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How do you cope with the sleeplessness, the stress, the fear in the first few months?

Our baby just came home yesterday. He was five weeks premature, so he was in the NICU for two weeks. The stress of doing things "right" is overwhelming. I've taken time off work to help my wife, but after two weeks I'll be back at work during the day, and I worry so much for my wife's forbearance too.

How did you cope in the first few months? "This, too, shall pass"? Or something more?

Edit: Thanks so much for all of your amazing responses! I wish I could accept more than one :-) I'll try to keep my and mum's spirits up, and I guess, like pregnancy, the hard parts will be over soon.

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Wishing you the best because my wife and I are working with our 3 week old right now. It gets a little easier every day. The first days are the most extreme nerve wracking stress you'll ever experience at any time in your life. –  Doug T. Jul 24 '11 at 16:26
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@Doug Thanks! He's now 4 months, and what can I say--things are amazing! –  Yuki Aug 10 '11 at 11:08

9 Answers 9

up vote 49 down vote accepted

Our first couple months were... bad. From that experience I can give you these pieces of advice:

  1. Realize that you are most likely not in this alone. Friends and family are a wonderful thing. Especially those that have kids, they'll know and understand. If one of them calls to say they want to come over and see the baby, and asks if you need anything... don't just automatically say no. Stop and think. Have you been living on delivered take out and frozen meals for a few days in a row, got a tenner in your wallet? Ask 'em to stop at the store you know they're driving past and grab $10 worth of fresh fruit on the way. The ones that have kids are going to ask to help, they've been there before, they won't think any less of you for accepting that offer to help. Do it.

  2. Realize that no child is a perfect text book demonstration. Neither are parents. Case in point: nursing. There's some figure in all the literature we were given about how a baby should suckle for 15 minutes on each side for a feeding at whatever particular age we were at at the time. (1 week after discharge I think?) All the books, the doctors, everyone said it. No way we were getting that. We (especially my wife) were feeling like miserable failures as parents. In the middle of one such feeding attempt, as she was holding him on her lap and trying to get my help to get him into the position shown in the book the phone rang, it was our doula calling just to see how things were going. I think she heard the break down in my voice when I said "not so hot actually." She was at our house in about 20 minutes. When all was said and done, and the tears stopped flowing, the book was thrown out the proverbial window, at least metaphorically, and we stopped trying to live up to the text book case. It is a summary/average, not a mold you must fit. Turns out what all those things forgot to say, was that 15 minutes total was the important part... not 15 solid continuous minutes suckling.

  3. Prioritize and don't sweat the small stuff. You may not vacuum the house for a couple weeks, unless you're really sloppy, it won't really matter. Dishes may pile up in the sink a bit longer than you would normally let them, again, it won't really matter in the long run. You might not even shave every day (assuming you're the type that does that), so what if you get a little furry. In particular:

    1. You're going to be eating meals that are quick and easy to make (and ideally make in a larger quantity so that you can have leftovers) so you might not be eating as "nice" as you normally do. But it's going to be important (double extra for mom if she's nursing) to be eating well... be sure to avoid the junk aisle when you do get out to the store. I normally loathe frozen store bought meals, but they were very useful those first few weeks.

    2. Laundry. You're going to be doing a lot of small loads on short notice to deal with baby messes. Scrape as much of the mess into the toilet as you can first (either kind of mess, doesn't matter... it's flushable.) then run a quick rinse cycle with the baby clothes/urp rags, etc. But then, when you actually run the real load with soap and all... toss in a few of your clothes to to bulk up the load... yeah, they won't get the fancy fabric softener or bleach, but oh well, they'll be clean and you'll have some underwear in the drawerbasket again.

  4. Find a shoulder to cry on that knows what's going on, preferably one that's had kids recently. But here's the weird part... not family, or close friends... but someone you can trust. For us, it was our Doula. She proved to be a massive life saver, not only with the above referenced nursing issue but a couple other mountains out of molehills that day. Was that a conversation we could have had with parents, or close friends? I doubt it. But this was the woman who had been in the LDRP room with us for close to 12 hours... any embarrassment from having her help figure out why the nipple doesn't stay in baby's mouth... yeah, pretty minor by comparison. I realize with a 5 week premie you may not have the luxury of such a relationship.

  5. Sleep when the baby sleeps. I don't care if it's 3 in the afternoon, and you have a million things to do, if you haven't gotten your 7 or 8 hours of sleep in the last 24 hours, lay down and take a nap too.

One final note of closing that might sound contradictory to some of what I just said. When I say you should accept the help of friends and family, I mean help in keeping you two and the house going to support you and your wife supporting the baby. Try to keep all the baby care on your own plate, in your own hands... in the long run you won't regret your mom baking a tray of lasagna for you all to have for diner, but you will regret not being the one to change the diaper, or bring the baby from the cradle to mom for a feeding, or bounce them on your shoulder for a post feeding urp.

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+1 Really, really, great advice @cabbey. –  Jon Hadley Apr 5 '11 at 13:21
    
+1 by the time I finished item #2, and I'd give more for the rest if I could. –  Saiboogu Apr 5 '11 at 15:01
    
going through this now and this advice is spot on –  Doug T. Jul 24 '11 at 16:15
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+1 great answer! On the subjects of frozen meals, and help from family and friends, prior to our son being born, we had friends over two or three nights to help form assembly-line production of home-made meals that could be frozen and then quickly reheated (stuffed shells, soups, etc.). We then stockpiled these meals and used them to get through the first couple of weeks. –  Beofett Jul 24 '11 at 18:50

It's perfectly natural to be somewhat panicked, or worried about losing your sanity. Here is what I learned from the first few months of being a father.

Accept that you're in a new situation right now.

Becoming parents is the single biggest change in your life, ever. Many of your habits (chores, interests, hobbies) will have to be adapted, and while you figure out which habits change in what way, you're naturally going to feel stressed. Realize that feeling stressed does not mean that you're doing a poor job!

Focus on today. Don't worry about the future.

Yes, you don't have as much time for yourself as you used to. Still, you must take care of yourself to the extent needed so that you can take care of others (spouse, child). That sometimes means that the baby cries for two minutes while you go to the lavatory. That may also mean that some chores get done less regularly, or at bigger intervals than you're used to. It's okay. You only need to function right now, until you work out a new routine in the home.

Practically everybody understands that the first child is a big change. It may mean that you're less productive in the office, or that you put in fewer hours than you're used to; most workplaces understand and accept that, so use it to your advantage and don't stress about it. You'll catch up in the long run.

Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Some are fortunate to be near their extended family, who can help with some chores in the coming weeks. In two months time, you'll a grasp on your new routine and you won't need help anymore/as much. If you don't have family nearby, you can still ask friends to run an errand once in a while. If you're all alone, you're still two parents.

A feeding schedule is helpful.

Try to establish a regular feed/awake/sleep schedule. It might be every two hours, or every four hours. Let the baby breastfeed at those intervals, even if he doesn't want to at first. Having a regular schedule is immensely helpful, and you'd be surprised how early that can be trained. As soon as that schedule is roughly in place, both parents can wind down a bit because the next sleep phase can be planned out.

Let mommy sleep.

While you're at home, allow your wife to sleep whenever needed; best while the baby is asleep too. Newborns often don't feed on a regular schedule yet, so it can be very tiring for the wife to be always-on-standby for breastfeeding. Let her sleep and recharge, to be ready to handle on her own when you're back to work.

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You're not doing it wrong, it is that bad!

No matter how much you are warned, nothing can prepare you for the tiredness, on top of the tiredness, on top of even more tiredness, plus the stress of new responsibility and holding down a job.

All the parents I've met after the birth of their first share a certain look when talking about this 'special' time.

You will feel like hell, it will feel like it never gets better and almost all of us struggled too.

It does eventually get better though :)

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"this 'special' time"—you've got that right. All the people who've said that to me have fallen into one of two groups; a) the parents (who seemed to know more than they let on), and b) the non-parents (who seemed to think it really would be just magical for us). ;-) –  Yuki Apr 7 '11 at 9:35

Breastfeeding is hard

For all the talk about how "natural" breastfeeding is, nothing quite prepares you for the feeling of being a complete and total failure as a mother quite like having trouble with breastfeeding. It's not easy, you don't "naturally" know exactly how to hold the baby, and he doesn't "naturally" know how to latch on. If your baby latches on easily and doesn't have trouble feeding, feel lucky. My wife had problems with all 3 of our kids because they each needed different techniques for feeding.

Your hospital should have access to a lactation counselor, or you can hunt down your local La Leche League chapter. If you're having any trouble at all, get in contact with them -- they can help.

(Late Edit) Another thing about breastfeeding: Don't worry or feel bad if mom can't produce enough milk to keep up with what baby demands. Just supplement with formula (or switch to it altogether if you have to), and don't let anyone make you feel bad about it.

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+1. It was horrible watching my partner think she was a failure because she could't breastfeed perfectly straight away. Get any and all information you can on local support groups and counselors. –  tenpn Apr 6 '11 at 7:55
    
Yeah nobody should be placing judgements on how people feed their baby. Breastfeeding IS very hard to master. Its taken us a lot of investment in time and money to get it to work. I have no idea how a poorer/single parent would do it and we had many moments of near absolute failure at it with both of us working hard. The pressure/stress of breastfeeding being very high I eventually concluded that its completely understandable and OK for some to choose to remove loads of unhealthy stress from the whole early parenting experience and just formula feed. –  Doug T. Jul 24 '11 at 16:24
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Breastfeeding is hands down the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. If I was not dedicated to it (and recently unemployed) I know I would have given up. I am so happy I finally let go of feeling like I should just know what to do and called a lactation consultant. I wish I had not struggled for 3 months before calling her. Do not be afraid to ask for help! –  Erin Sep 11 '11 at 2:20
    
Downvoters: I'd appreciate comments or (proposed) edits. –  afrazier May 29 '13 at 13:42

Don't be afraid to choose to not breastfeed.

I had twins and tried to breastfeed them. It lasted 2 weeks and I gave up and started pumping instead. I got my sanity back and was still able to feed my boys breast milk. I was making enough that they got exclusively breastmilk for 9 of their first 12 months. I felt lucky that I was able to do that. But if you cant it's okay. A sane mother who is happy and loving is more important than anything else.

Have Dad bottle feed at least one time a day

I know that breast is supposedly best but if you have dad bottle feed one time a day it shouldn't ruin it all. And, if dad feeds a bottle mom can get a few hours of extra sleep at a time. We alternated. Mom had the boys during the morning, both parents in the afternoon and evening, and Dad took the boys at night. It allowed us to each get 6-8 hours of sleep straight and helped everyones sanity.

Your only focus needs to be your child(ren)

Allow everything else to slide into chaos. Your baby(ies) are the most important thing in the world at this point and loving them is your sole job.

Take care of yourself

I know that it breaks my prior rule but in order for you to be a happy parent you need to take time for yourself. Take turns getting out and going to the store. Get a sitter and go out to dinner. Take time to lock yourself in a room and have some quiet time.

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"Allow everything else to slide into chaos." As much as I'd love to do this, in a week and a half I'm off leave and then will have my full-time job to take care of—which sucks for mum, but if I don't do it, we'll have bigger issues than feeding. (Not to say I don't love your advice, by the way! Just mentioning. Thanks for your great words.) –  Yuki Apr 7 '11 at 9:32
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I completely understand. The back to work part is the worst! –  Amy Patterson Apr 7 '11 at 14:07
    
What made you give up? Also, breast feeding isn't "supposedly best" but provable so. From the World Health Organization about the report named "Evidence on the long-term effects of breastfeeding" (2007): "Subjects who were breastfed experienced lower mean blood pressure and total cholesterol, as well as higher performance in intelligence tests. Prevalence of overweight/obesity and type-2 diabetes was lower among breastfed subjects." –  Alexander Jan 19 '12 at 8:20
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Thinking back to the brain fog I was in I think that the only reason I gave up trying was because I was trying to cope with newborn twins and pumping was easier than trying to get two infants to latch properly, and knowing that I would be going back to work after 12 weeks. If you re-read my post you will see that my boys got breast milk almost exclusively for their first year. The point of my message is that no one can do everything and that if something has to give choose something that will make life better for your family. For me that was getting my boys to latch. –  Amy Patterson Jan 19 '12 at 15:39

Keep a muslin by every seat - you will get through several in a day and baby wipes will become your best friend, accept any and all offers of vests and babygro's as they will likely be changed almost hourly - ensure you have a washing machine and tumble dryer/ space for drying as it will be running almost daily.

Don't beat yourself up for feeling resentful of anything - it's natural for you both and will happen as you adjust to your new way of life, just try to remember that caring for a baby is far more tiring than the average full time job because there is no real chance for a rest break and no distraction; try to bear that in mind if you get in from work and she immediately hands you the child so she can go and hide in the bedroom/ bathroom.

3 is the number to be wary of

3rd day is one of the worst because it's all just started to sink in and you feel overwhelmed, miserable, helpless, useless and the worst parent EVER; this feeling can persist for a few days (if longer than that seek help as could be onset of post natal depression)

3 weeks - feeding pattern starts to change again as growth spurt hits and the kid NEVER STOPS EATING - or crying.. it's at this point I have to agree completely with all breastfeeding comments; don't be dictated to by the breastfeeding nazis it is HARD WORK: Tell her to express milk if she can or supplement with formula but make sure you (the daddy) manage at least one feed a day otherwise all joy in the child may be (literally) sucked away by the feeling of being nothing but a feeding machine.

What mess?

invest in a manual carpet/ floor sweeper example it can feel like too much hassle to drag out the hoover (and the noise tends to scare the baby) but you'll be amazed at the lift you'll get if you can give the place a quick tidy up when you get in every night.

..having said that, don't kill yourselves making the place spotless but if you can keep it so you can see the carpet and most surfaces it helps you feel more in control and less inclined to succumbing to the aforementioned hopeless/ overwhelmed feelings.

little things stack up

Tips like the above help but add to it with habits like always using the same mug/ glass and just rinsing it out to save on washing up, batch cooking and freezing meals for the week ahead, snacking on fruits, nuts and seeds throughout the day instead of alternate starving and eating a big meal; having regular take out nights saves both time and energy and gives you both a 'treat' to look forward to.

Just try and do the unimportant things the 'lazy way' By the end of the first 6-8 months you'll be throwing the baby back and forth like he's a sack of spuds and will know what all his little noises mean and can relax and pick up the slack with the things that have really bugged you.

Until then just hang in there as best you can secure in the knowledge you have the sympathy and best wishes of every other parent who's been there before you.

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One thing to remember is that some babies cry more than others, and the amount of crying doesn't necessarily reflect on how well/poorly you are doing as a parent. At least for their first few months, no amount of picking up and calming the child is going to spoil them, so I would definitely recommend doing so when you can (as opposed to the "let them cry it out approach"). However, if you're feeling overwhelmed, just remember that it is ok to put your child down and let them cry for a few minutes while you take a break and collect yourself. In the grand scheme of things, they will never remember that you "deserted them" for 15 minutes, and doing so is definitely much better than getting angry with your child or having a nervous breakdown.

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Be Patient

Be patient with yourselves, with each other, and with your baby. After the birth of our second child, it took some time for me to decompress her birth not going how I had planned, feeling like a failure because I couldn't take care of both children on my own, feeling overwhelmed, etc. On top of all of those normal feelings, I dealt with postpartum depression with her. I felt like I was crazy and was overcome with sadness because I had the "perfect" family, and why wasn't I happy? It took some time to acknowledge what we were dealing with and with some herbs I was able to ride it out until all of my hormones stabalized and I was in a better place emotionally.

Keep Talking

Our midwife told me once that it is better to let the tears flow than to try to hold them back and be strong. It is okay to feel overwhelmed, scared, crazy, etc., but you have to express those feelings. Holding them in is not coping and it is not healthy. Talk to each other, talk to family or friends, talk to anyone who will listen. Tell your birth story over and over because birth is an amazingly beautiful experience, but it is also traumatic and should be given a higher priority. Once the baby is born, all attention moves to baby. People forget how it all happened and assume that you are elated and have everything under control. Sometimes you won't and that is okay!

Sleep with a light on

When my first child was born I had to get up to nurse him in the night and have all the pillows just right and by then he was frustrated with me and would have a hard time latching on, and we couldn't find each other and then I was frustrated. All that tension made things more difficult and it also made it harder to get back to sleep. I said if I ever was blessed to do it again, I would sleep with a dim light on. With my second baby, it made all the difference. We didn't have to startle ourselves by turning on a bright light, it made middle of the night feedings and changes so much easier and we all got a lot more sleep.

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You have some good points about the emotions. I worry about my wife because, I think, since birth, I've cried more often (due to stress or whatever) than she has! Definitely passing this advice onto her. –  Yuki Apr 7 '11 at 9:37
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Red light is the best color to use, for several reasons. It is a familiar color to a newborn. It also doesn't reduce your night vision and does not blind you the way white or yellow light does. IKEA DIODER is one good product. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 7 '11 at 11:55

If you can, use some holiday time and take wednesdays off work. I did this in the first few weeks after paternity leave finished. The effect is that you get a little 'mini weekend' to break up the week, so that its only 2 days without help around the house for your other half, rather than 5 days.

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