Caring for Baby: From Clueless to Credible in 365 Days or Less

Sometimes I look at my son in the midst of a crying fit (his, not mine) and feel quite certain that he has figured out my secret: He has finally realized that I have no idea what I am doing. No wonder he is hysterical. I'd cry too if my well-being were in the hands of a complete novice, loving and well-intentioned though she may be.

If I thought he'd understand, I'd tell him, "Yes, I may be clueless, but I know a heck of a lot more now than I did the day I brought you home from the hospital." And I'd be right. In the nearly nine months since he was born, I have acquired a stunning supply of knowledge about how to care for a baby. Of course, the road from a clueless to a modestly functional parent had lots of bumps along the way, but I'm sure he and I will look back one day and laugh. Or cry. But at least we'll have made it through the countless feedings, sleepless nights, grooming sessions and crying fits (his AND mine) mostly unscathed. For anyone with less experience than myself, I'm happy to share some of what I've learned so far as a first-time parent:


Feeding your baby is not as simple as you may think.

If I thought I was alone in my complete confusion over the ins and outs of feeding baby, I'd hide my ignorance and act like I had it down from day one. After talking to other new moms, however, I have come to realize that figuring out when to feed baby, how much he needs to eat and when you can break the rules are questions that can drive any new parent to distraction. For example, breastfeeding moms know that in the early days baby should go about three hours from the beginning of one feeding to the beginning of the next (formula-feeding moms may be told their baby can go a little longer, since formula tends to digest more slowly). But what if baby is still sleeping and three hours have gone by? Or four, or five? Do you wake him? ("Wake a sleeping baby, are you insane?" your sleep-deprived mind will scream.) If not, how long do you let him sleep? Just how often does he really need to eat? And how do you know how much milk breastfed babies are actually getting (bottle-feeding mommies, mercifully, do not have this problem)?

At least once a week I felt absolutely convinced that my son cried constantly because he wasn't getting enough milk while breastfeeding. This turned out not to be true, but that didn't keep me from driving myself nearly to distraction over the issue. At least in the early days, for a first-time mommy feeding can be full of guesswork.

You'd think life would get easier when your baby moves on to cereal and solid (well, puréed) food. But that's where you're wrong. Solid food just means more questions: How much food does the kid need? How much variety? When can he start eating what we eat, and how can I get over my paralyzing fear that he'll choke on something? My son's pediatrician had him start on jar food at 4 months, but some doctors advocate waiting until baby is 6 months old and his system can better handle it. I was, however, told to wait until 8 months to give my son meat because he would have a hard time digesting the protein (of course, this was after I'd gamely tried a little chicken out on the poor boy). The American Academy of Pediatrics has guidelines on feeding baby (in the form of books you can order), as do many baby books, but any guidelines must also come with a dose of flexibility. Ultimately, babies vary so much in how much they eat and when they eat it, that a certain amount of winging it is required.