Many of us grew up imagining ourselves in the role of a costumed crusader, from Wonder Woman to She-Ra. Little did we know that years down the road, we'd be inducted into an amazing force of lesser-known superheroes known as moms (83 million strong in the U.S. alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), whose collective powers directly shape the fate of an entire generation. Disguised in bathrobes, marked with bags under their eyes, and toting around mini-sidekicks, these supermoms take on challenges and responsibilities that would bring the Man of Steel to his knees. Leap tall buildings in a single bound? Fine, but can he quiet a colicky newborn at 3 a.m.? That, my friends, is a job for Supermom -- the perfectly imperfect superhero who is unleashed when we rise to the very real challenge of loving and protecting our children.
Katherine Ellison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and mother of two. In her book, The Mommy Brain: How Motherhood Makes Us Smarter, she employs the latest scientific research to prove that from enhanced memory skills to increased emotional intelligence, motherhood actually makes you smarter. "If you think about it in evolutionary terms, there's no other time in a woman's life when she needs to be quite as smart as when she's looking after young children," Ellison says. "Nature takes over and changes her brain at that time on a scale as great or greater as the changes that take place during puberty and menopause." Not feeling super? Consider this heroic transformation: First, your body physically morphs to provide life support to your developing child. Despite bouts of morning sickness, sleep deprivation and myriad other pregnancy ailments, you continue to deliver life-sustaining nutrition to the baby growing inside your body. Yet, there are still more maternal, chemical changes that contribute to superhero-worthy enhancements. "Chemicals like the pituitary hormone, oxytocin, are released into a mother's bloodstream during the birth of her child," explains Sharon Mass, M.D., an OB-GYN at Morristown Memorial Hospital in New Jersey. "Along with stimulating uterine contractions and triggering the milk ejection reflex, it also leads to heightening senses."
It may not have the same visual wow-factor as Bruce Banner's shirt-shredding Incredible Hulk transformation, but the evolution from woman to Supermom is just as amazing--and difficult. The villainous double whammy of sleep deprivation and post-delivery pain can be difficult, emotional and straight-up exhausting. "It's the infant stage, when all we yearn for is to fall sleep and wake up when our kids can pay for their own Nikes," says Deb DiSandro, author of Tales of a Slightly Off Supermom: Fighting for Truth, Justice and Clean Underwear!
Even those with the most powerful abilities can feel overwhelmed by day-to-day challenges. Thank goodness you can count on your superpowers to make life easier. "When my son Rhys was just a few months old, it seemed like I woke up one morning and could completely understand him," says Shay Sampson, a mom of two in San Francisco. "With every cry, coo and facial expression he made, I knew just what he needed. It was like all of a sudden I spoke his baby language." Combining these powers with an armful of knowledge during the tumultuous first 12 weeks of new parenthood (we like to refer to them as "the trenches") can leave every new mom feeling stronger, better and faster -- and restore peace and order to even the most chaotic of kingdoms. Behold, seven super ways to combat common new-mom challenges:
Banish Baby Blues
"Baby blues" affect as many as 60 to 80 percent of childbearing women during the first year of their baby's life, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Lack of sleep, and hormonal changes, can wreak havoc, leaving you tired, emotional and sad. "Take care of yourself. Simple to say, hard to do," says Nancy M. Silva, M.D., fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and board-certified pediatrician in Brandon, Florida. "As a new mom, your baby's needs come first. However, much like an oxygen mask on an airplane, you must first care for yourself before you can help your baby." Silva shares the following small changes that may help to minimize the blues:
• Stay home with your little one the first few weeks. Although it may seem that everyone wants to see the new baby (and you want to show off your cutie too), preparing yourself for an outing can often get in the way of a new mother's need to rest. Also, try to rest when your baby sleeps, even if it's just a catnap or a short snooze. One exception: Go out for an hour or two alone every week to reconnect with yourself and the world. It may feel strange to leave your new baby, but time alone can bring sanity to a stressed Supermom. Mental respite is crucial.
• Drink plenty of liquids to keep yourself hydrated and to maintain your breast-milk supply.
• With a new baby to care for 24/7, you may forget to eat or simply not feel hungry. But your body needs energy, especially if you had a Cesarean or any complications. Eating small, frequent, healthful meals will sustain your appetite and provide a constant source of fuel.
• Meditation, deep breathing, massage and other relaxation techniques are great ways to relieve stress -- and prevent the blues. And now that your body is learning new positions for breastfeeding or formula-feeding, carrying baby, pushing a stroller, and lugging a heavy diaper bag, these techniques can prevent muscle strain too.
• Make time for skin-to-skin contact with baby. Studies show it will help you relax while also calming your baby. Consider it the all-natural high for both mom and baby.
• While the blues tend to dissipate, post-partum depression (PPD) is a more serious condition, and can be harder to shake. If the blues last more than two to three weeks, you are having trouble eating, sleeping or taking care of your baby, or you feel overwhelmingly sad, talk to your doctor.
Call in Reinforcements
Although many new moms find it difficult to ask for help, or accept it when offered, even Supermom can't do it all on her own. If your mom, or even your mother-in-law, wants to help care for her precious grandchild, take her up on it. Friends may offer to bring you dinner and hold your baby while you nap ... let them! Oh, and whatever you do, don't sideline Superman! Even if you're breastfeeding, he can take on other caretaking responsibilities like burping, diaper changes and general comforting.
Once those difficult first few weeks are over, you may also find yourself looking for a band of like-minded Supermom comrades to share in the joy and struggles of your new "super" life. There are several ways to meet other moms with baby in tow:
• Check out new-mom forums like those at parenting.com or cafemom.com. Facebook is another network where new moms can share photos and witty comments about their new lives without even having to shower first.
• Sign up your baby for a class! From Kindermusik to Gymboree, there are programs designed for even the youngest of babies. The classes stimulate your little one's senses while introducing you to a new group of moms with babies in the same age group as yours.
• Find a playgroup. It's another (free) reason to get out of the house and meet other new moms. To locate a playgroup in your area, search meetup.com or join your local Mothers of Preschoolers International (MOPS) at mops.org.
Saving lives and protecting the innocent are part of the moral code of conduct every good superhero lives by. Unfortunately, our Superspawn do not come equipped with protective shields, so when driving, make sure you follow car seat safety guidelines.
• The smart folks at the AAP recommend that your baby ride in a rear-facing infant or convertible car seat in the backseat of your car until she is at least 1 year old and weighs 20 pounds, or even longer if she fits in it comfortably. If your child outgrows her infant seat before she turns 1, consider buying a larger rear-facing seat that can accommodate a child that weighs up to 40 pounds. Graco's My Ride 65 Convertible Car Seat is one of the few rear-facing seats that accommodate babies up to 40 pounds.
• It can seem like installing a car seat properly might actually require superhuman ability. Three out of four of them are used and installed incorrectly, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Carefully read the instruction manual prior to installation, and then call in another superpower to double-check your work. Certified child-passenger safety technicians can review your car seat installation and make necessary changes. Visit nhtsa.dot.gov/cps to find a list of safety-seat inspection stations near you.
• Once your seat is installed, make sure your Superbaby is properly secured. The harness retainer clips should be positioned at armpit level, and the harness straps should be snug, lying flat and tight across her chest.
• Never use a car seat that is more than five years old or one that has been involved in an accident. If you have a hand-me-down car seat (or crib, or any other type of gear) make sure it has not been recalled due to safety reasons. You can call the manufacturer or check the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's Website (cpsc.gov) for an updated list of recalled products.
Supermoms play many roles when it comes to baby care, and diaper changer may be the most thankless of all. Amazingly, Supermoms can eventually become almost immune to the smell of their own child's pee and poop. Now that's a superpower that comes in handy, since newborns go through as many as 10 diapers a day. Follow our diapering tips to make your changes safe and mess-free:
• If you're using a changing table, keep one hand on your squirmy baby's belly. Never leave him unattended, even for a second. Even tiny babies can surprise you with the ability to roll over when you least expect it.
• Use damp cotton balls or baby wipes to clean your baby's genital area thoroughly. For little girls, be sure to wipe front to back to avoid a urinary tract infection. For boys, use a washcloth to cover his penis and avoid a surprise shower. If your son is uncircumcised, it is important to gently tug back his foreskin and cleanse thoroughly. [Read an important note from the Editors of Babytalk about the care and cleansing of baby boys' penises.]
• Change soiled diapers often to avoid rashes, and always dry the area completely before fastening a new diaper. If that cute bottom becomes inflamed with a diaper rash, wash the affected area with warm water and apply a cream like Desitin. If the rash continues for more than a few days, call your pediatrician; it could be a yeast infection or an allergic reaction.
• If your newborn's umbilical cord stump is still attached, fold down the front of the diaper below the belly button to avoid exposure to waste or moisture.
Two to three hours of crying a day in the first three months is considered normal, according to the AAP. Is it stressing you out? Blame one of your superpowers! Researchers used MRI imaging to show that a crying baby actually triggers a neural chain reaction in a mom's brain, heightening her reaction. But even the most in-tune Supermom can sometimes find calming a crying baby difficult. After covering the basics, like checking to see if he's wet, hungry or tired, Silva suggests the following tactics. Before you know it, you'll be adding these to your ever-growing superpower collection.
• Use a swing. The movement mimics the motion babies experience in the womb, and thus has a tendency to calm them.
• Carry your baby in a sling. You'll be hands-free and can even tackle household chores (or your Facebook status update) while your baby is comforted by the closeness.
• Warm baths can be soothing for little ones. (Others find it irritating, so try it out and see if it helps.) Most babies can take a bath once the umbilical cord has fallen off and healed. Use hypoallergenic, scent-free baby soap to prevent skin irritation, and massage him with soft, circular strokes.
• Yes! A Supermom has the power to morph into her baby's very own human pacifier. It's called breastfeeding, but a simple pacifier can work too.
• Ssshh softly in his ear, run a vacuum cleaner or play a white noise CD. It simulates the constant sounds heard in the womb. It also helps some babies tune out other sounds that subtly stimulate.
• Try swaddling him. The warm, secure feeling is soothing to most newborns. Go to babytalk.com for a step-by-step primer on how to swaddle.
Getting your baby to fall asleep and stay asleep can be a difficult superpower to acquire. The first few months may seem like an endless 'round-the-clock battle. (It's no wonder sleep deprivation is considered a form of torture in some countries.) Although it may not seem like it, your baby is actually sleeping an average of 14 ½ to 16 ½ hours a day during the first eight weeks -- just broken up into a few hours here and there. "Then, between 3 and 4 months, your little one may begin to sleep a five-hour stretch," says Silva. "Sleeping through the night typically occurs at about 5 months, usually defined by a eight-hour stretch." There are many techniques at Supermoms' fingertips to help them achieve the coveted super-status of having a baby who sleeps through the night.
Whatever strategy you use, be sure to keep your baby safe. Always put your little one to sleep on her back on a sleeping surface free of blankets, stuffed animals and pillows to decrease the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). For more SIDS prevention guidelines, visit the AAP's new Website for parents: healthychildren.org.
Tiny bellies only hold so much, so you'll be feeding your little one a lot over the first 12 weeks. "Newborns should feed eight to 12 times in a 24-hour period," says Silva. "That means the average baby will eat every two to three hours." Whether you decide on bottle, breast or both, liquid power is all your baby needs in the first four months. Frank Greer, M.D., a member of the AAP's Committee on Nutrition, says breast milk is the optimal choice of nutrition for your baby for the first 12 months. "Human milk is the preferred food for all infants, including premature and sick newborns, with rare exceptions. The only acceptable alternative to breast milk is iron-fortified infant formula," he says. More feeding advice for new moms:
• Don't feel like the two- to three-hour rule is set in stone. Some infants like to cluster-feed. "They will feed every 30 minutes to an hour several hours in a row -- it can be very exhausting, yet normal," says Silva. "The same baby may give you four to six hours of sleep in a row." As long as there have been eight to 12 feedings in the previous 24 hours, and your baby is gaining weight, this is fine. Consult with your pediatrician if you have any concerns.
• Learn to read your baby's cues for when he's hungry or full. He may cry, suck on his hands, root with his head or make sucking motions with his mouth. As for when he's had enough, babies have a natural ability to self-regulate. They rarely overeat. So as long as he's meeting the requirements set forth by your pediatrician, he should be fine.
• Although spitting up seems to come with the territory, doing so after each meal could be a sign of overfeeding or gastroesophageal reflux. Consult with your pediatrician.