Simple ways you can provide what the new mom really needs
by Salle Webber, postpartum doula in Santa Cruz, CA; author of The Gentle Art of Newborn Family Care
A NEW BABY!
Babies are born every day…perhaps even to you or someone you know well, a sister, daughter, friend, neighbor or your partner. Birth is so common…yet so profound and mysterious. Maybe you’ve never cared for a tiny newborn before, or maybe it was 30 years ago, and things have changed so much.
In any case, there are simple ways of providing the new mom and baby with what they need. The needs are primarily physical, yet the attitude with which they are met can make a huge difference.
WILL SHE BE DEPRESSED?
We have all heard about postpartum depression. Some of us believe it’s an inevitable part of the birth package. But it is not. Depression emerges primarily due to physical exhaustion and depletion, and the action of stress hormones, compounded with feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed. A mother whose needs for nourishment and rest are met, and who feels supported by her mate/family/community, can weather the hormonal fluctuations, sleepless nights, and the demands of a newborn with perhaps some tears and a bit of the blues, but only temporarily if at all.
SO WHAT ARE THE MOTHER’S NEEDS?
FIRST, A COMFORTABLE PLACE TO BE WITH HER BABY
A new mother and baby need the security of a safe, clean place that they can rest, off the beaten path if possible, where stimuli are minimized. Generally this is a bedroom, set up with diaper-changing necessities, clean blankets and baby clothes, plenty of pillows to support nursing comfort, mother’s water, snack, phone, etc. Mother and infant need to rest quietly together, feeding on demand, napping intermittently, provided with food and water, as well as opportunities for mother to get up and shower and attend to her personal physical needs.
LOTS OF WATER
Abundant fluids are necessary to the woman recovering from the stress and fluid losses of childbirth. And she is providing, through her body, all the nourishment her child requires to live and grow. To avoid dehydration, we encourage mothers to drink lots of water, warm teas, and diluted juices. A full glass of fresh water next to her when she is breastfeeding will encourage a woman’s intake, as well as keeping her water glass full when she is resting. Many herbal teas encourage milk production, and are healthy and delicious. Offer to brew a cup of warm fragrant tea for her; it will lead to relaxation and rest.
Nutritious food is imperative. Mothers need fresh, unprocessed foods like vegetables, fruits, meats and poultry, eggs, and whole grains. Stimulants like caffeine and sugar should be avoided or minimized…yet at the same time, we don’t want to deprive a new mother of her favorite foods…so maybe a cookie or slice of pizza or a cup of decaf if it makes her feel better emotionally. There is a delicate balance between providing the optimum environment physically and meeting emotional needs. A new mother who is struggling with the many demands made on her may need her favorite comfort foods to assure her that she is still important…it’s not ALL about the baby! Breastfeeding requires an additional 500 or more calories each day, so encourage mother to enjoy hearty meals and discourage ingesting empty calories in favor of good nutrition. Preparing delicious meals for her will be the best way to get her eating well, also providing frequent snacks of fruit, cheese, etc., depending on her personal preferences and eating habits. You can organize friends to provide dinners for the new family, clarifying food preferences, allergies, or limitations. Ask them to drop meals off, without expectation of being invited in or spending time unless specifically requested to do so. Sometimes visitors can exhaust a new mother, so attention to her energy level is important when visiting. By the way, some women have very little appetite for the first couple days after birth, but this changes when the milk begins flowing. Just keep offering nutritious food, soon her desire for it will kick in.
REST AND SLEEP
One of the most important needs of a new mother is for rest. Not only has she grown a human being inside her body, and given birth to it with great exertion from both mother and child, but now her body continues to provide sustenance for the child. Milk production places big demands on the female body, the manufacturing process continues day and night. She is healing from the challenges of childbirth, in some cases surgery. This organism requires rest! And more rest! Her nights will be wakeful for quite a while, that is as it should be, so daytime sleeping is essential. She must sleep when the baby sleeps, or when someone else can tenderly care for the newborn. Sometimes mothers enjoy having the whole bed to themselves, door shut, knowing the child is being well cared for, and can turn off the auto-aware pilot to sleep deeply, refreshingly.
Beyond these four essentials of a cozy clean nest, abundant fluids, nourishing food, and rest, there are other things friends can do to support harmony in the home of a newborn. Tidying up around the house, sweeping floors, washing dishes, wiping counters, the things parents do all day to keep the ship afloat. Cycling the laundry, making sure the trash goes out, offering to pick up and deliver groceries or other necessities, these are things the new mother needs to have done for her. Her work is to strengthen and heal her body, and to feed, care for and get to know her infant. Yet the household needs attention. Most likely her partner is also sleep-deprived and in a somewhat altered state. So attending to these simple yet vital tasks is extremely helpful to everyone.
MORE ABOUT FOOD
We have mentioned food preparation, but it deserves more discussion. It is difficult to prepare food with a baby in arms. Simple finger foods like nuts, dried fruits, cheese sticks, precooked meats, cut-up fruits and vegetables, or leftovers may be the easiest way for a mother to feed herself when she’s alone. Stock her refrigerator with easy to reach and easy to eat foods. When you are present to help her, offer to cook a meal, make a sandwich, prepare something for later. Making salads or prepping the vegetables, starting a pot of rice or putting a chicken in the oven to roast, these are often appreciated ways to assist. When you arrive, inquire if she has had breakfast or lunch, you can’t assume she has found time to eat. And may I remind you again, fill her water glass every chance you get.
OLDER SIBLINGS NEED CARE TOO
If there are other children in the family, you can be a huge help with them, especially if you have a long-term relationship already established. This birth represents a mighty change in a child’s life, and not to be taken lightly. Older kids need to continue their routines and activities, to have their needs met as always, and to feel important. Friends or grandparents can invite children on special activities, and provide companionship. Take the time to read together, or play, make a snack, draw a picture for new baby. Mothers of the children’s friends are in a perfect position to provide the new mom some peace and quiet by inviting her kids to play at the friend’s house. Maybe even dinner or a sleepover, if appropriate. Also vital is for each child to have time with mommy, with and without the baby. This is a developing lifelong relationship, and creating an atmosphere of love and acceptance supports sibling harmony. Occasionally carrying the baby into another room as mother snuggles with an older sibling can provide just what the child and mother need, a return to their deep and abiding connection. A mother is acutely aware of how this new baby’s presence changes the relationships within the family, and it serves her well-being if she sees that her older child is content and has needs met. It can be exhausting for a mother to try to care for everyone. Your service to her kids brings relief to her mind and heart.
DO WHAT YOU CAN
These aforementioned tasks are not difficult to accomplish. What is required is willingness to do what needs to be done. Many mothers don’t like to ask for help. So if you see the kitchen floor needs sweeping, just pick up the broom and do it. Offer to start a load of laundry, and try to see it into the dryer, maybe even folded and put away. Call on your way over and ask if anything needs to be picked up at the store. Do what you can to make the new mother’s day a little easier and more pleasant. You can support successful breastfeeding by helping the mother and baby get comfortable, providing pillows and water, encouragement, enthusiasm, and maybe a diaper change. Be aware of not tiring her with lots of chatter, but try to focus on what you can do to help her and her infant.
IT’S SO LITTLE!
Don’t let the size of this baby fool you…though tiny and helpless, he or she is an enormous presence in the life of these parents, the new focus and center-point of the family. Precisely due to this helplessness, we must do our best to help the child to be comfortable as we welcome her or him into the community.
ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Your attitude can make a big difference. Don’t lose sight of the miraculous nature of this situation. Remember to be grateful that you are present to witness this new life unfolding like a perfect rose. Maintain a sense of deep respect for this mother and child who have changed the world. Acknowledge with her the immensity of this transition. The infant deserves tender care and protection, and if you are invited in to this sacred space, please go forth serenely. Your reverence will permeate the atmosphere….as you roll up your sleeves and get to work!
Thank you for your caring support.
HOW TO HELP…THE BASICS
• Settle mother and child in a clean and comfortable “nest”, and offer to change sheets whenever necessary
• Provide the mother with nutritious food
• Provide her with abundant fluids: water, warm teas
• Encourage her to sleep whenever possible, when the baby is sleeping or when another person is holding the baby. When not sleeping, resting in a horizontal position is helpful
• Find opportunities when you can care for the infant so mother can shower, brush teeth, etc.
• Assist her to breastfeed by seeing she’s comfortable, has water nearby, perhaps burping the baby or changing a diaper after the feeding. Remind her to relax her shoulders and bring extra pillows if necessary
• Prepare a meal for the family
• Organize a “meal tree” for friends to provide dinners for the new family
• Do the laundry
• Clean up the kitchen
• Entertain the older children and meet some of their needs.
• Pick up groceries and other necessities and deliver to the home
• Offer a foot, neck, or shoulder massage
• Be available to listen, share the wonder, offer emotional support as needed. You don’t need to be able to fix everything for the new mother, but your willingness to hear her story is your gift to her.
• Suggest a call to a health-care practitioner or lactation consultant if questions arise. More information is always helpful, and no question from new parents is foolish.
One friend can not provide everything the family needs. It takes a village. See from the above list where you can help. If you can provide any of these services, you will be a true source of assistance to the new family. Your loving care will always be part of their memories of the early tender weeks. Enjoy the opportunity to share this special time.