Baby Boot Camp: How to Navigate the Newborn Period

Use this cheat sheet to handle the first seven days with your newborn like a seasoned veteran.
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By Lauren A. Greene, Deputy Editor
Updated June 11, 2020
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You made it through nine+ months and childbirth—now what? Week one will be an endless merry-go-round of sleeping, eating and changing diapers, made even crazier by your postbirth exhaustion and new-parent anxiety. But trust us, you can do it—especially if you’re prepared with what to expect. Since you won’t have a drill instructor on hand to coach you, we thought we’d give you some expert pointers to help get you through it.

Newborn Sleep

Make day and night drastically different

If you want to get something resembling a good night’s sleep in the near future, make it your mission to help baby learn to distinguish day from night. This means exposing your infant to noises and daylight during the day and keeping nighttime about quiet and darkness. When baby wakes at night, make your encounter all business: Feed them, burp them, change them and put them back in the crib. Save conversation and playtime for daytime.

Let baby sleep in your room

Invest in a bed-side bassinet or wheel in the crib so baby can sleep in your room (but not your bed) during those early weeks. Not only does room-sharing decrease the risk of SIDS, it also makes getting used to middle-of-the-night feedings less stressful, since you’ll barely have to leave your bed. If you’re bottle feeding, consider storing some supplies right in your room.

Keep baby comfy

New parents have the tendency to over-bundle baby. As a rule of thumb, put your newborn in one extra layer than what you’re comfortable in. So if you’re fine in a T-shirt in your house, put baby in a lightweight onesie with a swaddled blanket over it. Look to your little one for cues: If their hands feel cold, their head looks sweaty or they develop heat rash, dress them up or down accordingly. Babies tend to feel a little warmer to the touch. Try to get in lots of skin-to-skin bonding time in the hospital and the days after so you start learning what baby’s normal body temperature feels like.

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Let go of perfection

Baby isn’t going to keep a predictable schedule anytime soon, so don’t expect them to. Instead, follow the tried-and-true “sleep when baby sleeps” advice. That means forgetting about the sink full of dirty dishes and taking a nap—because you never know when you’ll get your next opportunity. Rest is definitely more important than cleaning in these first few weeks.

Newborn Crying

Keep a mental checklist

Adjusting to life outside the womb is exhausting, and newborns tend to sleep a lot (at least during the first several days). That means baby may not be as vocal as you were expecting that first week. But if baby is crying and you don’t know how to make them stop, don’t freak out. It takes a while to get to know what baby needs, and until you do, simply rely on trial and error. First, start with the basics. Could baby be hungry or have a dirty diaper? Try feeding or changing them. Once you’ve ruled those out, consider your infant’s comfort level. Are they hot? Cold? Do they just need something soothing? Adjust the thermostat or their clothing, hold them close and rock them or play music or white noise until something starts to work. It’s okay—and totally normal—if you’re not able to read baby like a book right away. It’ll come with time.

Seek help

Frequent crying or fussing can be stressful, but take comfort in knowing the crying itself doesn’t hurt baby. And because it’s too much to deal with every single cry yourself—especially in those first few weeks home when you’re exhausted and overwhelmed—remember to share the load with your partner and accept help from others as much as possible so you get a break. If you suspect something’s wrong (you’ve got those parental instincts now!), take baby to the pediatrician. They could have a chronic condition, such as reflux or a protein allergy, both of which are treatable, and babies usually grow out of them—whew!

Newborn Feeding and Diaper Changes

Read baby’s signals

So how much are you supposed to feed baby, anyhow? If you’re nursing, it’s hard to tell, since you won’t have bottles with ounce markings to gauge baby’s intake. But luckily, babies seem to know when they’ve had enough. Regardless of whether baby is breast- or bottle-fed, they should seem drowsily content right after eating, and in that first week as well as the next few, they’ll probably fall asleep for two or three hours once they’re full (hello, milk coma!). Be careful, though—some babies want to suck on something, whether they’re hungry or not. If sucking on a finger or pacifier calms baby, then they don’t need to eat any more.

Do diaper checks

The other indicator that baby is eating enough is their output, so keep track of those diapers (your doctor might ask for specific numbers at checkups).  In the first four days, newborns may only pee two to four times a day, but then they should start to wet about 6 to 12 diapers daily. As for newborn poop, the number isn’t so straightforward. Baby should poop at least once in the first 24 hours, but if not, 98 percent of babies poop by the second day. From then on baby could soil five or more diapers a day (especially if you breastfeed), or they could go up to 7 to 10 days without a dirty diaper and be perfectly healthy (as long as they’re not showing signs of discomfort). Just beware of hard, pellet-like poop; it could be a sign baby is constipated.

Know your colors

Within baby’s first couple of days, they’ll have a black stool known as meconium—that’s a product of all the stuff they “ate” in utero. After that, for an exclusively breastfed baby, newborn poop will get lighter brown before turning yellow with a seedy look to it. But no matter how you feed baby, their poop could be yellow, brown or green—all of which are totally normal. If it’s red, black (beyond those first couple days) or white, though, it could mean there’s a problem, so notify baby’s pediatrician if you see any of those weird colors.

Image: Lindsey Balbierz

Keep an eye on weight

Bet you didn’t know baby will likely lose up to 10 percent of their birth weight in the first three to seven days. Well, it’s true and it’s totally normal—they’re just shedding some of that fluid retained from the womb, plus they’re burning more calories now that they’re free to move around. After that, baby may gain about 5 to 7 ounces a week during the first month. Your pediatrician will help you measure and track baby’s progress and alert you if their weight gain or loss is a cause for concern.

Be flexible

Like we mentioned before, baby doesn’t know how to follow a clock. Sure, there are newborns who are perfectly fine eating every three hours on the dot. If yours is one of those, lucky you! Others might be hungry closer to every two hours, or “cluster feed,” meaning they want what seems like back-to-back feedings. (This tends to be common in the evening, so be prepared.) Seeing how some babies take as long as 45 minutes for a feeding, you might have days where you feel like all you’ve done is feed your baby. That’s totally normal. And on those days, remember: That’s a very important thing to have accomplished!

Newborn Bathing and Umbilical Cord Care

Protect the umbilical cord

Baby’s immune system kicks in as soon as that umbilical cord is clamped, and this is the first chance the body has to heal a wound. Treat baby’s belly button with care until the cord shrivels up and falls off in about one to two weeks. Keep it dry and let it breathe: Look for newborn diapers with a notch cut out for the belly button, or just fold the diaper down and away from the navel, and dress baby in looser fitting clothes, like kimono-style onesies or baby tees. As the stump dries, it might snag on baby’s clothes. If that happens, you can put a small piece of dry gauze over it for protection. Although infections of the umbilicus are rare, call the doctor if the wound gets very red or swollen, is actively bleeding, smells foul or if pus oozes out.

Stick to sponge baths

Since the umbilical cord can’t get wet, you won’t want to submerge baby in a full bath until the stump falls off. Instead, opt for a sponge bath. Clean baby’s face, neck, hands and diaper area with warm water (no soap) and a soft cloth. If baby’s navel looks sticky or moist, gently clean the skin (not the cord) around it with a slightly damp cotton ball.

Keeping Baby Healthy

Confirm your first doctor’s appointment

Before you leave the hospital, ask when to follow up with your pediatrician. If baby is at risk for jaundice or losing too much weight, your doctor will let you know and want you to follow up within 72 hours or so. Healthy babies should see their pediatrician at least one time before the end of that first week.

Avoid large crowds

A newborn’s immune system has a lot of developing to do, so something as run-of-the-mill as a fever could land them in the ER. You’ll want to avoid letting baby get passed around a crowded room of people. If you have people visit in the first few weeks, have family and friends come see you in small groups or individually rather than going to a large party. Ask anyone who holds baby to wash their hands first, and politely ask sick people to postpone their visit. Feeling cooped up? If the weather’s nice it’s okay to take baby out for a little fresh air and a short walk around the neighborhood as long as they’re bundled accordingly and you steer clear of crowded areas or people who might try to touch them.

Get yourself immunized

You, your partner and anyone else who will care for baby should make sure they’re up to date on vaccinations. Particularly important are the Tdap vaccine, which helps prevent whooping cough, and the seasonal flu vaccine. If baby’s inner circle isn’t sick, your little one is much less likely to catch something. Baby won’t get their first set of shots until around their two-month birthday, which will give their immune system a bit of a boost against some communicable diseases.

Watch for changes

The first few weeks will be spent getting to know baby’s signals, habits, likes and dislikes, and nobody will know your child better than you and your partner. If something veers from their usual pattern (for example, they’re normally a vigorous eater and then suddenly refuses to feed), it’s time to check in with the doctor. Other red flags: forceful vomiting, a rectal fever above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or below 96.4, coughing, diarrhea, jaundice or breathing problems.

About the Expert:

Cheryl Wu, MD, is a pediatrician at LaGuardia Place Pediatrics in New York City and a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. She earned her medical degree from the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey in 2003.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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