Ellen fell asleep on the floor while breastfeeding in the middle of the night. She woke up later in her own bed, not really certain if she actually fed the baby.
Sally spent every evening for three months bouncing on her birthing ball, with her newborn son tucked in close to her chest—the only tactic that would curb his colicky crying.
Jeanine and Dirk looked at each other and, without speaking a word, simultaneously broke into a game of “rock, paper, scissors” to see who would change the diaper of their formerly constipated son.
Having a newborn is nothing short of an adventure that many new parents describe as “the best and the hardest days of our lives.”
The most challenging issues in a baby’s first year center around 1) crying, 2) sleep issues and 3) breastfeeding.
In gathering information for this article, I interviewed a panel of experts—at least a dozen parents from our childbirth classes with children under one year of age. Most agreed that crying, sleep and breastfeeding topped their lists, and that first-year parenting impacted them beyond their expectations.
Jeanine said: “I’ve always heard that the first year of marriage is the most difficult. I actually think it’s the first year of your first child’s life. What a ride! I had no idea.”
I’m not sure anything can really prepare you for what the first year of parenting is really like—each child is different, so even for the same parents it can be a different journey every time. But if I could pass along a precious pearl of wisdom, it’s this: What you do in the first year lays the groundwork for successful parenting and marriage in years to come.
Parenting with the end in mind
It can be really hard to see the big picture when you’re suffering from extreme sleep deprivation on top of a hormonal roller-coaster ride. But that’s part of the job of being a parent. While you are in your first year of parenting, it’s important to ask yourself, “What do I want my child to be like two, five, 10 or 20 years from now? What do I want my marriage to be like then, too?”
The goal of parenting is to bring up our children to responsibly enter the adult world, and eventually God’s Kingdom, with a mature, godly perspective (“. . . nourish them in the instruction and admonition of the Lord”—Ephesians 6:4 Ephesians 6:4And, you fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
American King James Version×, Young’s Literal Translation). God has a job for your child. Your job is to teach and train him or her and nurture his or her gifts and talents.
This is “your” child for a time, but it’s important for Mom and Dad to focus on what God, your child’s Creator and heavenly Father, is doing regarding his or her eternal life. It requires respect for your child, even as you provide authority and leadership. Everything you say or do—or neglect to say or do—will teach your child in some way, and will influence your child’s view of what God (his or her ultimate Father) is like.
When your child looks at you, will he or she see a reflection of God? Because of you, will your child learn that God is reliable, consistent, patient, deeply loving, worthy of respect and always accessible?
Work as a team
Brain growth occurs at its most rapid rate from eight months gestation through the first years of life. During this time, children are like little sponges, soaking up information through all of the five senses, as well as through attitudes and relationships.
As one of my parent experts, Shantelle, advised: “Take time to teach your baby. Yes, they will lie around a lot and act as though they don’t know what is going on, but they are smarter than we think!”
As for practical tidbits, there is no lack of information, and a wide variety of approaches, on how to deal with breastfeeding problems, nursing strikes, colic, diapers, nap times, bedtime rituals, separation anxiety, and on and on.
The practical issues of parenting overwhelmingly dominate—and at times frustrate—new parents’ lives. Much of the information is apparently conflicting. It’s important that both parents talk about these things together and decide on a team approach.
Supporting each other and working together are essential. God the Father and Jesus Christ are in total agreement on how to rear the spiritual children in the family of God, and it’s vitally important that Mom and Dad also work together as one.
If parents disagree, who does the child learn to follow? Neither—rather, he or she will learn to play the two against each other or will learn to disregard and disrespect authority (even “loving” authority) because it is too confusing and conflicting. Parents should learn to get it right during this first year—as it’s much harder to do so later. This is when good parenting habits are born.
Family addition affects your marriage
When the hard work of parenting is over, what will be left? Will you have a strong, loving marriage bound even tighter by successfully building a family together? Will your friendship have grown deeper, with memories of joy and laughter?
Will you have a platform of teamwork and respect on which to build the next phase of life as a twosome once again? Ellen reminds herself “how important my relationship with my spouse is, he must come first . . . He’ll be there in 18 years; my child won’t be.”
Let’s get practical. Marriage can take a hit when “couple life” changes to “family life.” It seems there is little time or energy left for each other. Because the needs of baby take priority in the sense of requiring immediate, spontaneous attention, the needs of the couple often get relegated to “later.”
How can a couple stay close? The solutions these parents offer demonstrate an abiding devotion to their children while keeping the needs of the couple as an overarching priority, lovingly and maturely integrated as you build your family together.
Jen offered this insight: “We have had to remember always to treat each other with love, even on four hours of sleep, which is not easy. That is what has brought us together as a family in the first place, and that will keep us together.”
Clint said: “Sandy and I have been perpetually emotionally exhausted . . .” They advised developing a support network among family, very close friends and church community, so you can go out on regular dates.
For some, “family dates” are the answer—especially in those early months when moms and babies are quite literally inseparable “bosom buddies,” and it would actually create stress, rather than relieve it, to take mom away from her baby.
A regular, early bedtime has been a lifesaver for many couples, who work together to get the children to bed by 7:30 or 8 p.m., then spend “couple time” on the sofa or in the bedroom. Even so, sheer exhaustion is a big factor during the first year. Dads particularly need to be patient and understanding. Dad may get the kids down at 8:00 and find Mom is snoring at 8:05. No joke!
Advice from others
As a new parent, you’ll probably find that others will offer you advice. Jeanine’s suggestion? “Absorb all the unsolicited advice you can fathom and process it with your husband later. It saves everyone’s feelings (this is more difficult than it sounds when your body is just oozing hormones) and you will actually gain some valuable insight should you choose to sort through it all later.”
Most issues are really to be decided between you and your spouse with due consideration toward others; however, keep your eyes, ears and heart open to the wisdom that comes from other parents’ research and experience.
Parenting in your baby’s first year is one of the most intense experiences of your life—yes, intensely stressful. But the moments of pure bliss seem to melt away the stress if you snatch them up and capture them in your heart.
You will watch your baby sleep, not able to pull yourself away—not just yet. You will nurse your baby and hear her sweet sighs of contentment with every breath. You will place your finger in his palm, his tiny fingers wrapping around yours in a surprisingly tight grip.
Singing soothing lullabies, dancing in the living room, rocking at midnight while all is quiet—these are moments you’ll cherish. Your biggest joys will be his or her newest accomplishments—his first smile, her first laugh, his first tooth, her first word, his first step.
This year is full of firsts for you too—most importantly, your first steps toward building the marriage and family God has in mind for you. GN