Newborn on the road
Okay, so you’ve got a car seat installed correctly, you have at least a cardboard baby box for your little one to nap in, and Mom and baby have been given the okay to head home. Now it’s time to get those discharge papers and take you new baby on their first car ride.
But first, Mom
Even if you did everything right as a first-time (or repeat) father during labor, you didn’t just push a newborn out of your body (or had major surgery in the form of a C-section). At the same time, there is only so much you can do for your new baby directly. You can be a surrogate chest for snuggling, but dads don’t have the requisite parts to nourish a newborn. So you’re the first one on diaper duty and logistics.
While at the hospital there are nurses to take care of Mom’s other needs or medical issues, this is the time to play with your role as family caretaker. If you have other kids already, you need step in and help them navigate this emotional time. If you have the luxury of grandparents, siblings, or others to help out, you must be the one to coordinate, plan, and execute the schedule. This is not the time to be passive or let other people do the work.
Ideally, many of the arrangements were set up ahead of time, but babies don’t respect plans. They come late, early, require a C-section, or something happens to your help. That is why fathers need to be part of the planning and take charge when it’s time to improvise or adjust. Alternates need to be set up, pets need to be checked up on, and lines of communication need to be open. If Mom has to handle this, it takes away from her opportunity to bond with her newborn and adjust.
Dress for the weather (sort of)
During the first 24 hours of life outside the womb, your newborn likely spent most of their time without clothes. Typical hospital dress is a beanie and diaper combo with a blanket as outerwear. Even if it’s warm and sunny, though, they’ll need something to wear on the way home. It’s time to play dress up for the first time.
The first outfit
If it’s a warm summer day, you’ll want long sleeves, pants, socks, and a beanie.
If it’s a cold winter day, you’ll want long sleeves, pants, socks, and a beanie.
Function over fashion
The reality is that a newborn’s body isn’t great at regulating their body temperature. Some of us here have memories of frequent checks on the newborn and being asked to strip off our shirt to provide skin-to-skin contact to help the little one warm up. Plus, the sun isn’t a friend to your newborn’s skin, which is thinner and more delicate than your own. The best bet is to use the car to keep everything at a comfortable temperature before you put the baby in there.
For those of us in a northern location where winter can be pretty cold, there is another reason for this: bulky jackets or many layers of fabric makes it hard to securely strap your newborn into the car seat. To keep them safe, it’s best to skip the outerwear, strap them in, then use the car’s heater to keep them warm on the ride. When it’s time to get out of the car, a car seat + base combo works well, as you can use a blanket or car seat cover to keep the winter chill off them until you get indoors.
Into to the car seat
Speaking of the car seat, this is likely your first real test of handling your newborn in a less-than-delicate way.
Car seats are designed to secure a baby during the collision of two or more multi-ton objects at speed. They aren’t bassinets. To perform the job properly, the newborn needs to be strapped in securely. This means using the cinching system of the car seat to gets the harness tight enough that the straps cannot be pinched.
It’s tight. It doesn’t allow for movement. And it will probably feel like you’re squishing your little one. But it’s the only way the car seat can do its job of protecting your child.
There might be someone at the hospital who will check your work or give you advice on this, but they won’t do it for you. And this is good, because parents need to know. And as Mom is likely a bit laid up still, the job falls to Dad. So buckle them up, cover them if necessary for the weather, and get ready to carry the bundle out to the car. You did get your base inspected by someone else before this step, right?
The first night and beyond
Once away from the hospital, Mom and Dad are on their own. It’s scary. Accept that and use it as both motivation and a shared reality with Mom. There will be many more days like that, whether it’s the first trip, first time alone, or the first illness. You need each other to get through these firsts.
Putting your newborn to bed
Repeat after us: There is no such thing as bedtime for a newborn.
Newborns don’t respect the sun or your sleep schedule. It doesn’t matter if it’s 3 AM or 3 PM; if they are hungry, they will be fed. Once you accept this, it’s a matter of rebuilding your schedule around the baby’s.
You might find resources that talk about sleep training or other strategies about putting an infant to bed. However, it’s important to remember what you repeated above: There is no such thing as bedtime for a newborn. Until the little one is around four to six months old, there is no chance you’ll have any control over their sleep schedule. This is simply because a newborn is a slave to their stomach. Meal time is going to be every two to four hours, and it’s going to take thirty minutes or more to satisfy them, burp them, and get them ready to go back to sleep. So now you have less than three and a half hours before you have the repeat the process.
But there are things you can do to get some of your own shut-eye.
It sounds simple, but when you’re in a constant cloud of sleep-deprivation, simple solutions don’t come easily. Those of us who’ve gone through it have stories of Duh! moments where it dawns on one or both parents that something was being the hard way. And for whatever reason, these seem to be glossed over in many of the parenting books you’ll find.
- For pumped milk or formula, prepare the bottles before bed, plus a spare in case of spills or hungry stomachs
- If Mom is pumping, make sure all the parts are laid out near her chair or couch
- Skip the hand-washing and put bottles, pump parts, and other items through the dishwasher
- Keep the feeding area stocked with pillows, blankets, and something to keep you awake at 3 AM
- Put out spare sleep sacks or other swaddling blankets in case of diaper leaks, spit-up, or other spills
We want to talk about the dishwasher piece really quick. Hand-washing is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and something neither parent wants to do. That means a pile of dirty dishes that no one wants to deal with until it reaches crisis level. So if you have a dishwasher, use it. Small items can be put into baskets to prevent them from flying around. And if you have problems running a dishwasher that’s half-full… get over it or buy a lot of extras.
When the belly rumbles at 1 AM, your newborn will tell you. They eat a lot, and eat frequently. At night when it’s dark and quiet, it’s easy to fall asleep while feeding your little one. But you shouldn’t. Falling asleep while feeding an infant can lead to prolonged feedings, discomfort, and accidents. Instead, just keep the lights at a minimum and occupy yourself with a mindless task if you find yourself nodding off. This will keep your child ready to go back to sleep after eating and keep your own body from getting too ramped up to get back to sleep.
Keep in mind that even if you are handling the feedings overnight, Mom will need to get up every four hours or so to pump. This will help her supply come in and reduce problems, like clogged ducts or mastitis.
Back to bed
Once the feeding is over, it’s time to put them back down. Unless your little one is soundly asleep, it’s best to put a fresh diaper on before swaddling them back up. Once that’s complete, you can sing or rock them a bit, but we suggest not letting them fall asleep in your arms. If they have, it’s no big deal. But if they get used to being sung or rocked to sleep, you might have some issues down the road with self-soothing. Instead, putting a sleepy baby down will allow them to realize they’ve been transferred to their sleeping space.
Of course, that could all be garbage, but many people swear by it, including ourselves. If your little one refuses to drift off without being in your arms, you’ll just need to accept it and try again down the road.
Second Night Syndrome
This one sounds a bit ominous, but it’s really just a shorthand way of describing the second night after the birth.
What it is
Most likely your first night went well, with your little one only waking up a few times in the night with a rumbling belly or dirty diaper. If Mom delivered at a hospital, you were likely still there. But it’s quite common for uncomplicated births to result in a 24-36 hour stay before discharge, meaning the second night often happens at home. When it does, everyone is in for a rude surprise.
You probably won’t sleep.
Neither will Mom.
Second night syndrome is the medical-sounding name given to a newborn’s behavior 24 hours or so after leaving the womb. It’s likely due to the fact that they have had enough chance to recover from birth (it’s hard on the infant, too) to express displeasure about the change in scenery. The outside world is quiet, cold, and dry. Mom is far away, or maybe even impossible to sense. And moving isn’t possible, including getting those hands up to the face or mouth. The natural response is to cry about it. The only thing that helps is Mom, or more importantly, Mom’s breast.
This is normal. It’s also hard on everyone. There are numerous things to try, but always remember to keep things safe. Allowing Mom to fall asleep holding the child can be dangerous, as she can shift in a way that suffocates or drops her little one. If you absolutely must allow Mom and baby to sleep together, someone must always be watching. This can be impossible if you are the only one around, as you’re likely tired too. Other options can be to allow the infant to fall into a deep sleep before placing back into their sleeping space.
You’ll survive, but keep in mind that this can happen other nights as well, especially if sick, in a new place, or it was a stressful day.
To get really serious here for a moment, we want to be clear about something: childbirth isn’t without risk. There are situations that arise during labor or immediately afterwards that require major intervention at the hospital for Mom. But more importantly for you as the father, there are also things that happen days or even weeks later that can send Mom back to the hospital.
- Be attentive to changes in Mom’s mental state
- Be aware of labor and delivery complications and the warning signs
- Be knowledgeable about the postpartum healing process
Attentive fathers help Mom navigate the changes to her mind and body after birth. Most situations will pass with time and little to no intervention. However, there are some issues that will end up making you a single dad while Mom is in the hospital, or worse.
It’s really important to know that in the United States especially, there are real problems with maternal complication and mortality. These cut across the usual demographics, and the reasons are varied. Remember that the focus is placed on the newborn after birth, both by medical professionals as well as family and friends. As Dad, you need to make sure Mom is cared for as well, and be a strong, assertive voice if anything seems unusual, ignored, or just doesn’t seem right.
Along the same lines as watching out for Mom after birth, you need to help keep the family healthy. Newborns don’t have well-developed immune systems, nor are the able to receive vaccinations yet. Because of this, you need to become a gatekeeper to your home so viruses or infections don’t run rampant.
Clean instead of sterile
You carry all sorts of microscopic hitchhikers around every day. Most don’t make us sick, or only become a problem in certain situations. Being a newborn can be one of those situations. With an immature immune system that relies on gifts from Mom in the womb, newborns are susceptible to many things. Because of this, you will be told that in the first three months, any fever at all is cause for an immediate doctor’s visit. Part of this is because a fever is the body’s immune response to infection. Newborns have many things going against them in an infection, and one is that they don’t often show signs of serious illness. So when signs do show up, even minor ones like a low fever, medical intervention is required.
However, this doesn’t mean you should sterilize your entire house or make them bubble kids. Instead, it’s about sensible steps to reduce the chances of something nasty coming through the door.
- Remind guests to cancel a visit if they show any signs of sickness (runny nose, cough, etc.)
- Ask guests to wash their hands with soap and warm water before handling your newborn
- If you get sick, use a surgical mask when around the newborn
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water before handling your newborn, their food, or their toys
- Use the dishwasher to clean dishes and pacifies
- Store cleaned bottles, pacifiers, etc., in containers
Skip the hand sanitizer when there is access to a sink and soap, though it can be useful when out in public and there isn’t access to a bathroom or other place to wash.
One last tip: If your little one’s pacifier, bottle, cuddle, or other item falls to the ground when in public, don’t panic. A quick rinse with soap and water is all that’s needed when it falls on high-traffic or dirty surfaces, or keep clean spares in the diaper bag. If it’s a cleaner surface, like a table or chair, wiping it off or rinsing with clean water is good enough. Just don’t stick it in your mouth to “clean” it.
You need to stay healthy, too
While we will have an entirely separate set of articles on health and wellness, there are a few things to keep in mind.
If you’re hurt, speak up. Most often, a pulled muscle, sore joint, or other physical issue requires reduced activity to heal. There are a host of parent-related injuries that come up, many of them in the family of repetitive strain injuries (RSI). These can be things like tennis elbow, golfers elbow, back pain, etc. All can reduce your ability to care for your child, so if they show up, seek medical attention. You need to have a system with Mom to push each other to make appointments and cover for the other.
The other important thing is your mental health. Mom can suffer for Postpartum Depression, which is very serious and requires immediate intervention. Most hospitals and pediatrician’s offices will assess Mom and provide Dad with a list of symptoms to watch out for. Again this is an emergency situation and should not be ignored, as it will cause great harm and even death to both Mom and baby.
Men are already more likely to ignore signs of mental health issues. You can’t help your family if you ignore or brush off your mental health. Just like the contract with Mom to push each other to visit the doctor when a back is sore, it must extend to depression, anxiety, and other issues. Be aware of the signs of depression in yourself and others. Depression and other mood disorders severely impact your ability to care for your little one, and puts a huge burden and stress on your partner, family, friends, and co-workers. And it’s a serious illness that can lead to injury or death of yourself or those around you.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or thinking of suicide, get help quickly.
- Call your doctor.
- Call 911 for emergency services or go to the nearest emergency room.
- Call the toll-free 24-hour hotline of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (4889).