Four key principles for a delightful start to parenthood

Caveats: These are lessons from our personal experience with our first baby, and the experiences of a few of our friends.  Different babies have different needs, and what works here may not work for everyone.  In general this post is aimed at an audience of friends in their 30s who want to have children but are uncertain of how to fit them into their busy lives.  Some of the techniques mentioned here require a decent amount of disposable income, but lower cost solutions exist and I mention them whenever possible.

Having your first baby is an incredible experience.  You’ll experience a kind of love you’ve never felt before and a sense of continued wonder at the miraculous process by which a new human learns to make sense of the world.  However, it’s also important to prepare for and contain the work involved, as it can put you underwater and make you miserable if you don’t have a good plan for managing it.

With that in mind, we came up with four basic principles for making the process of having a newborn mostly fun and delightful.  These principles are:

  1. Don’t be a hero, get help!
  2. Optimize for family, not baby
  3. Follow the evidence, ignore the momsplaining
  4. Streamline, automate, document

We’re six months in and having a wonderful time.  So far these principles have held up well, at least in our particular situation.

We’ll go through these in more detail now.  If you want the quick version, I made a presentation a couple of months ago that covers the same principles in slide format.

1. Don’t be a hero, get help!

A friend described parenting a newborn as “not hard, just relentless”, and this is very true.  Newborns need almost round-the-clock support, and rarely sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time.  It is possible to get through this on your own, but it’s a rough ride, and you’ll spend a couple of months in a haze of exhaustion and sleep deprivation.  America’s tradition of the nuclear family celebrates the “supermom” who can be the sole caregiver for an infant on top of a couple of older children, but this is a difficult slog, and it’s not how things worked for most of human history, when new parents relied extensively on the help of relatives and neighbors.  There’s no shame in asking for help, and other people are often excited to play a part in helping you with your little one.  Also, newborn care (whether it’s a nanny, postpartum doula, or night doula) is a profession that’s basically half nurse and half therapist, and there are people who are very skilled and experienced in it who have worked with tens or even hundreds of babies in their careers. A good caregiver is probably going to be better at it than you are, and that’s totally OK!

Here are the main areas where you’ll want help:

Learning infant care techniques

If this is your first baby, there’s a basic body of infant care knowledge that takes maybe 10-20 hours to pick up.  You’ll want someone who can give you immediate on-the-job training.  Postpartum doulas are amazing for this.  They generally work with families for the first few days or weeks after birth.  As a result, they have seen a wide range of scenarios, and can often quickly diagnose why your baby is struggling because they’ve seen it before.  Watching a professional do this work is truly impressive. Babies just calm down in their presence.  

Recovering from birth

Your birth might be easy or it might be difficult, and you might be recuperating from the equivalent of abdominal wall surgery while also caring for a newborn. This is another area where postpartum doulas can help.  They are very familiar with the recovery process and will likely anticipate needs you don’t know you’ll have.

Getting enough sleep such that you can function normally.  

This is a huge deal.  Infants take naps and require feedings every 2-3 hours around the clock for the first couple of months.  Putting this burden on one person or even a couple is very challenging.  Everything else in your life (including daytime infant care) will feel easier if you are well rested.  

Night doulas are an expensive but great solution to this.  They will generally show up at ~10pm and stay until ~7am, and will take care of your baby during this time so you can get a full night of sleep.  If you’re breastfeeding, you can pump milk at night and hand it to the night doula, who will then take care of feeding the baby, calming them, changing their diapers, and getting them back to sleep.  Some parents choose to start formula feeding at night after a couple of months because formula-fed babies tend to sleep for longer (formula is absorbed more slowly into the digestive tract, so the baby doesn’t get hungry as quickly).  

One alternative to a night doula is for the parents to take turns doing baby care at night and sleep in separate bedrooms so at least one parent gets a good night’s sleep on any given night.

Daytime childcare

We originally planned on not having any daytime nanny coverage until a month after birth so we could have ample time to bond with the new baby, but in retrospect we found that this was not the ideal choice for us, and it was great to start getting daytime baby care almost immediately so we had time to take care of other things in our life.  

Spending time with a newborn is incredible.  However, after a few days you may notice yourself getting tired of attending to their basic needs all day, and that’s okay!  There’s a reason the first few weeks after birth are called the forth trimester.  Babies tend to “wake up” a lot more after their fifth or sixth week, and start to show the human drives of curiosity and flexibility that we’re used to seeing in older children.  There’s a great book called The Wonder Weeks that details the various post-birth developmental leaps in understanding and control that your baby will go through, and it is a wonderful guide to the constantly-changing sets of abilities you’ll see your baby display, and the things you can do to encourage them.

It’s helpful to have a nanny or other daytime caregiver who can take on some of the caregiving so you have time for other things in your life that refresh and restore you.  There’s no shame in this.  Your baby will be better off if they’re cared for by several adults who all have time for self-care vs 1-2 adults who do not and are getting burned out.  

That said, nanny care can get expensive, and several other options exist.  These include:

  • Nanny-shares, where you and another family split the cost of a nanny.
  • Infant daycare.
  • An au pair, who comes from overseas on a special visa and handles a range of childcare tasks.  Often they have limited proficiency in English, but if you know another language, you can often find someone from a country that speaks that language.  They tend to be much lower cost than nannies on average.
  • Older retired relatives, who can live with you for a while and help with childcare.  Playing with a grandbaby is one of the wonderful experiences of retirement.
  • Friends or housemates who are excited to play with your newborn from time to time.

Having a good support network of friends, professionals, or both can make the difference between the first few months being a delightful experience of discovery and bonding versus a relentless slog you go through in a daze as you try to survive the onslaught of baby care tasks.

2. Optimize for family, not baby

American culture has a myth that you must sacrifice everything for your baby, and you’re a bad parent if you don’t do so.  This myth is toxic in a lot of ways, especially when combined with the American model of the nuclear family and America’s obsession with infant safety at all costs, leading parents to spend a lot of time on activities that are taxing to the parent but only of marginal benefit to the baby.  In the end this sacrifice doesn’t even help the baby.  Overstretched parents will become grumpy and strung out, the baby will notice and worry that something’s wrong, and then no one is happy.  

Instead, think of parents and children as an interdependent system where everyone’s happiness matters.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of “everything that conceivably could be good for the baby should happen all of the time, regardless of where the adults are at”, especially in the overachieving Silicon Valley culture we’re in.  The reality is that you need to take care of yourself first because if you don’t, your baby will absorb that stress from you, and you may have trouble taking care of your baby.  There’s a handy visual metaphor for this principle from air travel emergency brochures.  Put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting your child:

Lauren Cook
Put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting your child.

As we talked about in part 1, get enough childcare support such that you can still get things done, exercise, and have fun.  There’s no shame in going out for a nice time while someone else watches your baby.  Before we even started our journey to parenthood, Helen proposed getting regular weekly babysitter time every Friday and Saturday night so we could go out and have the sorts of adult experiences we had prior to having kids.  This way, there’s no friction to saying yes to dinner, events, gatherings, or parties on weekends, and there’s no last-minute scramble to find a babysitter with uncertain outcome.  

You don’t have to immediately attend to every complaint your baby makes.  It’s OK to let them cry on their own for a few minutes if you need a break.  It’s also OK to wear earplugs while they’re wailing and you’re trying to care for them.  We got some construction-grade earmuffs for this purpose, and they’re amazing.  

There’s a provocative book called Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids (friend’s summary here!) that uses extensive data from twin adoption studies to show that, on average, the quality of parenting matters substantially less in terms of long term outcomes than most people think it does.  As long as you’re in a developed country and your parenting is good enough to not cause your children trauma, your parenting style does not have a large long-term effect on your children’s happiness, intelligence, motivation, religiosity, or health.  Instead, these are mostly determined by genetics, with some impact from peer group and other environmental factors.  Your parenting style can substantially impact other things, such as whether your children have positive memories of their childhood.  A recent Atlantic article explores some of the studies from the Selfish Reasons book and others in a nice short and balanced format.  The article points out that while parenting style may not have a strong impact, where you live can have an impact – different neighborhoods have different peer groups and cultural environments, and that impacts kids in a longer-term way.

This research on parenting styles, if true, is a surprisingly hard pill to swallow for parents who are used to having an outsized impact on their children’s life.  Part of the non-intuitiveness of it is that parents can make and observe large short-term impacts on their children, but those effects tend to fade once the parents are no longer actively managing their childrens’ lives.  To be honest, I still have trouble believing it, as I definitely feel like I got ahead in life thanks to special educational opportunities my parents hooked me up with.  In part that was a product of where I lived, but my parents chose to live in that area, and that in and of itself was a parenting decision even if the studies don’t count it as such.

If you selected a mating partner with traits you admire (which you hopefully did!), you can relax on the details of parenting.  By combining your genetics with theirs, you’re voting for the sort of babies you want, and that was the most important early parenting decision you could make.  

3. Follow the evidence, ignore the momsplaining

“Momsplaining” (n): When other people express strong unsolicited opinions about your parenting

Momsplaining is a surprisingly common phenomenon.  Total strangers feel entitled to weigh in on your parenting.  Perhaps it comes from the same social-norm-adhesion-pressure impulses that cause people to police each other’s sexuality or gender expression.  Here’s an example: Helen and I were once on our front porch with the baby on our way back from a stroller trip.  It was a mildly cold day. Helen was feeding the baby; she was happily sucking away while I was bringing the stroller up the stairs.  A woman walked by, yelled “Put a hat on that poor thing!”, and kept walking without waiting for a response.  It was a drive-by momsplaining, the catcalling act of the judgmental.   Our baby was fine – if she was too cold, she would have let us know.  

You’ll run into a lot of momsplaining not just from strangers, but from people you know, as well as from bloggers and the media.  Some of it is accurate, and some of it isn’t.  

Whenever possible, see if there is high quality research on parenting topics of concern.  There’s a great book called Cribsheet by Emily Oster, a behavioral economist who decided to aim her analytical skills at coming up with statistically informed answers to controversial parenting topics such as co-sleeping, screen time, sleep training, formula feeding, discipline, and more.  The book is very much worth reading, and if you want to get a quick sense of the content, here are my notes from it.

As an example, Cribsheet spends a lot of time dissecting the potential causes of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).  SIDS is the classic bogeyman of parenting groups, and over the last 40 years, American pediatricians have drastically changed their advice on baby sleep in order to reduce SIDS rates.  The prevailing advice now is that the baby must sleep on its back, alone, in an empty crib.  Blankets are dangerous suffocation hazards, and the mattress must be firm.  SIDS is undeniably a real phenomenon, but the truth is that it’s very rare (like 1 in 12,500 babies, mostly premature ones) for parents who are generally following good parenting practices.  However, SIDS also serves as a catchall label for parents who accidentally kill their infants out of carelessness.  There are very few randomized controlled trials to quantify the effects of various parental choices on SIDS, in part because SIDS is rare among parents with good habits.  However, observational data suggests that parents with other bad habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol are much more likely to have babies that die of SIDS.  Those may or may not be the direct causes of SIDS, but they speak to general bad parenting decisions.

Check out that bar on the far right – it’s 345 times taller than the one on the far left

Note that bed-sharing isn’t particularly dangerous on an absolute scale (1 in 4,545 chance of SIDS instead of 1 in 12,500) if you’re generally following other good principles.  

Cribsheet is full of wisdom like this; it will tell you what is and isn’t worth paying attention to, and you’ll have an island of sanity in the echo chamber of fear and guilt driven parenting discussions.

It’s worth digging a level deeper on advice or warnings you see to make sure they’re grounded in something real.  The media is often complicit in spreading exaggerated content to play on readers’ fears and get clicks.  Parenting groups on social media often engage in purity tests, in which status is assigned based on who works the hardest to minimize some risk or negative outcome.  If you move past all this and look for original source data, you’ll often find the threat is overblown.

For example, I was looking into ways of making the process of feeding a newborn while doing another task easier, and I did a social media post proposing some alternatives, like a wearable bottle holder or a bottle that dangles on a string from the baby recliner that the baby can use.  Several people jumped on me, pointing out that bottle propping leads to babies literally drowning in milk, and I’d be putting my baby’s life at risk if I didn’t hold the bottle and remain 100% attentive during feeding.  I spent a while researching this, and nearly all the articles I found on the dangers of bottle propping point to a single case in the mid-2010s where the baby was left unattended in a car seat for half an hour with a blanket propping a bottle in their mouth while the babysitter slept, so the sitter could neither see nor hear the baby. The autopsy also revealed that the baby had multiple injuries including broken legs, pointing to a very neglectful or straight-up abusive environment. Amazingly, every article around the world on bottle propping (from the UK to Australia) pointed at this case as an example of why not to do bottle propping, which leads me to believe that either such deaths are rare or this one death prompted every parenting blog and media company to write about it. The coroner in the case was quoted as saying not to do bottle propping unsupervised (as opposed to never doing bottle propping in general, which many of the articles state).  High-quality research on bottle propping is simply unavailable, or at least couldn’t be found with a few minutes of googling.

Bottle propping technique from a mom of triplets. If you’re caring for three babies at the same time, you can definitely tell all the momsplainers to stuff it.

I’m not saying bottle propping is always OK.  It does carry some risk, and when I’ve done it I’ve always been right next to the baby, watching her with my peripheral vision, and listening for any signs of trouble.  In addition, I’ve noticed that the flow rate with the nipple we use is almost nil if the she is not actively sucking.  She’ll also turn her head away, removing the nipple from her mouth, if she wants to stop drinking.  Our baby does this, but not all babies may do that.  You’ll need to experiment on your own baby to figure out how well they can handle various scenarios.  In part, the standard pediatrician advice (eg “never bottle prop”) is simple one-size-fits-all conservative advice that is mostly ok across a wide range of babies’ capabilities and limitations, minimizes the risk of a rare bad event, and is designed for sleep-deprived overwhelmed parents who want simple rules to follow. You can potentially come up with a better set of rules tailored to your baby by doing a bit of research to understand the risks from first principles, observing what your baby is capable of, and then figuring out what can be done within your risk tolerance.  

4. Streamline, automate, document

There are a lot of time-consuming and frequent baby care tasks, and anything you can do to make these tasks simpler, faster, or more enjoyable can make a big difference to both your free time as well as your enjoyment of the work.  

I’ll cover the most common daily tasks and some optimizations that are available.

Clothing and diaper changes

The average baby goes through about 7000 diaper changes from birth until the start of potty training.  Every second that you save on a diaper change routine is worth about two hours of your time.  Furthermore, for every diaper change, there are a couple of times you’ll be checking whether the baby needs a diaper change.  Suppose there are 14,000 diaper checks over this time, half of which don’t lead to a diaper change.  

Baby onesies come with three different types of fasteners – snaps, zippers, and magnets.  With a full length onesie, the snaps go down the legs.  This means that every diaper change will involve removing and then replacing around ten snaps.  Each snap takes maybe 4 seconds to replace, perhaps more if your baby is kicking in protest.  Removing and replacing all those snaps is maybe an average of 40 seconds in total per diaper change.  Just checking the diaper involves opening up and then closing maybe 3 snaps, for a total of maybe 10 seconds.  Over the course of the baby’s life before potty training, that’s (40 * 7000 + 10 * 7000) / 3600 = about 97 hours of time spent snapping and unsnapping those snaps.  In contrast, a zippered or magnetic onesie takes just a couple of seconds to do a diaper check, and maybe 10 seconds total to get them out of and then back in it for a diaper change.  

This. This is what you want. Open head to toe in a couple of seconds.

It’s up to you if you pursue cloth or disposable diapers.  Because cloth diapers require significant water, electricity, and heat for cleaning and drying, their carbon footprint is much less of an obvious win over disposable diapers than you might otherwise suspect.  Furthermore, they’ll still be a small fraction of your carbon footprint for the year.  Ultimately, it’s your time that matters, and you should do whatever feels good to you.

You’ll also be changing baby clothes a good bit as you go from warmer to colder environments, and it’s important to have outer layers that can be added and removed easily.  The same principles apply as above – anything that’s nontrivial to put on or remove is a waste of your time.  Infants especially hate garments that have to go over their head and arms in one go (such as t-shirts or t-shirt style onesies), and it’s very hard to put them on your baby when they’re still too weak to lift their heads or when their little arms fight all your attempts to put the sleeves in the proper places.

Make sure any baby clothes you get can all be run through the washer and dryer on regular settings; you want clothing maintenance to be fast and easy.

Feeding

Feeding babies is inherently time-consuming.  Their muscles for swallowing don’t work well at first, so they can’t handle high flow rates of milk.  Breasts tend to exude milk at a reasonable rate for infants, but bottles can vary substantially in their flow rates depending on what nipple you select.  

If you find that breastfeeding is a wonderful time to bond with your baby, great! However, if you feel it’s taking a lot of time and you’re looking for other options, they do exist!  There are now discreet wearable breast pumps that fit inside your bra and let you pump milk while going about your daily activities.  A friend of mine loves using them – she can express milk whenever she wants, and then she, her partner, or the nanny can bottle-feed the breastmilk to her baby when they’re awake and hungry.  

May be an image of one or more people and people standing
Wearable breast pumps – the best party trick I’ve seen in a while

If your baby is bottle-feeding, you can experiment with the nipple size until you find the right flow rate.  Regular term newborns often benefit from preemie (P) nipples for the first couple of weeks while they learn how to swallow properly. However, once your baby is drinking well, you can increase the nipple size, allowing them to drink more quickly.  

If you’re formula feeding, there are some steps you can take to simplify the preparation and cleanup process.  There are also machines (eg the Baby Brezza) that will automatically mix the formula for you so that it comes out warm in the correct proportions at the press of a button.  You can get dishwasher racks and standalone bottle parts washers that make the bottle washing process simpler and faster.  

Sleep

You will spend a lot of time putting your baby to sleep.  A newborn sometimes takes 10+ short naps a day, but even a 6-month-old still takes multiple naps a day. Infants tend to be bad at self-care tasks such as assessing when they’re getting tired, so you have to induce them to sleep or they’ll get overly tired and have a tantrum. Inducing them to sleep often takes a lot of time at first, on the order of 10-40 minutes.

I saw the following graph on Reddit before we had our baby, and it was sobering.  One parent decided to track and graph all of their baby’s sleep during their first year.  You can see the complete mess of round-the-clock short naps during the first couple of months gradually yield to a more steady pattern of two daytime naps and longer night sleep by 5 months.  

r/dataisbeautiful - Visualization of sleeping patterns in a newborn's first year [OC]
Some Redditor’s citizen science on their baby’s first year, with blue lines indicating sleep

If each of those sleep periods takes 10-40 minutes to wind the baby down, and there are several per day, you’re looking at possibly spending hundreds of hours helping your baby get to sleep, just in the first year.  

I’m hesitant to give advice on the best way to get your baby to sleep as it tends to vary from baby to baby, but there are a range of techniques that work on at least some babies, and it’s worth experimenting to see what works for yours.  Some babies like to be held when they sleep, especially when they’re just a couple of months old.  You can get a comfortable baby carrier (eg the Ergobaby) that lets you walk around and go about your day while the baby sleeps against your stomach.  Other babies like to be rocked to sleep, and there are machines like the Mama Roo and the Snoo that provide a nice rocking motion for them.  Some babies sleep more easily after a walk out in the cold; others sleep better after a bath.  In general, babies can be trained to associate particular cues (eg a bath, a lullaby, etc) with the time to go to sleep.  To a great degree, this process of helping them to sleep is unavoidable at first, and it is best to reframe this process as a bonding time where you’re in a meditative state and you help bring their energy down.  

Once babies reach 2-4 months, they can be trained to self-soothe to fall asleep on their own.  This process is called sleep training, and while it’s still seen as somewhat controversial, there is extensive research showing no negative short or long term effects on the baby, and many positive effects for the parents.  Sleep training involves putting the baby in the crib while they’re still awake and then letting them cry on their own for a bit while they get used to your absence.  There are various methods that involve checking in on the baby at certain time intervals or making the process more gradual so that they never feel abandoned, even for a few minutes, but the end result is generally the same.  If done consistently, sleep training can reduce the amount of time you spend putting your baby to sleep to just a couple of minutes of active attention followed by passive listening on the baby monitor.  

As a final note, app-based video sleep monitors are very useful if your baby sleeps in their own room. We use the Nanit, and it’s great.  The default notifications are overkill, but the audio / video stream is a great way of being able to move around the house while listening to your baby sleep, and checking in to make sure they’re OK if they awaken and start making noise.

Documentation

It’s helpful to have records of baby activities such as sleeping, eating, activities and diaper changes, especially with different people taking care of the baby at different times.  These records allow any of the caregivers to look for patterns or diagnose problems, and with six different people coming in at different times in our case, this has been very useful.  We ended up defaulting to paper as opposed to any app-based solution as it was immediate, flexible, and required no learning curve.  Over the last few months, we were able to quickly catch and solve feeding issues, sleep issues, infections, and other surprises, even if they unfolded across shifts. Documentation takes a bit of time in the moment, but it saves a lot of time in catching issues early and getting them dealt with.  You never have to reach back into the haze of confusion in your mind to remember some crucial detail of baby care from a couple of days ago.

A day in the life of our almost-6-month-old

Why we do this

I don’t want to give the impression that we see baby care as a task to get done or another to-do on a long to-do list.  We love spending time with our baby. In part it helps that we’ve given ourselves enough breathing room and enough boundaries that the time we do have with the baby feels special as opposed to relentless. When we get the occasional unexpected diaper blowout it’s actually hilarious as opposed to yet another setback.  Our time with the baby is spent connecting, sharing in her wonder and curiosity, and celebrating her progress at understanding her body and mind.  

We get to experience her making delightful discoveries, like when she realized that she can use her arms to affect physical objects:

Or when she finally realized that tummy time is a state she can enter or leave whenever she wants:

It’s been a great journey so far, and we’re hoping this post helps provide a framework for helping anticipate and navigate some of the challenges of early parenthood.  Enjoy!