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.

Getting a Baby to Sleep

If you've done any reading at all on the subject of baby care, you know that most experts advise against getting baby in the habit of being rocked, nursed, cuddled or otherwise induced into sleep. Break the rule and baby may end up forever demanding whatever crutch you've gotten him hooked on. Well, not forever, but it will feel like forever when you're pacing the floor at 2 a.m. with a 20-pound 10-month-old in your arms.

I understood the concept, and yet I fell into the trap all the same. Before I knew it, I had an 8-month-old who woke up every two hours to nurse and couldn't get back to sleep on his own to save his life. By then I'd had enough and I finally had to face the fact that my son would have to learn to get himself to sleep, which would involve some crying (and some sleeplessness — and heartache — for my husband and me). Although there are a host of different methods out there, my husband and I chose one that involved instituting a "no picking up" policy once we put him down for bed (we did go into his room every 10 to 15 minutes to quiet his crying with a pat on the back, but honestly that just seemed to enrage him). The first night he cried initially for an hour and then for 15 to 20 minutes the two or three times he woke up during the rest of the night. The second night he cried for about 20 minutes when I first put him down and then only for a few minutes when he woke up in the middle of the night. By the third night, he cried for just a few minutes at bedtime and woke up very infrequently the rest of the night. It was torture (on us probably more than on him) for the first two nights, but it worked. Well, sort of. Weeks later, he sleeps like an angel some nights and wakes up crying other nights. Even so, we are finally sleeping for longer than two hours at a time, which is heavenly.

As if getting baby off to sleep soundly isn't hard enough, once he's snoozing away new parents are confronted with a new problem: How to deal with the fear that something horrible will happen to him while he sleeps. For the first two months of my son's life, I spent far too many hours hovering over his cradle, straining to hear him breathe, watching to see his chest rise and fall, or his little fingers twitch — anything to reassure me that he was OK. While it's probably a very natural fear and one that most parents have to some degree, it can be stressful and can keep you awake during those precious minutes you should be catching up on much needed sleep.

Even though I worried, I was comforted by knowing that I wasn't breaking any of the rules for safe sleeping. Having baby sleep on his back, in his crib and without pillows, thick blankets or stuffed animals, at least gave me peace of mind that I was doing what I could to reduce any risk to my baby (as did reminding myself that the risk of something happening to my baby while he sleeps is small to begin with). New moms and dads, keep in mind that there will come a day when these sleeping fears will subside, only to be replaced by other fears. But at least you won't fear the worst, worrying that baby might not wake up from his sound slumber.

Dealing With Crying

Because newborns have a pretty limited repertoire of activities, the crying issue often goes hand-in-hand with sleep and feeding issues. I never expected there to be any conflict about what to do when my baby cried. I would pick him up, change his diaper, feed him, or some combination of the three, and he would stop, right? Well, yes. And no. Ultimately, it depends. As with sleep and with feeding, there are varying schools of thought on what to do with a crying baby, ranging from the "attachment parenting" folks — who feel that parents should respond to baby promptly and do whatever consoling is needed — to those on the other end of the spectrum who advocate following a strict time schedule dictating when to feed baby and when to let baby sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics says it's unlikely that a baby can be "spoiled" before the age of 6 months simply by responding immediately to his cries. But opinions on just how you should respond vary. Although I personally prefer responding pretty promptly to a child's needs, at least until the child is 6 months old, I'm not going to argue for one side or the other here. Just be aware that there are a variety of approaches, and use the one you feel most comfortable with (but also know that well-meaning people will insist that you are spoiling your baby if you always respond quickly, and others will tell you you're neglecting him if you don't step in with bottle, breast or a cuddle right away).

If you just can't stand the thought of standing by while baby cries, there are some methods that don't involve the dreaded "cry it out" routine (the book The Secrets of The Baby Whisperer, Ballantine Books, 2002, by Tracey Hogg and Melinda Blau offers such tactics).

Other Baby Care Tips

Those baby nails can become a nightmare.

There are few things that can make my husband cry, but he was pretty darn close the day he trimmed a little skin off our son's finger while clipping his nails (not on purpose, obviously). The baby screamed, Mommy winced and Daddy felt guilty for days. Having already drawn blood myself (that was the reason I'd passed the duty along to my steady-handed husband), I totally understood the level of trauma that was unfolding and the ease with which disaster could strike. It's not just that babies have tiny little fingers, but those nails are paper thin and babies tend to squirm the most just as you're about to clip away. Although it's tempting to just blow the whole thing off and let those little suckers grow, that's not a good answer either. As innocent as they look, baby nails are surprisingly sharp! I was pretty convinced for a while that my son had a hidden nail file in his crib and spent the nighttime hours filing his claws until they were dagger sharp. More likely, they're just so thin that they snag easily, leaving lots of jagged edges that are good for scratching delicate baby skin. It wasn't until we'd gone through two nail-related injuries that I read it's best to clip baby's nails while he is asleep (of course, then you risk waking a sleeping infant, which may bring on another type of disaster, but at least you avoid the danger of clipping baby's finger).

Bathing time can be fun, but it can be scary, too.

This one is right up there on the parental trauma scale with clipping nails and taking baby's temperature with a rectal thermometer. The prospect of submerging your tiny little peanut of a baby in a tub/sink/other container of some sort is not so bad. It's the thought of keeping his little head out of the drink and then picking up that soaking wet squirming bundle and re-dressing him without letting him slip out of your hands. It's enough to make you want to put away the rubber duckies for good. By about 2 months, however, baby will probably enjoy baths much more and you'll be so skilled that a slimy baby won't be nearly as frightening as it once was. Although some parents find the kitchen sink is the perfect height and size for baby bathing, I bathed my son in a plastic baby tub perched on the kitchen counter or dining room table. The tub is nicely angled to keep baby upright, although in the first two months keeping baby from slumping over isn't easy. I always enlisted the help of my husband, who propped our son up while I soaped him up.

Dressing dilemmas can be a challenge.

Now here's an easy one, right? It's finally time to use all those cute clothes you've stockpiled since the pregnancy test came back positive. Yes, dressing up baby can be fun, but deciding how bundled — or unbundled — he needs to be is the tough part. I found it took at least three months until I could determine how much or how little baby needed in the way of clothing. Fearing he'd be cold, I usually ended up overdressing him, only to worry then that he was too hot. The solution: layers. And a quick feel of baby's skin should tell you if he's too warm or too cold, as will any obvious signs of discomfort (crying or fussing) he is sure to give.

It may be hard to stay sane when sickness strikes.

When my son was just an infant, I frequently worried that he would come into contact with some nasty germ that would wreak havoc on his immature immune system. With all the people who wanted to hold, kiss and cuddle him, it seemed almost inevitable that he'd catch something. Miraculously he didn't, or at least nothing more than a minor cold that left him a bit congested (and turned me into an aspirator-wielding maniac, constantly trying to suck the mucous from my son's nose). By 6 months, when everything he encountered went right into his mouth, I was pretty convinced that something unpleasant would strike. So far, despite gumming toys that have fallen on nasty restaurant floors and gobbling up god knows how much carpet fuzz, my son seems remarkably healthy — which just goes to show that babies hardier are than you might think. Or maybe it's just that, despite a little guesswork and a lot of doubt, you're better at this parenting thing than you thought. Click here for more information on baby care from a true expert (one with a medical degree, no less).

Christina Breda Antoniades is a freelance writer and mother of 9-month-old Vasili. She has written extensively for Discovery.com including the Travel Channel Online and Discovery Health Online. In her nine months as a new mommy, Christina has come to learn the joys and pains of parenthood.