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How to baby – start here

Hi! As I’ve managed to keep my kid alive for nearly a year and a half now, I thought I’d write up a bit my experience and tips, in case it is useful for someone out there. Mandatory disclaimer: what worked for me may very well not fit you, and anyway there are a trillion ways to raise healthy kids. My general attitude has been “this is quite a ride, so let’s try to make life as easy as possible.”

Some suggestions are specific to Switzerland, but most are more general. The relevant context is that I was a single mum during the pregnancy (single pre-mum?) and the first months of the kid’s life, so this should apply to some single parents. I was also very lucky health-wise and with my support network.

Stuff to buy

Books: Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Cribsheet. Much has been written about this data-driven take on pregnancy and infancy. Trust me, it helps so much. Get them early on in the pregnancy, and you will have a much more relaxed experience. Expecting Better has a blind spot about planned c-sections, more on this below. After the birth: Precious Little Sleep by Alexis Dubief. 

Podcasts & online advice: To Birth and Beyond, by Jessie Mundel and Anita Lambert. They are super inclusive and talk about all matters related to pregnancy, child birth and the post-natal period, from mental and physical health to all sorts of logistics. Once the baby is a few months old: Respectful Parenting by Janet Lansbury (if you don’t like podcasts, her website has all the transcripts). Slate’s Care and Feeding advice column is excellent, and feels like a window into the kid’s future years. 

You will thank me later: noise-cancelling bluetooth headphones, foot massager, vibrator, cushions, audiobooks, meditation app. You may think that some of these items can be replaced by the organic equivalent, but when you stumble on demand-and-supply mismatches, these items go a long way to keep everyone sane. For example, I had swollen feet every day of the last trimester of pregnancy.

Basic economics of baby stuff: if an item’s physical half-life is much longer than the baby’s usage of it, parents will pop up from everywhere trying to pass them on to you. You don’t need to buy these items. Examples: clothes, cribs, toys, some changing tables. Relax, and if these don’t come to you, ask on social media (eg facebook groups for resales). It will rain onesies. I bought vacuum bags, sort the clothes by size and stuffed them in a drawer. Every couple of months I open the drawer, take out the next bag of clothes, and pass on the old ones to my friends who have a younger kid.  Conversely, stuff that doesn’t significantly outlive the baby’s usage of it does not easily trickle down to new parents. Examples: cloths, bibs, bottles, Tripp Trapp chairs, those changing tables that convert into desks. The small things make great cheap presents and you can’t really go too wrong or have too many, so suggest them to friends.

Nappies and wet wipes: Buy them online in bulk. Friends: if you don’t know what to give new parents, give them nappies of a size a bit larger than now. 

Transporting the baby: I inherited a beautiful buggy from a friend, but I only used it in the first couple of months, while recovering from the c-section. After that I’ve always used a carrier (in this case the Ergobaby 360 Air). At 15 months and 12kg, it’s getting a bit much, but shortly before his birthday I got a baby seat for my bike (Thule RideAlong) which is great and should last a few years. At 14 months I got him a little scooter, and while it’s a learning process, he definitely enjoys it. I decided to to bypass strollers because there’s lots of steps in my building, not so much space in public transport, and I’m quite clumsy — for me the carrier is just more practical. But this depends on your circumstances and lots of people are happy with them! 

We were still experimenting with the riding gear back then.

Baby sleep: had I known what I know today, I would have bought a baby “dondolo” (a sort of swing, something like this). You can use it for the first 4-6 months (until they start crawling), and it’s magic to make the baby sleep. Childcare people know all about it. Also, sleeping bags for the baby — in general I recommend following the suggestions of Precious Little Sleep. After that, a crib the baby can’t climb. As it happened, he slept in my bed for the first eight months or so, which was super sweet at first… but my life improved greatly for me once I moved him to the crib and into his own room. 

Social

So. This whole thing has many, many moments of deep loneliness. From what I hear, this is true even for partnered people, which may be unexpected at first, and it may be good to go into it knowing that no matter how loving people around you are, it will sometimes feel scary, crushing and… just lonely. It will be ok, and it helps to prepare. You will need the following categories of people: 

Your people: partner, friends, family. Let them know that sometimes you will just need hugs, tea and a mountain of pillows to lie on. Sometimes you will need to go for a walk and hear about something, anything else. Often you’ll need them to bring you food and distractions, or an ear to listen. Ask for support. 

People going through the same: these people you find through social media (local facebook mum and parenting groups, reddit) or by asking friends with kids. You want to be part of a group of people with similar due dates who meet now and then to share experiences. I’m part of such a cohort: we found each other on facebook and one of them created a lovely WhatsApp group. We met before the babies were born, sent out photos as they started coming, shared loads of local tips (like emergency contacts, paediatrician tips, cafés with comfy chairs and changing tables, activities for rainy days)… But it’s mostly just relaxing to know these people who are going through similar experiences at the same time. That thing that none of your friends gets? They’ll get it. 

Neighbours with kids of the same age: priceless.

Families with young kids: for spoilers, and to let you know that it will be all right. One of the things that helped me the most during my pregnancy was hanging out with a friend and her two-year old kid. 

Visitors are only allowed if they bring food. Start enforcing this on the third trimester of pregnancy (earlier, if it’s a tough one), and keep it on for as long as you manage to get away with it. If someone forgets to bring food, no problem! They can order in, or make up for it by cleaning or holding the baby while you shower. Seriously, it may sound petty now but please enforce this; it’s about your energy and mental health. If anyone complains you can send them to me. 

Good surprises

Changing nappies is trivial. The first week is tricky, because that green poop of the first week (meconium) is super sticky, and you think “oh well, I guess this is love” while you scrub, the baby cries, and soothing jazz fills your noise-cancelling headphones (see, they are useful), but then babies transition to normal(ish) poop and I swear, it’s so easy. Also, in the beginning they hate being naked and cold, and will cry their lungs out, and this gets better in the first couple of months. 

Physically, everything gets so much easier immediately after the birth. I couldn’t stand up for a day, and it took a week until I could proper walk, there was this whole new human being needing me full time, I was bleeding for two weeks and on pain killers for three, everything was a bit scary, breastfeeding took a while to work out and hurt like crazy at first, but y’all… I could breathe! Mere existence wasn’t tiring, and my metabolism normalised! Sleeping was comfortable without a pillow nest! There’s a lot to be said for not having a small person squeezing your organs from the inside. 

Babies are relatively portable.

There’s a lot you can do while the baby is small, like going on hikes, visiting museums, some level of exercising, meeting friends (if safe). In general anything that’s about walking outside will be tolerated, even enjoyed, by the little one. Things the baby won’t be happy about: opening your laptop and trying to work.

The kid was cute from the start but he started being fun at around 7 months. Once they start crawling they are just so much happier! It’s been getting better and better since then. Hold on during these first few months, think of them like bootcamp, and know that this too shall pass. Promise. 

There was only a short window between “I can take him everywhere and he’ll sleep on the café’s table” and “I can take him everywhere and he’ll sit on the café’s highchair.” That window coincided with the first lockdown of 2020. 

Sleep training works, and life is just so much better when you can sleep through the night. 

Maybe I’m lucky, but I feel that selective memory (plus sleep deprivation) leads to us forgetting the bad stuff. I vaguely remember thinking “I’m never going through this again” at eight months pregnant, “surely all second children are accidents” when the bub was a couple of months old and “argghhh how do people survive this, where is my brain” during the lockdown around six months. And now, now I find myself fondly thinking “ah maybe the second way around it would be much smoother, maybe making another little person would be fun” a few times a week. Go figure. 

Your body recovers. Functionally I can do everything just as well as before the pregnancy. Scars heal. It’s ok to take it slow. Journey before destination. 

C-section scar after a year. That’s all.

The internet knows it all. There are online communities for everything, there’s solid medical information out there, and googling “what colour poop 3 week baby” is strangely reassuring.

Best decisions

Having a planned c-section. If this is possible in your country, please look into in. “Natural” child birth is a lottery where the best outcome is “hours of pain” and the worst go from vaginal tears to emergency c-section, PTSD, internal damage and all sorts of complications. It’s infuriating that pregnant people aren’t given more information about other options. Here I could opt for a planned c-section for free, but the briefing with doctors where they explained the risks  (and tried to dissuade me) was lacking, to say the least: they list all the possible consequences, but not the associated probabilities. For example: “there could be this rupture here which leads to problems with a second pregnancy.” ‘Ok, what is the probability of that happening?’ “About one in a thousand.” And so on. If I hadn’t asked, they would have left that out. Complications are much, much more likely in vaginal births, but women who choose to have one don’t get the talk to discuss risks, maybe because it’s taken to be the default option, and partly because the healthcare system tends to dismiss women’s pain and experiences. One day I’ll wage a war agains the whole industry that glorifies “natural methods” and shames women out of even learning about alternatives. My experience: the surgery was relatively quick and painless, and the baby was totally fine. Recovery didn’t take significantly longer than that of vaginal births; I was dancing in less than two weeks, and knew what to expect. Your body, your choice, but please research all the options and don’t let yourself be pressured by anyone else, family included. 

Formula: It took me a couple of months to see this, but then I started making very liberal use of baby milk formula. Pumping is… tiring, and you need to be lucky with the timing (ideally you’d want a 1h cushion between pumping and breastfeeding the baby, and if he ever gave me a 2h break I’d rather sleep). I breastfed for a little over a year, but complementing with formula helped me take breaks (see below). Whatever formula you buy will be fine, these things are highly regulated; for research on this read Cribsheet. In Switzerland I use Bimbosan bio soya, which is vegan. 

Baby-led weaning is great. You’ll want to cover the floor in a two-meter radius.

Taking at least one hour a day of personal time away from the baby, from the beginning. You’ll need this. For me it was leaving him with a nanny and going to teach tango or just out for a coffee (pre-pandemic). If you have a partner, take shifts where one of you gets to leave the home and not be disturbed for one or two hours. Personal time must be conquered from childcare like Dutch land from the relentless sea. These breaks refreshed me and essentially saved my sanity. Yes, sometimes the baby cried when I left (I am his favourite person after all) but having a live human and not a zombie for a mum was much more important in the long run. Using breaks for sports and dance was particularly clever. By the way, formula helps to leave the baby alone. 

Starting childcare very early: kid has been going to nursery since he was four months old. This has been amazing for everyone. They are professionals, have lots of kids around for company, activities that keep him engaged, playful and learning, and I… I get to work and be a person. He’s happy to be there within five minutes of drop-off, and happy to see me in the evening. They observe his development and tell me about his day. It’s amazing. If you can afford it, I recommend it, even if it’s only a few days a week at first. Again, formula helps here! 

Taking “this is a long game” as a guiding principle in what regards the baby’s bio father. I only found out I was pregnant at five months (long story), we had split up four months prior and live in different countries. This wasn’t easy for either of us. Was there mutual resentment? Some, how could it not? The news caught us off guard and changed everything, just when we thought we were free. Focussing on kindness and “this is what I need from you now, let’s see how things develop” was challenging at best, but it was a good approach. The key was: venting with friends, keeping things as friendly as possible between us. Not as in pretending that we were ok; just an acknowledgement that it was a difficult and awkward situation, and that we were doing our best trying to take it easy.  What worked for us: agreeing on an alimony plan, visits every few months, and a flexible attitude. I have full custody and no unrealistic expectations on his role – we provide opportunities for him and the kid to get to know each other, and then it will be up to them how close they want to be. If you’re in such a situation: you’ll be ok. The bitterness goes and if you’re lucky, after a while you can reforge a friendship. Also, whenever your former partner does or says something disappointing, you get to think “wow, I’m so glad this is not my problem anymore,” and that’s amazing.

I’m not sure how this advice applies to couples. The nicest thing about being a single mum was not having to manage the baby and negotiations about how to raise him and a romantic relationship all at the same time. Now I’m seeing someone who loves the kid to bits. It’s wonderful! And… oof, not trivial to navigate. I may write again when we figure it out (cue to seasoned parents laughing at our innocence). 

Continuing therapy: Given the circumstances of the pregnancy and my history, I was quite scared of falling into postpartum depression. To address this, I booked regular therapy appointments during and after the pregnancy. This was a good call, like a safety net. I was lucky and felt generally good, but it was nice to know that if I slipped there would be medical help around the corner.

Taking life with a laugh: easier said than done. I had my moments of “oh no, my body mutated into this glorified medical device, my brain melted, I’m alone and stuck with a baby, I will never be free, happy and loved again.” And yet. Life goes on, love happens, laughter returns. The pain is real and runs deep, but give it time. Lean on your support network, accept all help, take time for yourself, read lots of escapist sci-fi, lower your hygiene standards, and, you know, trust that Spring will come. 

Indulging in goofy animal outfits is underrated.