What Life with a Newborn is Actually Like? The Biggest Lessons I learned Once my Baby Arrived

Published by 
Jess Miller
Last updated: 
April 6, 2024

I remember the day my baby was born. Nothing was more wonderful than holding her for the first time and I wanted nothing more than to spend time with her. However, while as amazing it is to have your first child, it is also a steep learning curve that I didn’t prepare for well, because simply put I had never had a kid before.

I should have listened more to veteran moms while pregnant but for some reason I just didn’t believe them. They seemed to paint newborn life in a negative view point and I felt that people just like to complain. I would be different. (Well it turns out, there are reasons those first six weeks are magical and hard AF).

Here are the biggest things I would tell myself before my first baby was born.

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What is life with a newborn actually like?

Your birth will change how your postpartum time starts out.

I am not talking c-section versus vaginal delivery. That of course will change how your recovery goes, but I am talking about how exhausted you are when you start mom life. I was so focused on getting through birth and preparing for birth that I completely forgot to include thinking about the first few days with a baby.

My first birth was really long, over 18 hours and started at 10pm. By the time I hit the 12th hour of labor, I was so spent. I wasn’t even really there anymore. I needed to rest, and the midwife knew that. I got the epidural and slept for 6 hours until it was time to push. I pushed for two hours and fell asleep between pushes. By the time my little one arrived, I really needed to sleep for like 15 hours straight, but I now had a newborn I needed to care for. I wasn’t going to be sleeping for longer than 2 hours for a while. Caring for a newborn while being so spent was awful and it delayed my recovery, hurt my ability to enjoy those first weeks.

Fast-forward to my second birth and I got the epidural right away, slept through labor and was refreshed and ready to meet my baby. I was able to spend more time with my baby and even my toddler when she came to visit.

What is sleep deprivation like with a new baby?

And here is the biggest catch of all, it didn’t just affect my first few days postpartum. It took until 3-4 months before I felt at all recovered sleep-wise with my first. I felt recovered in about a week after my second was born simply because I didn’t start out in such bad shape.

If you still want that natural pregnancy and birth, you need to prepare to increase your odds of labor progressing as quickly as possible. Yes, I know this can sometimes be completely out of your control, but certain techniques and pain management skills will really help your chances. To start sign up for Mama Natural’s weekly how to have a natural pregnancy tips and take a birth class.

Breastfeeding relies on communication (crying).

Breastfeeding is a decision that I decided on before my baby was born. I knew of the benefits and wanted nothing more than to succeed at it. The best way to succeed is to learn as much as you can and find support before your baby arrives.

Frequency of nursing (not how long baby nurses) actually controls your supply. Babies are smart and know how to increase your supply when they need to. They will fuss and cry, which is their way of saying feed me.

In fact, crying is a late hunger sign. Baby will eat their hands, turn their head side to side and root. (Here is me having no idea my baby is rooting).

How fast is breastmilk digested?

Babies are small and therefore their tummies are small. Breastmilk is so nutritious and good for them but it is easy to digest. Breastmilk can be digested in 30-60 minutes. This means that they fill their tiny tummies and then can be hungry again very soon. Only baby can tell you when they are hungry so listen to them.

What is it like when your milk comes in?

Your milk won’t come in for a few days but to get your body to produce milk, and to continually match baby’s demands, you need to nurse baby a lot. Once your milk does come in, it will continually change and grow in quantity. As it does that, you will leak a lot. It will be messy and frustrating. BUT don’t stop, as you get further along, you stop leaking and baby will eventually latch like a pro.

Breastfeeding is a relationship. Your baby is trying to learn how to latch and nurse just like you. You might think baby isn’t hungry because they cry when you bring them to the breast when in fact baby is like “finally!” You might also have a really hard time getting them to latch. I remember way too many times when I literally had a nipple in her mouth and my baby was frantically moving her head back and forth. She was frantic because she was so hungry.

It also helped me to remember that breastmilk is their food and water. Just like how I like to have water and food all day, not just at specific intervals, baby also likes that and it’s best for baby that way. For instance, baby might be on and off more in the summer because she is trying to stay cool and hydrated.

To help you latch baby, think “swaddle”

I had this idea that breastfeeding my newborn would be peaceful and picturesque. At times, it was. Specifically, I would nurse my baby right when she started to stir to wake. This would allow me to catch her before she got frantic and was awake enough to know she was super hungry. Newborns only wake for one thing: to nurse.

Even knowing that all my newborn wanted to do was nurse and that her crying and being difficult to latch onto a breast was her way of communicating that she was hungry, I would get so frustrated trying to latch her.

And finally when I manage to get her latched, she would come off screaming when the milk started flowing because she couldn’t keep up with the intense letdown (flow) of milk. I would have milk spraying everywhere and finally after covering everything in milk, I would get her on again.

To help you through this frustrating phase, which gets tremendously better as your baby gets more practice with nursing and gets bigger, you need to remember that the ways you calm a baby, still apply to when you nurse them. In other words, if baby feels the Moro reflex while you are trying to latch, they won’t latch.

Nursing positions to latch a fussy baby

When you hold your baby to nurse, ensure their arms aren’t flailing. Make sure their legs aren’t dangling. Try to hold them secure. When that isn’t working, try these non-traditional breastfeeding positions that literally were sometimes the only way I could get my baby to nurse.

1. Stand and sway/bounce while you latch and nurse

Standing and bouncing or swaying while shhh-ing was always really helpful. I would do this first to calm baby. I would then take a boob out and allow them to latch while I still moved. The movement kept baby calm and as a result they would latch and stay latched. I also found it easier to hold all of their limbs tight so baby was happier.

2. Nurse in a bathtub

The warm water is so calming for baby. Fill the tub so you can sit in it and have the water be below your boobs when you are sitting. Then cradle baby in your arms so their body is in the water while they nurse.

3. The “dip a boob”

Lay baby on their back on a surface such as a bed and then literally dangle a boob over their mouth. The bed will hold the baby and you can concentrate on getting a boob into their mouth. I also would manually express some into baby’s mouth if they were screaming. Once baby got some milk, they would usually calm down enough, and I would nurse them like this for a while until I could switch to a more comfortable position.

4. The couch crease or the bed

Sometimes I would place baby so her back was in the crease and then I would lay on my side facing her. I would then nurse her laying down. The couch crease is great because it cocoons them and you also get to lay down. You can also nurse in bed but I don’t like hiking all the way up the stairs to bed that many times a day.

While it can be tricky to nurse a newborn while laying down, keep trying this one as baby gets older. Nursing in bed is the best. You can rest and it’s so cozy and comfy.

I needed to learn HALT

HALT is an acronym I learned with a new toddler. It applies mainly to toddlers, but I found it also really applied to me, my other half and our baby.

HALT means to stop and it stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired.

By remembering this simple acronym, I would try to always stop and check all four letters to see what the real reason behind the fighting might be. Usually, it is a mixture. Once I address one or two, such as take a nap, have a snack, call a friend or go for a walk, I realize I am not actually upset. I now apply this to my toddler and then I usually know why the meltdown occurred.

Here is how I experienced each of these and went about finding ways to help me through this.

H: Hunger

I couldn’t really fathom that it was going to be hard to eat but a newborn is literally a 24/7 job. Add in breastfeeding and you will have a crazy appetite. You are also recovering from birth and in no shape to be cooking. You need to be resting.

Dinner time is also the worst since newborns fall apart in the evening and need to nurse constantly to get through the witching hours.

Start meal prepping today so you have a stock of ready-to-go meals. Make a standard grocery list so your other half or a family member can help you out and make sure your fridge is stocked with healthy options.

A: Angry

Newborns are frustrating especially if you have a colic baby. You also might have zero idea why baby is colic. Nothing is more frustrating than feeling like you are failing at being a mother because you can’t soothe your baby.

The worst is when people tell you that newborns cry or they might just be colic. Instead, get online and start finding out what others have done that has helped. My first was “colic” and it turns out she had a dairy intolerance, so she was in a lot of tummy pain. Even if you never find out why, troubleshooting will decrease the crying and make your newborn happier and thus make you happier.

Cole and I also learned an important lesson, we realized that for the first time ever, how each parent spends their time directly affected the other parent. Before having kids, if one of us decided to do an evening sport or go out with friends, it wasn’t a big deal. Now, that means that one parent is left to do the evening shift all by themselves. You will need to start to consider how your actions affect your partner. Spend some time preparing your relationship for baby so your communication is solid, and your goals are on par with each other.

L: Lonely

So many people go through pregnancy and having kids but they all do it alone. I’m not talking about support here, I am talking about experiencing it. You experience your pregnancy, birth and child in a way that no one can copy. It is a unique and individual experience which makes it wonderful but at times lonely. You might not always be able to find someone to talk to especially if you don’t have a lot of friends with kids yet.

I knew no one with little ones when I had my first and by week 6, I had had it with staying home and having no adults to talk to and relate to. I recommend you get out of the house much sooner. Best is to do this while you are pregnant. Find some pregnancy groups through your prenatal provider. Start investigating where moms with young ones hang out. Find programs like story time at the library. Find breastfeeding support groups. This way when the time comes, you will have plenty of options.

T: Tired

I have yet to find a mom who isn’t tired. This one was the worst for me because I know I am horrible to be around if I haven’t slept. I also think this one is hard because it isn’t just one night of bad sleep. It’s like a year of roller coaster sleep.

You will slowly get your nights back as baby gets older but even if they are sleeping through the night, there are always issues that pop up like teething, separation anxiety, regressions, and illnesses. And sleeping through the night by the way is technically only 5 hours, so that means if baby went to bed at 7 pm and sleeps till midnight, your baby “slept through the night”. Most babies don’t accomplish this until a few months old.

If your little ones are up so much at night, it means you are up too. Try your hardest to find ways to get extra sleep. Take naps when you can. Also if I was up too long, it was hard for me to fall asleep again meaning I lost even more precious sleep.

I found that anything I could do to ensure baby could easily fall back asleep after a feeding was critical. This includes nightlights so I didn’t have to turn on the big lights, knowing how to dress baby for night based on the temperature, and how to do a bedtime routine that resulted in sleep. I have written an extensive guide on creating the perfect sleeping environment, which is your first step to actually getting any sleep.

Keeping baby close to me (sleeping in the same room) was really essential to me because I worried less because she was closer and I could get to her faster before she became really upset and really awake. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends co-rooming because it reduces the chance of SIDS.

You will be their world

This is the greatest and yet hardest part of motherhood. When your child is born, they want nothing but to be held, carried, nursed and loved by you. After a few weeks if you pay attention, you will realize that your face and voice is their favorite. They spend every moment studying your face while they nurse if they aren’t asleep. From the day they are born, they see best at the distance between your breast and your face.

At 6 weeks when they start to smile, they will smile most for you. They might even want to show off their new coo-ing at 2 months in the middle of the night when its only you two. Their favorite word will be mama and they will soon be running into your arms.

You are their everything and nothing feels more amazing than being able to make them happy. However, in the beginning this means they will fuss and cry more at you. They will say by crying “oh finally, I am in my mom’s arms”. Please feed me! And if you decide to breastfeed, which is the best decision I made with my babies, you will be the only one who can feed them. So you have every night shift and every day shift.

They might only want you to hold them. They will probably only want to sleep in your arms. After all, nothing compares to listening to your heartbeat, a sound they have come to love. However, every nap and doing every bedtime is hard.

You will find yourself struggling to catch a 5 minute shower or even to find ways to feed yourself. There have been many evenings where I stood bouncing while eating dinner with a baby in a carrier on me.

Know that you don’t suck at motherhood. Know that you aren’t crazy. EVERYONE is finding ways to make it work, whatever works for you and your baby, do it.

Your new title should be detective

Having a colic baby taught me a lot and to be honest, made me a better parent. I had to learn to observe and find out ways to help her without her being able to tell me. I would learn her routine, her signs that she was hungry or her sleep signs. The more I observed, the more I learned and the easier it became.

I could act preventively instead of always just responding. This also decreased crying a lot since I would be able to care for her needs before she was even upset. Having a happier baby meant I was less spent and less frustrated.

To start, know what the common hunger signs are and the common tired signs are.

Early Hunger Signs: Hand to mouth, turning head side to side and rooting

Late Hunger Sign: Crying

Tired Signs: Yawning, not making eye contact, rubbing eyes, rubbing nose, staring off into space.

At first you can really go by… if baby is awake, they are hungry. As the weeks go by, baby will start to have awake times. Knowing what the average awake time is for that age is helpful. You can find these online. However, I warn you to not follow a schedule.

Follow your baby’s cues. Your baby knows when they are hungry or tired. A hungry baby will never sleep well. Additionally, you could also be dealing with burps, farts or poops so pay attention to your baby’s disposition. It will change depending on their needs.

Lastly, it won’t last forever

If I had a nickel for every time someone came up to me and told me it goes by so fast, I would be so rich. These people have blocked out all of those sleepless nights or long days. It really is true that parenthood is where the days are long, but the years are short.

If you aren’t in the thick of it, you don’t remember how exhausting it is so I am telling you this. You will sleep again. You will have time for yourself again. Your baby will grow up. It is okay to have the messy house and it is okay to take time to adjust to your new role as mom.

It is very hard to embrace this without feeling frustrated on a daily basis, but I don’t want you to wish it away because it is hard.

I never thought my first would not be a baby but here I am today with a toddler and a new baby. This time around, I know it goes by fast so I am just embracing the chaos.

I hope you find your bliss in motherhood despite the insanity of it all and remember to that little baby, you are their world.

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