Do you have new first time parents in your life? You’ve probably gotten them a gift and visited to meet the new wee one. You’ve probably puzzled over what a new family needs and how to help out.
There are lots of great ideas out there. Here’s one I particularly liked as it really rang true for my experience as a new parent. To take it one step further, I’d like to challenge everyone out there to do the Six Week Check-up. That is, make a point of checking in with the new mom as her baby nears the six week mark.
Why Six Weeks?
Do you remember the six week check up after you had your first baby? Do you remember what else was going on for you then? Maybe you haven’t had kids yet or maybe your kids are older and now that you’ve left the sleep-deprived haze, those early days are all a blur. Let me remind you:
The first few weeks were all bliss, staring at baby in awe, proudly presenting her to family and friends, feeling totally bonded to your partner for producing this perfect little angel. But now? Dad has gone back to work. The whirlwind of out-of-town visitors is slowing or they’ve all come and gone. Friends and family have all met baby and are back to their regular lives: working, house renos, family vacation. The new baby celebrations have all ended: the baby shower or meet the baby party was a few weeks ago. Friends are no longer dropping in with a cute onesie or yet another handmade blanket. The email congratulations have tapered off. In short, everyone else’s excitement has worn off. For them, now it’s business as usual.
For mom? She’s home alone with baby and the reality of her new life is finally starting to hit her. This likely means getting used to the isolation of maternity leave. The first few weeks felt like a well-deserved vacation, especially after the aches and pains and fatigue of working while pregnant. But now, she’s kind of bored. She’s surprised by how much she misses talking to adults when she’s staring at the four walls and nursing AGAIN. She’s surprised by how much she misses the noise of the office (or the restaurant or the store or wherever it was for her) when she realises how quiet it is at home alone while her friends and partner are at work. When she sees her friends, she realizes she has surprisingly little to talk about now that she can’t talk about her work. She wonders what to do with herself and she misses that productive self, that woman who excelled at her work. It’s lonely and she feels a little lost in a culture that defines people by the work they do.
After the standard first few weeks rest and recovery, she was feeling great and tried to get back to her normal routine, only to find that she’s still exhausted. Mama’s beginning to realise that her plans of continuing life as before with baby in tow might be a little unrealistic. Her thoughts of tackling some of those crafting projects gathering dust during her “year off” seem laughable now as she struggles to sleep enough, keep the house clean, shower and eat lunch. By 6 weeks, the new family is likely out of the extra freezer food they prepared before the birth and friends are no longer dropping off casseroles. Offers to throw a load of laundry in or pick up groceries while new mom grabs a nap have petered out. Mom’s learning to navigate the grocery store with baby (and all the baby gear) now. Every day is a list of laundry, nursing, diapers, nursing, napping, nursing, dishes, nursing, more laundry, more nursing, more diapers. She’s surprised at how little she accomplishes and she might be starting to get run down around the 6 week mark because she’s trying to do too much. Back to regular life?
At 6 weeks, baby often goes through a growth spurt (also 3 weeks, 3 months & 6 months) which means that he’ll be cluster feeding. Mom will feel like she’s nursing all day and all night. It will feel like she can’t attend to the most basic things (like brushing her teeth) because baby is rooting and hungry every five minutes. Considering that the support and help have often faded away by this point, this particular growth spurt can be pretty overwhelming. Also, because baby is acting so hungry and fussy, mom may start to worry about her supply.
After 6 weeks learning to breastfeed, some women may have the hang of it and some may still be struggling but all are still vulnerable to fear, doubt and bad advice. They might feel on the verge of giving up. They might feel that they gave it everything they could and they just weren’t able to do it. They could all use encouragement and support now. As PhD in Parenting says in her post on When to Give Up on Breastfeeding:
“tell her that you know how hard it is. Tell her that you are proud of her for trying so hard. Tell her that it is her choice whether to continue or not and that you fully support her no matter what her decision is and that she is a great mother no matter what decision she makes. Read up about what it really means to support a breastfeeding mother. Give her a hug. Let her cry.”
Speaking of crying, here’s another reason six weeks postpartum is an important time to check up on your new parent friends: ever heard of purple crying? It is inconsolable, unpredictable LONG bouts of crying every evening. This crying tends to increase in the second week of life and peak around the sixth week. This means your new mama friend who is home alone with baby all day may also be spending her evenings walking the floor with a baby who just can’t be soothed no matter what she tries. Check out this graph showing crying patterns and note the peak at 6 weeks of age despite the wide range of distribution for all infants. New parents need your support at this time.
Lastly, everyone’s heard her birth story. Maybe twice. When mama starts recounting the details, they move on to other topics. But she hasn’t finished processing the event. It’s a major rite of passage and she may need to go over it, and over it, and over it. Especially if it wasn’t what she was expecting (true for most of us) but even more so if it was traumatic. She may be feeling horribly guilty, violated, disappointed, let down and conflicted. Other people don’t want to hear her go on about it anymore, they want her to focus on her healthy baby and get over it (“I mean it was over a month ago, right? And look at your beautiful baby. It’s all over now”). She may think there’s something wrong with her that it’s still so upsetting. She might need to talk about it again. And she might need to be pointed in the direction of good resources like Solace for Mothers and International Cesarean Awareness Network.
What is the 6 Week Check-Up?
It’s an opportunity to remember that 6 weeks with a new baby is not a long time. Everything is still new to your friends and even though your excitement might have worn off, they are still adjusting to parenthood. What can you do?
- Renew your offers to pick up groceries or throw some laundry in for them.
- Ask mom to go for a walk with you during the day (on your lunch break if you work).
- Pop in with lunch for her. Hold the baby while she eats.
- Encourage mom to get out of the house by joining a mom’s group, play group, neighbourhood drop in centre, La Leche League group, mom & baby yoga class. Offer to go with her if appropriate.
- Call during the week and let her know that you are thinking about her (and she isn’t forgotten).
- Drop off a casserole.
- Ask her sincerely how she is coping.
- Listen actively.
- Ask her to tell you her birth story again.
- Encourage her efforts to breastfeed. Let her know that it will get easier.
- Tell her that sometimes baby’s cry a lot and it doesn’t mean she is doing anything wrong.
- Remind her that it won’t always feel so overwhelming.
- Be real – tell her a story about a time when you struggled in the beginning so she knows that she’s not alone and that we all struggled at first.
I remember sitting on my bed rocking a screaming baby back and forth waiting for my husband to get home from work. I remember feeling so inept and in over my head. I remember feeling like I couldn’t reach out and ask for help. Right then, a phone call or a knock on the door from a caring friend wouldn’t have stopped baby’s crying or alleviated my sleep deprivation but it sure was what I needed.