When I was pregnant, my friends, family, and complete strangers commented on how wonderful newborn babies are. Nursing friends dreamed of working on the maternity floor, basking in a never-ending stream of brand new babies. Strangers advised me to cherish those tranquil newborn moments. “Snuggle them when they’re tiny and perfect, because they grow up so fast.”
Not fast enough.
I realize it’s an unpopular opinion, but the newborn stage is the worst. It’s worse than crawling babies who get into all of your cupboards and pull over your potted plants. It’s worse than toddlers realizing their independence and refusing to nap. It’s worse than potty training.
I love both of my children fiercely, but I hated the newborn stage and that’s OK.
What is the Newborn Stage?
The newborn stage is from birth to 2 months. During that time, babies basically just sleep, eat, cry, and soil their diapers. Those are the building blocks of your relationship for 8 long weeks.
According to all of the advice I received while pregnant, there would be lots of snuggling, some sleepless nights, and overwhelming love. The bit about sleepless nights was always delivered with a flutter of cute laughter, leading me to believe it wasn’t too bad. That was beautiful advice because it’s exactly what I was hoping for, but it wasn’t particularly accurate.
No one wants to prepare you for the really bad stuff. And the newborn stage is just full of it.
Maybe I spent too much time looking at dreamy photos of new mothers peacefully cradling their slumbering newborn. Mothers with clean hair, wearing crisp, white gowns, basking in the morning sun as it filters in a nearby window, with an all-is-right-with-the-world smile on their lips.
I didn’t have much of that. What I did have was blisters and fissures on my nipples; scratchy stitches holding together my two halves that split when my baby entered the world; and fear.
There wasn’t a whole lot of peace to be had. Even when our baby was sleeping, I was a bundle of frayed nerves. Every few minutes I was hovering over him, watching for the little rise and fall of his chest. Is he still breathing? Is he alive? I’d rocket out of my bed, yanked from a dream by the maternal instinct to check for signs of life. Even when he slept, I couldn’t rest.
I was expecting overwhelming love. Instead I was consumed with fear.
Our jobs as mothers are to keep our babies alive. That’s our most primal instinct during the newborn stage. And I had no idea what I was doing. Our baby seemed so fragile and tiny and vulnerable. Concern and fear left little room for love in my life.
Not All Newborn babies Are Awful
“Motherhood is bliss, true happiness, and immediate bonding.”
After going through two newborn stages and confirming both times that it does indeed suck, I can’t help but wonder if the syrupy sweet advice force fed to pregnant women is being delivered by people who’ve forgotten how awful it can be. Or did those people just not have the same experience?
Some mothers really do have that quiet relationship with their newborn from the beginning. They have intimate moments of bonding and their world is a fairytale of sweetness. Most of us, though, face real challenges.
Colic in newborn babies
The biggest challenge we faced with both of our newborns was colic. Like clockwork, every evening when the sun went down, the crying started. Our babies were fed, burped, had dry diapers, and were sufficiently rested. We provided for every possible need.
Once the crying started, it didn’t stop for hours. With our son, the cries were especially piercing. He screamed until his voice became ragged and his face was deep crimson. His shrieks shook me to my core. They were frantic and terrifying, echoing around the house.
I held him, rocked him, tried to nurse him, but nothing helped. I bounced him, carried him around the house, turned him on his tummy, his side, his back. I made silly faces and silly noises. I sang. I cried.
It’s So Much to Handle
From an evolutionary standpoint, how has this common behavior in newborns aided in survival? When you’ve provided your baby with every basic need and they continue to scream, it’s hard not to lose patience. You want to scream, kick the wall, and run away.
The little bundle of a baby that you are bound to and that you are responsible for, is the one thing you want to get away from. It’s hardly surprising that some new parents completely lose their self-control and end up in a news headline for shaking their newborn baby.
Lack of Reward
The colic is the worst. But there’s also the issue of appreciation. It can take weeks before your baby acknowledges you or reciprocates a smile. I wanted to love my baby from the moment we met. In some ways I did, but I also resented him for taking everything from me and giving nothing in return. I smiled at him and sang to him while rocking his tender body against mine. Meanwhile, I was bleeding, in pain, and so tired I wasn’t sure what day it was anymore.
All I wanted was a smile or some sign of genuine affection that rewarded my endless hours of suffering and dedication. But all he did was exist those first weeks. Together, we just survived.
The smiles and affection came later.
It Gets Better
Any parent who’s gone through the nightmarish newborn stage knows this: it gets better. It gets so much better.
One day we suddenly notice that the crying had diminished. More and more it subsided until our evenings were much like our days. There were no more hours of wailing or inconsolable sobbing.
Then the smiles started—not just the reflexive smiles that happen those first couple months. Nothing in the world compares to the first smile my son gave me when he stopped nursing for a moment, looked at my happy face, and returned the grin.
Next the laughter came in waves of pure joy. Then he started reaching for me and crawling after me. He squeals with happiness when I bounce him now. When I sing, he looks at me with wonder. Love like nothing else in the world has blossomed and consumes me now when I hold him. I want to hold him close and nuzzle into the softness of his neck. His hair is silky and irresistible to touches. The smiles he saves just for me wash over any anxiety weighing me down. He is my happiness.
And already I’m forgetting the months it took to get here.