Newborn Niceties

by Jennifer Margulis

tired new momMost first-time parents are shocked by the appearance of a newborn baby. My oldest daughter, who was born almost two weeks before her due date, had wrinkled skin, half-closed eyes, and skinny frog legs which kept their cocked shape from the womb for weeks. Her snuffly nasal breathing and squeaky snuffing noises reminded me of some kind of Extraterrestrial creature. Although she was adorable, she looked nothing like the billboard babies I had seen in commercials. One day I exclaimed to my husband, "I thought we were having a baby and here we are with an alien rhinoceros!"

If newborns look and sound strange to us, according to Meredith Small, a cultural anthropologist at Cornell University and author of "Our Babies, Ourselves: How Culture and Biology Shape the Way we Parent," most American adults have never held a newborn baby, let alone cared for one, before they become parents. Some new parents even feel panicky around their newborns.

"I was intimidated out of my mind," remembers Katelyn Murphy-McCarthy of Atlanta, Georgia, whose son, Aidan, is now five. Her husband, Michael, held Aidan most of the time because she was terrified that she would drop him. "I was really hyper careful and afraid that bad things were going to happen to him all the time. I felt like I was thrust into a new world that no one had prepared me for ... there was so much to do to keep this tiny person alive."

The transition from a couple to a family is not always easy. But friends and other family members can provide invaluable help. What is the best way to help new parents? "The best is when friends and family just notice what needs to be done, and do it," says Murphy-McCarthy. "If they see that the fridge is empty, they can bring over a bag of groceries. If the bathroom is dirty, no new mom is going to ask a friend to clean it. But almost every new mom would be relieved if someone did. My mom cleaned the entire house while I was in the hospital."

Greenfield, Mass. resident and film producer Sonia Lindop agrees. "I think help with practical things -- like dishes and laundry is the best thing friends can do ... Anything from putting things in order to bringing over a cooked meal," Lindop, whose daughter Angela is now four, says. "My mother came and helped, she stayed with me for a month. She cooked, she did the laundry, she cleaned. I just fed the baby and took care of the baby. I was able to dedicate my time to the baby."

If new parents, especially, need a lot of help with their first babies, families with older children need help, too. "I thought I knew it all, but I didn't have the same child the second time around," says Frank Faherty of Hadley, Mass., whose sons, P.J. and Patrick, are just seventeen months apart. "He was a totally different baby. I had to learn it all over again!"

Experienced parents, even if their children are close in age, have a certain amnesia about newborns. They forget that tiny babies, like toddlers, need constant and undivided attention: that they poop several times a day, waken every few hours all night long, confuse night and day (sleeping all day and wakeful at night), and cry inconsolably.

For parents with other children, taking one on outings so that the parents can spend time with the other is often helpful. "We wanted P.J. to feel like he was still an important part of the family," remembers Faherty, who was a pediatric nurse until he became a full-time stay-at-home father. "My mother-in-law tended to the baby and we were able to keep doing our activities with P.J."

For families with more than one child, it is important that the other children, especially if they are very small, do not get forgotten. "Almost everyone who gave Patrick a gift gave P.J. something, too," says Faherty, who was grateful for his friends' thoughtfulness. "That gave him something to do -- something to open -- when people came over. It helped him not feel like the new baby was taking away from him."

If your friends with new babies live far away, and you cannot help them in person, consider sending a housecleaning service or gift certificate for a restaurant. "One time I bought my sister-in-law three hours of a babysitter and a gift certificate for a massage," says Murphy-McCarthy, who would have been pleased to receive a similar gift. "Someone gave us a certificate to go out to a restaurant," remembers Faherty enthusiastically. "That was my favorite gift."

Not sure what to buy for a new baby or how to help a new family? Try one of our favorite ideas:

  • Personalize: New parents who have schemed, agonized, rejoiced, and sometimes argued over their new baby's name LOVE to see that name on things. A pair of feetie pajamas embroidered with the new baby's name or a personalized scrap box for Baby's hospital bracelet and other early keepsakes become that much more meaningful. Later, when the baby is older, she will share her parents' fascination for her name. "A baby's name holds a special meaning for him," explains child psychiatrist Nora Schwartz-Martin, who lives in Amherst, Mass. "Having [their] name on childhood belongings helps children develop an independent sense of self and strong self-esteem."

  • Baby Basket: Consider putting your gifts in a basket. Nursing mothers, who are voracious eaters, can re-use the basket to put fruit and nut snacks next to a favorite nursing station; infant clothes, extra diapers, and a small package of wipes can be kept in a basket in a different room for a quick change. Baskets are also invaluable for housing stuffed animals and other toys. As babies get older and amass more toys, the need for baskets or other toy storage devices grows apace. "Instead of flowers," says Frank Faherty, whose family sends their friends with new babies baskets of fruits and nuts, "it makes more sense to send a basket with useful stuff in it like coffee and tea...so when people are coming to visit the baby you have some food to offer them."

  • Picture This: New parents use more film in an afternoon snapping baby photos than a professional wedding photographer uses for a week's work. Photo albums, photo boxes, picture frames, and extra film all make excellent presents for a new baby. A personalized picture frame with baby's date of birth, height, and weight is an especially nice gift.
  • Bring Food: The hardest adjustment new parents have to make is how to manage everyday life while responding to their new baby's needs-just going to the bathroom, never mind taking a shower or preparing dinner, seems daunting. But sleep-deprived and disheveled, new parents need to eat. One of the very best things you can do is to bring over a meal with your baby gift; or even make the food a gift in itself. "Food just made everything easier," remembers Stephen Schrems of Easthampton, Mass. Schrems works as Ani Difranco's sound engineer and had to be on the road some after his daughter, Lillian, was born. "You didn't have to think about what to prepare, or what you had to go shop for." Homemade or take-out, a bag of fresh groceries or a case of easy-to-prepare organic mac and cheese, the food you bring be greatly appreciated.

  • Newborn Bookworms: Experts say it is never too early to begin reading to children. Consider buying simple books that have brightly colored illustrations. Newborns see contrasts most easily so books with contrasting colors or black and white pictures are a good idea. Also consider books of poetry or nursery rhymes that babies will enjoy throughout their childhood. Newborns love the sound of their parents' voices and rhymes help children acquire language.

  • Homemade Happiness: Consider making something yourself. A handmade outfit, hand-knit sweater, booties, or baby blanket carries a special meaning. When you make something by hand you give the baby a part of yourself. Laurie Olsen of Berkeley, California, buys different fabrics, each with its own meaning, for the baby quilts she sews for her nieces and nephews. She sews a new quilt for every new baby, making each baby quilt part of an on-going family tradition.

  • Of Note: Remember to include a special note to the baby that says something personal about the joy you feel at her arrival into the world. My friend's son Evan, who is seven years old, still loves to look at his baby book and read the notes written to him by his family and friends. The message you include with your gift will become a cherished keepsake for the baby album. Don't be shy about the writing-heartfelt words are more important here than literary genius.

  • Ask and Answer: Don't be afraid to ask the new mom and dad what they need. Many people, including most Jewish people, do not have baby showers before the arrival of the baby; and although registering for baby gifts is becoming more common, not everybody does so. Asking the new parents what they want insures that your gift will be useful. A young couple having a first baby might not be able to afford something like a running stroller or a baby backpack or a video camera they could really use. If the item they want or need is expensive, you and some friends can pool your resources to get it for them together.

  • Start Saving: When my friend Jeannemarie tucked forty dollars into some cozy white socks she brought for my second daughter, who was two days old, I was delighted. "Buy something that you need," Jeannemarie suggested. But, as a newborn does quite nicely with her older sister's hand-me-downs, my husband and I decided instead to deposit the money, along with some checks from relatives, into a savings account. With the projected cost of college estimated in the hundreds of thousands, it is never too early to start saving for your child's future. Buying your newborn friend a savings bond is a thoughtful gift that will have important future returns.

Jennifer Margulis is a widely published freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Ms Magazine, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy Magazine, Parenting, Mothering, Brain, Child, and dozens of other magazines and newspapers. The mother of three, she is also a columnist for the Ashland Daily Tidings and the editor of the award-winning anthology "Toddler: Real-Life Stories of Those Fickle, Irrational, Urgent, Tiny People." She is author of "Why Babies Do That: Baffling Baby Behavior Explained."

Copyright © Jennifer Margulis. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.