sooner you can get your baby to eat what you're eating, the more money you will save.
Ultimately, watch for cues that your baby is curious about food such as watching you eat, grabbing for food on a plate, and/or opening his/her mouth as you place food in your own. These are clear signs that baby recognizes you are feeding yourself and they are ready to explore tastes and textures beyond just milk!
#10 Don't dwell on schedules
With Morgan being our first, I really had no idea how unpredictable babies can be. I was seriously so delusional that I believed she would eat, sleep, and need a diaper change at the same time every day. I even tried to keep a spreadsheet of the times she did everything so I could find a pattern, expecting to see that she was falling into some sort of daily schedule. I was so wrong it's laughable!
She is just now getting into a rhythm as far as sleeping and eating, and even that can fluctuate. Sometimes she takes 2 naps a day, sometimes just 1; sometimes she has 2 dirty diapers (you know, the really dirty ones) a day, sometimes she doesn't have any. I wasted a lot of time and energy trying to establish a 'schedule' for my child when I should have just embraced the chaos that is infancy!
Instead of a 'schedule,' you will start to pick up on cues like when your baby is sleepy, hungry, or irritated by a dirty diaper. That is really what should drive their day, not a schedule that is exhausting for both parents and baby to try to follow!
#11 Jot down the milestones, funny moments, and anything else you can think of as it happens
While this list is mostly what I learned through my blunders, this is one thing that I actually did very well, and I am so thankful I did because of all the wonderful little things I would have definitely forgotten by now. I wrote down everything: her first time getting sick, her first time trying foods, when she pooped on a family member, when she started crawling, and the list goes on. My method of keeping track of these random little tid bits of her early life was in a photo book that I just had printed and am eagerly waiting to receive from Picaboo. The end result is about 30 pages of everything her first year contained, including over 700 pictures taken over the last 12 months. I plan to share the end result with you once I get in in the mail sometime in the next 2 weeks!
The first year is going to fly by, and so will the memories if you don't chronicle them. My suggestion is to have a place where every little notable thing goes: a note on your phone, a journal you have lying around, a jar that you toss little notes into, or a photo book if you have the time and desire. You will remember the big things, but the little things that connect the huge milestones should be treasured too!
#12 Cherish every stage
My final tip is definitely the most important. The word cherish means to show great love for or hold in a deeply felt way, both of which should apply to each and every single day of your baby's first year (and every day after, of course!). I made the mistake of eagerly wishing the next step would come instead of enjoying the moments as they came in their own time. For example, I was so eager for her to start crawling that I didn't fully enjoy the time when she was immobile and I could just hold her or lay her in her rocker and gaze at her. I miss those days so much and I know I could have done a better job soaking them up instead of constantly waiting for her to progress.
Obviously milestones are exciting, but they are also a little sad in that as they accomplish them, a little piece of the baby disappears and is replaced by a little person who is less dependent and more self-sufficient. We can't stop time or the inevitability of our children growing up, but we can stop and breathe in each unique phase so that when the next one comes, we have fully appreciated it for how special it really was.
So there you have it, my 12 tips for surviving, thriving, and fully taking in your baby's first precious year of life. I am by no means an expert, but I would like to think that my blunders and (few) successes can offer you at least the peace of mind that you are not alone in this crazy adventure of parenting and there is a HUGE learning curve with that first wonderful, patience-testing, and monumental year!