The first 12 weeks of a newborn’s life is the hardest for many new parents but ultimately very rewarding. This is the veiled warning our family, friends, doctors and nurses all trotted out in the first few days after our daughter Sia was born.
As proud and sleepless parents of a new born daughter my wife and I had one job - keep her alive. But no amount of preparation made us realise just how difficult that task would be. Like most fathers I got off easily. My wife on the other hand had to deal with the relentless volume of information and unsolicited advice about what is considered the correct form of child rearing. This ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, to at times downright comical.
The advice has not just been overwhelming but also contradictory, spanning one extreme to the next. We all know how divisive breast feeding is so I won’t go there. But what surprised me was the other camps. There was team ‘demand feeding’ where you feed your baby constantly. Their biggest rivals are team ‘strict routine’ where you militantly adhere to at all times, to spreading those feeds out to four hours and ignoring the pretty intense crying to supposedly teach your baby to sleep longer at night.
But some of my favourite pearls of wisdom centre around the techniques to get your baby to sleep. Have you tried putting your baby outside and getting them to sleep under the stars like the early humans did? What about wrapping a blanket around their mouth so the dummy stays in place? This way the baby self-settles – don’t worry it can breathe through its nose.
Have you tried putting your baby outside and getting them to sleep under the stars like the early humans did?
If worse comes to worse you should apply pressure above the nose on her forehead. This will force her eyes to close involuntarily as no baby can sleep with their eyes open. My wife is a very calm person but she lost it at this advice which came from a community health nurse at our local breast feeding clinic.
“So that is what I’m supposed to do when my baby is uncontrollably crying?” my wife said to me one frustrated evening. “Pin her down and apply pressure to her forehead to suddenly magically make her sleep. Sure let’s try it, because in my limited experience a hysterical child is a wriggly little thing that doesn’t welcome strange pressure point action!”
Looking back at those first six weeks with Sia felt like we almost had one of those unicorn babies. This a term to describe a baby that sleeps, feeds with ease and doesn’t cry that often. Like unicorns those babies don’t exist and if they do no one wants to hear about your unicorn baby.
Our experience with Sia was she didn’t cry that much while my wife’s breastfeeding attempts were going well. But we did have problems in the sleeping department because it took her 45 minutes to 90 minutes to get her to sleep. But after what happened over the next six weeks we wish we had those issues because between week six and 11, Sia decided to not sleep at all between 6pm and 2am. Suddenly Sia developed a ravenous appetite and night after night, my wife was exhausted at having to constantly feed her. Capital letters required.
Also Sia’s cries began to sound like she was possessed. She didn't sound like a baby but more like a sheep having night terrors. My wife would breastfeed every hour and then she would want even more, so I would have to top her up with a bottle from excess breast milk my wife was collecting.
But after the bottle my daughter would ferociously start headbanging as she reached for my non-existent milk making breast nipple. She looked like her dad who in the 90’s and noughties used to frequent the mosh pits of punk bands like Frenzal Rhomb and metal bands like Machine Head.
In the midst of this baby mayhem my wife and I were walking the streets of Sydney’s inner west like parent zombies. After another feral episode we wheeled our pram into one of those trendy yet overpriced baby shops. It didn’t take long for the two owners to immediately clock on to our sleep deprivation. This is one of those moments that a piece of advice became a small miracle. It’s where we learnt the footy hold where I place Sia over my arm and it stops the sheep night terror sounds immediately.
To this day it’s been the best advice we ever got. Unfortunately the footy hold wouldn’t get Sia to sleep so in desperation my wife and I called in a sleep specialist to come and stay the night at the exorbitant cost of $500. Both our Greek parents would shudder at the thought that we paid so much for a strange woman to stay at our house and rock our baby to sleep while we slept in the other room.
But my wife badly needed a rest and I wanted to see if this baby whisperer could do any better than me repeatedly singing, ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight" for two hours. Of course when the sleep specialist arrived and stayed from 9pm to 6am, Sia slept for almost nine hours and only woke up once. I still look at the sleep specialist notes in disbelief.
Let the record show that while Sia’s sleeping pattern improved she has never slept this well or easily since. How is this possible? Was it the baby whisperer? Was it the end of witching hour phase that apparently lasts between six and 12 weeks? My wife and I have another theory and it again revolves around advice that we were given early on by a midwife.
We feel that Sia’s new found sleeping regiment coincided with my wife figuring out that a manual hand pump she was using to collect her excess breast milk, was actually extracting milk. The reason my daughter was so unsettled in the evenings was because she wasn't getting enough milk. We were in effect starving our baby for the first 10 weeks of her life.
Don’t get me wrong as new parents we all need advice that will help, but at the same time ‘mummy doesn’t need your advice’ because every baby is different.
The 'fourth trimester' is overwhelming enough for every parent but nobody really prepares you for the intense, relentless blur of those newborn weeks. Filtering the varied advice you are given to try and deal with those times makes this period to deal with even more difficult.
Even though newborns are studied to an inch of their lives - somehow the nurses, hot lines, breast feeding clinics, baby whisperers, breast feeding specialists, and mummy bloggers all missed the real villain , which was the breast pump.
Don’t get me wrong as new parents we all need advice that will help, but at the same time ‘mummy doesn’t need your advice’ because every baby is different. Like a nurse at the hospital told me, ‘your newborn doesn’t care what you think you know, because unlike you she hasn't read any baby books or the latest weekly update on your app.’
Con Stamocostas is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @constama10.