When you have a baby, you get lots of advice. One early tip was to keep a journal of the experience, to help you process things, or remember things.
This blog would have been the perfect place to keep a record but it turns out I haven’t made a single post since December 2018, when I was six months pregnant and addicted to soothing ASMR videos.
My baby is now nine months old and so I thought it high time I got all this pregnancy/birth/newborn stuff out into the void – so I can move on.
What I Wish I’d Known
I don’t mean what I wish someone had told me, because I got more than enough information; I mean, what I wish I had personally known to be true so I’d done something different and/or hadn’t worried about it.
HIGH RISK MEANS HIGH RISK
Because I was over 35, and therefore at high risk for complications, in my last six weeks of pregnancy, I had weekly non-stress tests, where they strap your belly and listen to the baby’s heart beat to check he has enough oxygen and resources, ie, is not stressed. These had been going fine so in week 40, when I was also scheduled to get baby measured, I opted not to go. BUT the birth did get complicated. And maybe if I’d gone to that appointment we would have seen that a) baby was quite big and b) he might have already pooped (meconium). And so maybe we would have reconsidered trying for a vaginal delivery for 30 entire hours, and just gone straight to the c-section, which we ended up having anyway. More of that later but my point being: if you have appointments, take them.
Of course I wanted to do skin to skin right after delivery: put baby on my chest and have him suckle within minutes, then solely breast feed until he was at least six months old. Instead, he went directly to NICU for oxygen. And standard procedure in there is to feed the babies 60ml of donated breast milk every two hours. Back in my room, I kept trying to pump (so sore and tired!) but only managed to get a tiny bit of that precious colostrum out of my boobs, which a nurse delivered to baby on a swab.
When the nurses happily released baby into my care, I was glad but nervous: I still had no idea how I’d be able to feed him – and it puzzled me that they left me alone to figure it out. I had of course visited baby in NICU and so they knew I hadn’t been able to get him to latch very well. The lactation consultant had come to help and we saw her again a few times in and out of hospital but it was a month of meltdowns and YouTube videos before baby was latching automatically every time I offered the breast. So when he woke screaming for food that first night in my hospital room, with my boobs empty and the baby not wanting a bar of my nipple, I had to admit defeat and buzz the nurse for formula.
And then I ended up permanently supplementing with formula, until baby self-weaned from the boob at about 6 months, at which point he was only on formula (and solids). My point being: plans go awry and FED IS BEST. The slogan BREAST IS BEST is all very well, until your boobs don’t do what they’re supposed to and your baby is hungry (starving) and a male doctor walks in, looks at your little one’s dehydrated lips, and says: “Give that baby formula until your milk comes in.”
So eventually my milk supply got good enough that I could breast feed baby all night and most of the day, but my husband took the 9pm to 1am shift, and, as mentioned, pumping had yielded very little results, so he had to feed formula. And in that time with his daddy, baby would slam many ounces. Ravenous. Latching onto the bottle like a shark, waggling head and all. I began stressing that he was getting fed too much, which led to needless bickering. Because when they say you can’t overfeed a newborn baby, they mean it. You can’t. So just let whoever is available to help you feed your baby however much the baby wants and don’t worry about it.
On a related note, even if you’re against dummies/pacifiers, there’s no need to deny your baby the comfort of sucking one in his first weeks of life. Our baby hasn’t used a pacifier for many months (sometimes I wish he would!) but he loved it when he was tiny and I should have just relaxed into that, instead of worrying he’d still be sucking on one when he was eight years old.
Sleeping and napping
The best book we found on this was Precious Little Sleep, which gives great advice on navigating from the chaos of a newborn into the more structured routine of an older baby. We got this book in time to help us start sleep training at about 5 months (ie, letting him cry it out with limited soothing, similar to the Ferber Method)and soon baby was falling asleep by himself at bedtime and nap times (rather than us feeding him up till he got sleepy and then sneaking him into bed).
What I wish I’d known is that the first three months will be chaos! Babies might well nap for only 30mins at a time! You just have to ride it out and sleep when you can, which will likely not be exactly when your baby sleeps, as all the advice suggests, because otherwise you get zero time to yourself.
Therefore, it is not helpful for people to say, “Oh, that’s a shame his naps are so short.” Which makes you think they should be longer, that their baby’s naps were longer at that age, that you’re doing something wrong or something is wrong with your baby. I kept trying to correct/lengthen his nap times in those early days, even though I read that nap consolidation (when naps get longer, fewer, and more predictable) and sleeping through the night are developmental milestones. That is, your baby will do it themselves when they’re ready! Of course, as they get older, you can experiment with weaning off extra feeds – or all feeds – at night, or try dream feeding to manipulate their schedule, but in the beginning they’ll sleep when they sleep.
In case you’re not up with the reasoning behind placing your tiny baby on their tummy, where they do not want to be, here’s a quick recap: Before the Back to Sleep campaign, babies were put on their tummies to sleep, and in those days more babies died of SIDS. But since we now we put babies to sleep on their backs, they get no practice of raising their head, and stretching their neck/upper back muscles, until they start rolling over by themselves, which could happen anytime from, say, two to seven months old. (And, as a result, more babies get a flat spot at the back of their heads from sleeping on their soft skulls.) Therefore, we need to start putting the babies on their tummies for a minute or so at at time when they’re very small (and miserable about it!), increasing to a few minutes and then twenty minutes, until they’re happy being there and can get there by themselves.
Somehow, I didn’t get this simple logic and was kind of a non-believer. So our baby did get natural practice of raising his head when we held him up against us, and when we lay him on our chest, but he got little in the way of structured tummy time on the floor. THEN at two months a flat spot began emerging on his head, and it generally looked pretty asymmetrical, which was diagnosed as being due to congenital torticollis – tight neck muscles on one side, since birth, possibly due to how he was most often positioned in the womb.
After the diagnosis, we got sent to an Occupational Therapist, where we did activities to get baby looking and turning equally in both directions (as opposed to a hands-on Physical Therapist). At 3 months old, baby could barely hold his head up for a minute. Two at a stretch. So we had to get working! After a couple months, everything evened out and he started sleeping on his tummy of his own accord and the flat spot is now almost non-existent. Probably, we would have needed extra help even if we’d been doing tummy time rigorously since he’d been a few weeks old. But, in those first sessions with the OT, I felt really guilty and neglectful and beat myself up.
… So those are my top takeaways. If I’d believed this stuff to be true at the time, I might have been more relaxed and acceptant in the thick of the newborn storm, which would have benefitted everybody, including baby.
Now, let’s go back to the beginning:
Taking the Test
We’d been using an ovulation tracker so I knew when my period was late. Still, it felt surreal to be buying a pregnancy kit at the pharmacy, like you’ve seen countless times in the movies. I bought a two-pack, with one analog and one digital stick. One came up with two lines (one dark, one pale) and the other read YES.
I can’t speak to what it feels like to get that positive result when you didn’t want to be pregnant and now you have to decide what to do, or you’d been trying and trying for months and months and now, at last, you get a positive. I feel for people in either of these situations. In my case, we hadn’t been trying very hard for very long. I honestly thought it wasn’t going to happen for a year or so. I was treating each month like a game of roulette, or a lottery ticket: like, you have to be in to win, right? But your chances are pretty low. Instead, we struck jackpot fast and so I was shocked.
My first married summer in a new country was cut short! Our honeymoon would be a babymoon! My body didn’t feel physically different at that point, but I felt changed. I stayed in bed for an entire day. Sometimes I cried. It felt like a mark in the sand: before and after. Life would never be the same.
I emailed my girlfriends who are already mothers asking for reassurance that my life with a child would be fine/amazing/better than ever. It took time to get more comfortable with what is an existential change.
When we went to the doctor’s to get the pregnancy confirmed, and get on board with prenatal care, the doctor was the first person to say, ‘Congratulations.’ But it was some time before I truly felt like something wonderful had happened.
For the first four or five months, longer than the 12 weeks you might hear about, I was constantly nauseous. I tried many things and I’m not sure anything truly worked. They included:
- plain salty crackers or bread
- cut up tart fruit, like green apples or nectarines
- ginger, lemon, and honey drinks
- magnesium spray
- sour candy/worms
- antihistamines like doxylamine and/or vitamin B6
- lying down doing nothing but groaning and whining and moaning
On the positive side, I threw up only once in all that time – when I was about five months in and waiting to see the OB. I was stressed by the appointment and the wait time and the clinic (we were stuck with a substandard medical group until the open enrolment insurance period meant we could change) and that day I was just generally feeling horrendous.
There’s an app for tracking everything, pre-pregnancy, during, and post. I used Ovia to follow baby’s development in utero and how I might be doing as a result. I haven’t used anything to track his development since being born, but a popular one that focuses on leaps is the Wonder Weeks.
Ultrasounds and other appointments
This part of the journey will differ greatly depending on what country you’re in and whether you choose a more medical/supervised route with an OB (obstetrician), or feel your own way along with a midwife and the minimum of checkups. I’m in an unfamiliar US healthcare system so I went along with an OB, which was recommended due to being Advanced Maternal Age (over 35) AKA geriatric.
We also turned out to have a complication. Without going into details, I will say, if they see something unusual on your 12-week ultrasound, do yourself a favour and try and make your next appointment with the best specialist in town – don’t let two months go by with the same people saying they’re not sure. The difference between facilities and know-how can be significant and you could save yourself a flood of tears. With the insurance system we were dealing with here, it was hard to get from one level of care to another but well worth the effort.
In the midst of that drama, I decided to find a reflexologist in Chicago. I told her my pregnancy had felt like nothing except illness and appointments; I had no sense of being a feminine goddess of mother earth. And I do think my lady helped, both because the sessions started with an informal counselling session and because of the pleasant placebo effect of her singing bowls, aromatherapy, and crystals.
NB: I had also been seeing a reflexologist in New Zealand the year before I got pregnant and, after dealing with some other issues, we had been working on fertility with the knowledge I would soon be trying for a baby. Of course it could be hocus pocus but if you’re struggling to get pregnant, it might be worth a try!
Inspired by my reflexologist’s collection, I went and bought some rocks from a crystal shop and played with them in my hand while thinking positive thoughts about how my heart was connected to my baby’s heart and we were both doing great.
Finally, toward the end of my second trimester, I had a lovely phase of about six weeks where I was neither nauseous, nor worried, nor so big that movement became cumbersome. I think my skin and hair did start looking quite nice.
As baby grew bigger, my mental outlook was much improved but the physical challenges became way more apparent. Niggles I had included:
A thigh that ached only at night, on my left side – the side I was meant to be lying on to give baby maximum circulation of oxygen, blood, and nutrients. The thigh seemed to be flaring up from an old hamstring injury but it was strange it was only at night. I took to tying a head scarf around it, like a tourniquet, which I mentioned to all my doctors; none of them commented.
This had been an ongoing issue in the past but the new challenge was not being able to take things that might have helped when not pregnant, eg:
- an occasional prescribed sleeping pill (a definite no no)
- valerian (not recommended)
- melatonin (the jury’s out)
- antihistamines, like the aforementioned doxylamine (doctors agreed this is fine)
Ovia has a comprehensive medication checklist. In the US they’re rated A (most safe), B, C, D or X based on whether they’ve undergone human and/or animal trials. The more alternative the stuff is, the less likely it would have been tested. And, as my OB said, no drug company wants the liability of putting a hundred pregnant women on a drug and watching what happens compared to the control group. In short, nobody really knows what effect medications might have on your foetus and your best bet is to take nothing.
But, as my third trimester wore on, the aches grew worse and so I took half a doxy and one Tylenol (paracetamol) at night. Surely a little mild meds are better for baby than receiving a huge dose of stress hormones from mom every night? I hope so, anyway.
Sore ribs and shrunken organs
I had not known this would be a thing, but it is. Your uterus grows so far up your body that baby can, if he desires, rest his foot on top of your ribs, while another part is underneath. My right ribs became very tender indeed. I kept asking my OB: Are you sure there’s not something torn/infected/broken for it to be so sore? Apparently not.
Meanwhile, your stomach and whatever else is in there get pushed wherever they can fit and this can be uncomfortable. Plus, it brought my nausea back. My OB said it was only really a concern if your liver got jammed up and you turned yellow or developed gallstones, which, thankfully I did not.
Due to the stomach being impinged upon, the acid gets pushed up and you can’t digest food easily and you get pains and burbling and burping and I had never had heartburn before so at first the pain was really alarming. Doctors say it’s fine to take common meds, like Zantac, and I did occasionally but generally I just sat up and waited it out. Eating then lying down is not recommended, even though all you want to do is eat and lie down.
I had started snacking in the night in my first trimester to ward off nausea. Then it was for energy or just generally because I was ravenous. I kept oat bars, energy bars, cookies, and protein shakes in a bowl in my bedroom, and I left crumbs all over the floor. If I woke around dawn, I’d eat granola then go back to sleep, so that was Very First Breakfast. Then I’d get up properly and have porridge for First Breakfast, followed by eggs for Second Breakfast. Then I’d be able to go along okay for a couple of hours until lunch.
On the subject of food, I did generally avoid deli meats, soft cheese, shellfish, and any salad that might have been old or of suspect origin. Lots of e coli scares lately! I did occasionally drink a small glass of wine.
Urination and constipation
Way too much number one and not nearly enough number two.
I would say I was not the most gracious pregnant person. I tried to tell myself about how all the other millions of women had babies throughout all of time, and they seemed fine, but it didn’t change the fact it was me going through it. It was uncomfortable and weird and time-consuming with the appointments, which reached two per week by the last month, and it was bizarre to have limbs sticking out etc etc.
On the flipside, I did feel a connection with my baby and grateful to him for coming along, enduring the particular environment inside of me, being born, and facing planet earth with us as his guides. I did start to feel as if I knew him a little bit. His hiccups were funny. His startle reflex also startled me.
Two weeks out and I was not dilated at all. My OB tried a manual little trick to open me up. I ate dates and pineapple. One week out, and then the week I was due, still nothing. So, at one week past my due date, we got scheduled to be induced. I thought this was a routine procedure that didn’t hurt and always worked. I was mistaken.
We were due to check in to hospital at 5pm Saturday evening. At about 3pm, on our way to get food, as you can’t eat once they start proceedings, I felt a weird sensation in what felt to me like my chest. Baby had already been giving my ribs a good nudge so I thought it was something related to that. The pain, or I should say, deep pressure, began out of nowhere and kind of rolled through my chest downwards. Imagine you’re rolling a tube of toothpaste up to squeeze out the last bit. It felt like that kind of roll. Like some heavy person was kneading me. This weird, uncomfortable, feeling came and went a few times before we got to hospital.
Once I was hooked up to monitors in hospital, they told me I’d been having contractions! So baby was trying to come out naturally the day I was scheduled to be induced! This seemed like a good omen.
Alas, nothing good was to happen over the next 24 hours. The exact names and specifics of the procedures are a blur but I think they inserted and rubbed me with something and not only does that potentially lead to dilation but it definitely brings on the contractions, which hurt. The pain is so hard to describe. It’s just so weird how it comes out of nowhere and in between, you feel absolutely fine. It really feels like something is happening to you. Something else is in control. Because, something else is!!! Nature! Biology! A baby! OMG.
So… they gave me some opioids for the pain and what I remember is lying on my back, on an incline, concentrating on my yogic breathing to relax. But I relaxed too much because then my blood pressure dropped and in rushed a medical team, pushing and pulling at my belly because they’d lost baby’s heart beat! Did I mention his heart beat was hooked up, playing loud, the whole time? Thankfully, the heart beat came back.
This was about 3am and so then they decided the geriatric high risk stuff was kicking in and I’d better get moved from an induction suite to a Labour and Delivery Room, even though I was still zero cm dilated.
In the morning, after a horrible night of pain, nausea, and insane narco dreams, I had dilated 1cm. At that point they inflated a little balloon up inside me and the idea is that when you reach 3cm dilation, the balloon will fall out. A few more hours passed. Horrible contractions, crying, wincing, wailing, moving about feeling as big as a cow, then moments of reprieve. Also, nauseous and hungry.
On the loo, the balloon dropped out. So that meant I’d made it to 3cm, which meant I could get an epidural, which would mean some relief from the hideous, rolling, compressing, brain freezing contractions. My husband thought it would be an okay time to pop home for a shower.
Alas alack, a few deep yogic breaths in the inclined bed later, my heart pressure dropped and we lost baby’s heart beat again. This time the pulling and pushing – not to mention an actual hand inside my vagina trying to get the baby’s heart pumping – didn’t work and I got rushed for an emergency c-section. And couldn’t remember my husband’s phone number. And they didn’t have it. (WTF???) And they couldn’t find my phone.
In the Operating Room, prepped for surgery, the baby’s heart beat came back and they decided to hold off. This was about 3pm. And I was glad we got a stay because my husband wasn’t there BUT for mine and baby’s sake, this would have been the time to do it as nothing good happened in the next 9 hours. Just more contractions and more pain.
Did I mention that because me and baby had nearly dropped off the system after the epidural, they decided to lower the dose? So by now I was utterly, utterly miserable. Just a crying wreck, paranoid about baby’s heart beat. Sick and sore and sorry for myself.
Why do all this in the hope of having a vaginal birth? I really don’t know. Okay, so the baby is meant to be exposed to useful bacteria on the way out. It helps their head shape, or something. Yada yada. But really we were doing very badly. I think we should have had the c-section much sooner but I was in no condition to assert my views – I was following along with what I assumed to be best practice.
Also, it was a teaching hospital. I got no bother from students but after complaining to a nurse about how much pain I was in, she sent in a female junior doctor who offered to circumvent my own OB and anaesthesiologist and give me the full dose epidural. My husband had read that label. That thing contained FENTANYL! I said, “No, thank you very much, I’ll stick with my team.” And kept complaining.
You need 10cm before you can start pushing and I was only at about 6cm, but, nonetheless, the baby’s head felt ready to split my abdomen open. Honestly, I can’t imagine what it actually feels like for it to come out that way because I never got there.
Just before midnight, we agreed to go for a c-section. One memorable thing was that the surgeon had just begun his shift when I went in there the first time, at 3pm, so when I went back at 12am, he said, “This girl again! Why is she still here?” And, at about 6pm, I had begged for food and they’d given me some jell-o. So with the rush of pre-op drugs at midnight, I threw up red jelly all over the surgeon and he goes, “Who gave this girl food!” Also, because they’d lowered my dose of pain meds, I could feel them cutting me and trying to haul baby out! I was not entirely numb! Ergh. So bad.
Baby came out pretty blue, apparently, not really breathing. And all grazed and scratched up – probably because the docs had ruptured my water some hours earlier in the hope of hurrying things along. Was this a good idea? Sounds horrible to me, to be a baby inside a waterless womb.
I could hear him crying and doctors working frantically. Meanwhile, I had my eyes slammed shut. But then a nurse brought baby over and said, “Open your eyes, Elizabeth.” And I said, “I can’t!” And she said, “You’ll never get this moment again.” So I opened them and there he was, the little babby that had been inside me, and we peeped at each other, like a giant whale looking at a tiny man in the ocean, creatures from different worlds, and then he was gone to NICU for some extra TLC.
Me, I got wheeled into a weird observation space, where a nurse handed me a breast pump and said to get pumping because my baby wasn’t there to bring my milk in! I could barely hold the thing up! I was vomiting and sweating and shaking and I continued doing so for 12 hours.
I missed having my baby on my chest right away, as I’d seen in all the pictures, but, boy, that first day and night was hard enough on my own, let alone with him to take care of. Recovery is slow and painful, not light and breezy, as I thought such a routine operation would be. They give you a prescription for Vicodin, which helped.
And my mum came to town for seven weeks, which helped immensely.
We did it! We had a baby! Like all the other parents on earth.
THE PAY OFF
I love the way you squeal and smile when you wake up in the morning
I love your buddha belly and froggy legs on the change table
I love the way you raise one eyebrow and then the other when you’re interested in something, and you say, eh, eh, eh
I love the way you check your hands, adjusting the focus like a telescope
I love the way you quack and moan when you need attention, but don’t cry
I love the jig you do when excited, raising one arm then leg alternately, and also the way you bang your hands when excited – on the dining chair, in the stroller
I love the way you waggle your head like a shark when latching onto boob or anything delicious
I love your long sentences that go up and down and along in various intonations
I love the way when you’re eating, your free arm waves and flops and plops and grabs and clutches anything in its path, as if it were seeing for you when your eyes are closed
I love the way when we help you stand up, you survey your surroundings as if they were brand new, all the angles, vantages and new views, like a periscope or a Meer cat
I love your giggle and your generous smile
I love your patience and dignity
I love the way you’ll always hold my hand when I offer a finger to you
I love the way you casually rest an elbow on any part of me to prop yourself up, like I’m your custom furniture
I love your huge blinking eyes when something is strange and interesting: this is the look we should all aspire to; this is Buddha fresh eyes; this is awe and wonder
I love your lopsided, toothless grin when you look at us from across the room
I love your giggling chortling when you’re in your crib, not ready to sleep
I love the way you look up at me when I’m reading behind you
I love your food testing face, like a sour sommelier
I love the determined pitter patter slap of your palms on the floor when you crawl
I love your weird little snigger that you’ve just come up with all by yourself
I love your bravery traversing all the walls and any object in your path – in your quest to walk
I love the way you potter around the house, picking up all the things, playing in all the areas
I love the way you flap your hands with excitement at food
I love the excited, proud look you have when you climb up our legs, hoping to be picked up
I love the possessive way you grab hold of food and wave it near and far to show you’re in control
I can’t say it better than these comics: