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The first-time father’s handbook to birth & baby23 min read

How to prepare for becoming a father

Congratulations! You’re going to be a father.

Before the actual birth, you may be feeling excited and nervous. You know you’re going to love your new baby, but before the arrival, you won’t have any idea how all-encompassing that love is going to be.

You will experience a spectacular, glamorous, all-permeating adoration and love for your child that will break all the scales. Many new fathers describe becoming a parent as a rollercoaster ride that is scary and exhilarating at the same time.

No matter how you describe fatherhood and the journey to becoming a father, it is an adventure that is both demanding and extremely rewarding.

But all the best adventures always are, aren’t they?

Did you know men get pregnancy symptoms too?

They are called couvade symptoms and about 90% of fathers-to-be experience them.

Couvade is French and means “nesting”, in English, it’s also known as sympathetic pregnancy.

This means that you can experience nausea, poor sleep, mood swings, anxiety, weight gain as well as aches and pains in your body even though you aren’t the one that’s pregnant.

Take care of yourself: eat well, rest, get enough sleep and drink a lot of water. Limit your alcohol intake and exercise to fight stress. Alcohol dehydrates you and makes your body tired. Teaching yourself to go without before the baby arrives will put you one step ahead (more on this further down).

Prepare so you can focus on the birth

Don’t leave things till the last minute. Make sure you’re ready a few weeks before the due date.

  • Pack a hospital bag for yourself as well (change of clothes, shaving kit, toothpaste and brush, phone/laptop chargers, medications, glasses, books/magazines, cash, coins for parking etc.). Often preparing for birth means focusing all your attention on the mother and it’s easy to forget that you also need to be provided for during your time away from home.
  • You can also pack a surprise in your bag for the mother-to-be; a new robe and a pair of spa slippers or her favourite treat to celebrate.
  • Discuss with your partner ahead of time who is going to get notified of the birth of the baby, when and how. This duty often falls to the father so make sure you’re prepared.
  • Practice putting in the car seat well in advance and learn how to use it, so you won’t have to figure it out for the first time with a new baby in it. The newborn seat is the kind that moves in and out with the baby, later on, they get the kind that is fixed to the car seat.
  • Pack a breast pump kit if it isn’t going in your partner’s bag. Breastfeeding doesn’t always get off to a smooth start, especially away from home and in a hospital environment. A hand pump can help get things going and save a lot of frayed nerves. It’ll also mean that you won’t have to wait to use a hospital pump if it ends up being needed.
  • Practice going to the hospital from your home. Knowing the way and some optional routes will give you more confidence when you’ll have to drive to the hospital with your labouring partner in the car.

Oxytocin, the love hormone

In the actual birth oxytocin is your best friend. Called the love hormone it creates feelings of calm and closeness, helps with contractions, aids with breastfeeding, lessens stress and strengthens the immune system. It also promotes attachment and solidifies relationships.

You can be smart about this and start raising her oxytocin levels already at the end of the pregnancy, well in advance of the actual birth:

  • Touch is an easy way to trigger the release of oxytocin. A hug is like a small oxytocin explosion for the brain.
  • Nice surprises and gifts also raise levels of oxytocin. Doing all the chores around the house — without expecting a lot of praise — will be a pleasant surprise for your partner who is heavily pregnant (and you best believe I mean that it feels heavy).
  • A massage, even a small one, will feel heavenly for the mother-to-be in the third trimester. Her body — and especially her back — is going to be under a lot of pressure from the growing baby, her feet will be swollen and her muscles stiff. Rather than doing one big massage once, consider doing many little ones for just 5–10 minutes per time. Alternate between massaging different body parts every time, like shoulders, hands and feet.

Stock up on energy for the birth

Drinking and eating are an essential part of birthing. Giving birth takes as much energy as running a marathon, so trying to give birth without sustenance is like trying to run a marathon without eating!

Juicy fruits are an easy way for the mother to get hydrated during the birth. Vegetables and nuts will provide energy even for a long birth — for you and for her.

Constantly sipping water will keep both mother and baby moving, so bring a water bottle. You’ll learn that midwives get very excited about her peeing often as this will help to relax the pelvic muscles and move the baby along. A bottle with a straw will make it easy for her to drink even when standing up or being bent over.

The new family member

Fathers usually feel a great sense of relief when the birth is over and they can finally catch a breath.

A new baby sleeps for most of the day, about 17 hours total. Newborns don’t have the energy to stay awake for very long and should be offered the opportunity to sleep after being awake for about an hour.

The most natural place for a newborn is in the arms of mum or dad — preferably in direct skin contact. You can hold your baby against your skin under your shirt or a blanket.

Your heartbeat and breath will communicate love and safety to your child.

The first weeks

In the early weeks, your baby will mostly eat and sleep. When you hold and carry her a lot, she will get used to your touch. You can use a carry sling to free your hands but still keep the baby close.

When she is awake she will enjoy eye-contact. She won’t be able to see very far, no more than 8 inches (20 cm), so holding her close in your arms will allow her to study your face and your expressions. Babies love staring at expressions and make a captive audience for you to practice your dad-jokes.

Always burp after feeding

Small babies usually swallow a lot of air when eating (whether breast- or bottle-fed) and need burping afterwards. Lift you baby onto your shoulder so that her chin rests on your shoulder or place her across your thighs with her belly down.

Rub and pat her back until she rewards you with a resounding burp — you’ll be surprised at how big of a burp can come out of such a small thing. Sometimes it might take a while to get the air out, you can take a break and continue after a bit again.

You can also cradle her as you’d normally hold her in your arms, but lift her into an almost sitting position and rub and pat her back and bum. Doing a little bouncy dance to gently jiggle her can also help. This will often also result in air coming out the back way. Totally normal, keep going!

Every baby is a little different and it’s your first dad-job to figure out what works for your baby.

Remember to reserve a good supply of burping cloths, because there will be spit-up until your baby develops the ability to keep it all down. Lessen the spit-up by feeding smaller meals more often and not pressing on or constricting the tummy after feeding.

Remember: if the air doesn’t come out right after feeding, it goes down to make the boohoos in the tumtum, so save yourself the stress of your baby crying from an aching tummy.

Baby communication

No, you’re not just imagining getting stressed when your baby cries. Your body reacts to your baby crying by releasing stress hormones. This is biology informing you that your offspring needs something from you.

Your baby has to adapt to a completely new environment after birth, one which is drastically different from the one he knows so far. Even small changes can be stressful and upsetting to him.

The quickest way to calm a baby is to react when he first begins to cry. Comforting him early on will calm him down faster and reassure him that he’s safe and cared for. Letting him “cry it out” only sends him the message that there is no-one around to answer his cry for help.

Even if you can’t immediately figure out why he’s crying, he will learn on a fundamental level that his need for help is being met because you’ve picked him up and you’re there trying your darndest to work it out. For someone who is completely helpless and unable to care for himself, physically feeling you there and hearing you means survival.

Understanding your baby can be a challenge at first, but as you spend time with him you will learn from experience what it is that he needs.

The many different ways to feed your baby

Breastmilk is the best nutrition a newborn can get. However, getting started with breastfeeding isn’t necessarily easy.

Support from you will critically impact the success of breastfeeding, so it’s a good idea for you to get aquatinted with it well in advance. If you have a breast pump handy, the mother can pump breastmilk into a bottle which will allow you to feed your child as well.

Feeding is excellent father-baby time and will give mum a rest. Remember to pack a breast pump in the hospital bag so it’s ready if and when needed.

If breastfeeding is challenging the baby might be bottle-fed either breastmilk or formula in addition to feeding at the breast. Sometimes breastfeeding isn’t successful and the baby will be fed formula only — this is perfectly fine as well.

The most important thing is that your baby gets enough to eat, whether it’s breastmilk or formula or both.

How do you know if your baby is eating enough?

In the beginning, babies are fed as needed. At the end of the pregnancy both the baby’s and the mother’s body starts to store extra energy for the birth, so babies aren’t necessarily very hungry immediately after being born.

Once the first few sleep-filled days have passed the baby will develop a bigger appetite and start eating about 8 times a day. Some babies will even eat once an hour. Newborns naturally eat often to stimulate milk production in the mother.

There are no upper limits and it’s a good idea to feed your baby whenever she is hungry during the first weeks. Forget about implementing a regimen or routine and just go with the flow. Also, be prepared for that the baby will wake several times a night to feed in the beginning.

It’s normal for babies to lose weight right after birth, generally around 5–10%. Within two weeks most babies are back to their birth weight and after that, they’ll be piling it on faster than bodybuilders for about a year. You’ll see.

Your baby is eating enough when:

  • She’s eating at least 6–8 times per day.
  • She doesn’t have a yellow complexion.
  • She wakes up often and wants to eat.
  • She’s satisfied after a feed and falls asleep with a full tummy.
  • She’s pooing meconium, which is a blackish-green colour.
  • The pee in the diapers is odourless and light in colour.

My sleep, your sleep

A small baby has a very different sleep cycle than an adult and he will sleep less per time but more often. This will very quickly fray the nerves of everyone when no one in the household has gotten any real sleep.

Swaddling — wrapping your baby in a blanket like a burrito — is a good skill to have before the birth and can save you a lot of tears (read: also your own, when he just won’t fall asleep). Be mindful that you swaddle correctly to prevent hip problems and don’t make your baby dependent on being swaddled for sleeping (because he’ll have to be weaned of this later).

Your baby has a completely different idea about what it means to sleep through the night than you do. For a 3-month-old sleeping “through the night” means sleeping for six hours. Yep, six hours.

So, if he falls asleep at 7 p.m. he’ll be waking up at 1 a.m. Congratulations, your baby just slept through the night without waking up. Happy days!

Learn to recognise a tired baby

Rubbing the eyes, pulling the ears, yawning, bags under the eyes, crankiness and hyperactivity are all common signs of your baby needing to sleep. Give him an opportunity to sleep. You’ll soon begin to instinctively recognise when he’s in need of a nap.

Babies can also have a hard time falling asleep, so prepare to easily spend two hours getting him to sleep only to have him wake up 20 minutes later. You might feel that you’re doing everything right, yet he won’t fall asleep. You might even get frustrated and get angry at him because he just won’t sleep.

Then you might get angry at yourself for getting angry at a baby who isn’t doing it to antagonise you. Then he’ll suddenly nod off and you’ll feel like you’ve never seen anything more beautiful. You’ll feel like the luckiest dad in the world.

And all of this will have happened in the last five minutes.

Skin-to-skin contact is always a good bet if your baby is otherwise sorted (food, diaper etc.) but still not falling asleep. Your breathing and heartbeat will calm him down and you’ll both get a nice oxytocin boost and happy dreams.

Alcohol and babies don’t mix

Ever had a few drinks after a long sleepless night? That’s what it’s like to drink with a newborn.

After a glass (or two, if you get that far) you’ll be exhausted and ready to sleep for 12 hours. But even a small hangover doesn’t go over well with a crying baby. Take it easy on the beers and remember that your little darling can wake you up at any time — usually when you least want it.

Switch to water and nice hot drinks like tea for when your baby is still very young. Remember that kids grow like weeds and soon you’ll have more time to yourself than you’ll want and can have all the wine at dinner you please.

Handle your baby to develop fine motor skills

Sometimes new fathers feel like their partners are better at handling the baby; changing nappies, bathing and rocking her to sleep.

This is usually due to that the mother has had more practice. It is important for your baby that she is handled in different ways.

Different people handling her differently will help her brain develop:

  • Her coordination will develop faster.
  • Both parents’ active participation will create a strong bond with both.
  • She will learn how to adapt to being handled by different people.

Also, by sharing baby duties you’ll be able to give each other a break when needed.

Set your kid up for success

From the moment of birth your baby is ready to interact with you. He will learn quickly to recognise voices and faces, see colours, discern tastes and hear different sounds in speech.

Crying, gurgling and body language are how your baby communicates with you so pay attention when he’s trying to tell you something.

Every time you interact with your child you’re helping his brain form new pathways. As he grows the skills that he develops will be an indication of all the pathways that were formed in his brain early on.

Skills are built one on top of the other, and the simpler skills are the foundation for the more advanced skills, such as reading and writing.

Baby brain facts

At the moment of birth the parts of the brain that govern basic function, like breathing, heartbeat, body temperature, digestion, sucking and reflexes, are already highly developed.

There are still trillions of complex connections that need to be established between brain cells and these are shaped by childhood experiences.

  • In week 17 your baby already has a billion more brain cells than an adult.
  • At 7 months your baby has a 100 trillion brain cells worth of potential.
  • The human brain is the only organ not complete at birth.
  • The most complex parts of the brain are the least developed at birth — these are most affected by the environment.
  • By age 1 your child’s brain will have doubled in size.
  • At age 3 your child’s brain will only weigh about 10% less than your adult brain.

Your relationship after the birth

Couples often recount feeling a special closeness in the days following childbirth, when they are excited about the new baby.

After a while, the sleepless nights and an increase in household chores begin to cause stress. Both parties often feel that they are the ones to make all the concessions and this can lead to arguing. Some fathers deal with this situation by coming home later and later from work, simply to avoid a confrontation at the end of the day.

Talking things out solves a lot of problems before they’re even created. Taking turns caring for the baby gives one of you time to have a little personal time to catch up on sleep or have a shower in peace.

Sharing responsibilities means more sex for you

Immediately after birth, a woman is still in a very open place, both physically and emotionally. After having a baby it can be challenging to define a new identity for yourself as a parent, especially for women as pregnancy and birth affect both your body and your self-image.

It can be challenging for a woman to switch out of mommy-mode, in which she’s thinking about sore nipples, the next feed, the poo stain on her shirt, dreaming of sleeping through the night — basically anything but sex.

By sharing the load — taking care of the baby, doing chores and providing emotional support — you lessen the load on both yourself and your partner. A father’s relationship with his children also affect the kind of relationship your children build with you: if you are a caring father it will strengthen your relationship.

Remember to show her that she’s still beautiful in your eyes and that you want to revive both the emotional and physical closeness in your relationship.

The love will change you

No one can prepare you for it. People will tell you how much you will love your child, how it will change your whole being and you think you will understand what they’re on about.

You won’t completely know until you experience it for yourself though.

So throw your expectations out the window and just let it happen! The birth of your child will be the scariest, most nerve-wracking, joyful, exciting thing ever. Enjoy it. And the sleepless months that follow; they’re the best.

Remember: you aren’t born a father, you grow into one.

14 top tips for the first time father

1. There’s a machine in the birthing room that measures contractions: it notifies when a contraction is starting. Don’t tell the missus, “Here comes a big one!” — she’ll let you know (in no uncertain terms) if she’s having a big contraction.

2. The babies head is tapered at birth. That’s normal so that it will fit through the birth canal. It’ll gradually turn back to normal.

3. When the umbilical cord is cut it leaves a stump on the tummy (this becomes the belly button). This needs to be kept clean and it will fall off on its own within a week or two.

4. Babies can be born covered in a greenish-black goo. This is perfectly common and it just means the baby excreted meconium right before being born. For the last few months of pregnancy, the baby begins to swallow amniotic fluid in preparation for breastfeeding and the byproduct of that is meconium. Meconium is perfectly normal and your baby’s first poos will be greenish-black and sticky (but odourless) as the intestines clear it out after the birth.

5. Newborns can end up in intensive care for a few days for one reason or another. It’s not unusual and remember that family members won’t appreciate a call from you that starts with, “The baby was taken to the NICU…(pause)…there was an issue with his glucose levels”.

6. Babies are hairy when they’re born. This fine fluff is called Lanugo hair and is designed to help them regulate their body temperature. Lanugo hair is usually dark and very soft, like baby down, and wears off naturally as the baby grows.

7. Newborn babies can have pimple-like spots. No, don’t pick at them, just leave them alone. Your baby’s skin is covered in vernix, a waxy substance, which protects the baby’s skin in the amniotic fluid during pregnancy. It’s also very moisturising and prevents baby’s skin from drying out (think of how dry your skin is after a long swim).

8. When the baby cries you can usually calm her down by feeding her milk and changing her nappy. Don’t wait for the missus to have to ask you to change your share of nappies. Changing nappies will create such a strong bond between you and your kid that changing nappies will become like second nature in no time.

9. Did baby smile at you? It’s more likely due to gas, which is perfectly common in little babies. Take it as it comes and appreciate the smile anyway.

10. The missus’ sense of humour can be a little strained during the first few weeks. This, if anything, is extremely normal. Don’t poke the bear if you can help it.

11. Don’t give up on sleep and try to take care of EVERYTHING. Remember that your life just changed for the next 18 years, not just this one week. It’s okay to just let some things go undone for now. If you’re lucky a kind family member will come for a visit and surprise you by cooking dinner.

12. Sometimes the baby just wants to be close to you. Pick up the little’un and rock him for a bit.

13. Treat your baby like a person even if she’s about as interactive as a cucumber. She isn’t talking yet, but babies are primed to observe and learn 100% of what they see, hear, taste and experience from day one. Try it for yourself: little babies will mimic things that they see you do repeatedly — try making different expressions and sounds, blinking your eyes or sticking out your tongue.

14. Don’t worry if you don’t immediately feel REALLY BIG EMOTIONS for your baby. Take your time and let it develop. Six months down the line you’ll jump in front of a moving bus for them. Without hesitation.


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