One of the first notions that needs to go, according to Sanford, is the idea that you, or you and your partner, can handle everything yourselves. The fact is, a new baby and a new mom outnumber a single caregiver two to one, with separate needs that continue around the clock for at least the first month after birth. For the new mother, this includes a physical healing period of at least three to four weeks, if not more, says Linda Nicol, R.N., patient education coordinator at Loyola University Medical Center, in Maywood, Illinois, regardless of how "normal" she looks on the outside after birth.
"Your body is using your energy to heal on the inside, and if you're breastfeeding, you're also using at least 500 calories more than normal," explains Nicol. As a result, a new mom needs sleep, rest, nutrition, and as much stress relief as possible -- things she typically won't get on her own. "A new mom finds out it can take an hour to feed a baby, then she cooks or cleans or does laundry, and then an hour later the baby is hungry again," explains Nicol. "There isn't time for her to do anything else."
Because of all of these factors, Nicol and Sanford both always recommend that all women plan for a minimum of two weeks of daily help at home after childbirth, from both their partner and someone else, if possible. To get this, you'll need to line up family or friends or even pay for assistance. "Four weeks of help in the home from your partner and someone else is the optimum," says Nicol, but she admits that a month isn't usually realistic. Still, extensive aid -- of a month or more -- may be something you'll have no choice about needing if there are complications with your health or the baby's.
A woman who gives birth to a premature baby who can't come home right away, for example, doesn't need help with her newborn, but she may need more emotional support and at-home assistance. "I was pumping breast milk every three hours and then jumping in the car to go to the hospital the moment I woke up," says Debby Greene, a Big Sky, Montana, mom of three, including premature twins. Even though it would seem that it was easier to have her babies cared for in a hospital, Greene says the emotional and physical challenges of being separated from them meant she needed different kinds of help from her family and friends. She especially valued delivered hot meals, rides to the hospital, care for her older child, and lots of hand-holding.
Women who have had a cesarean also need very specific practical assistance. Since they cannot drive (for four to six weeks), vacuum, or lift a baby carrier or a heavy laundry basket, and they need to limit stair climbing for several weeks because of the risk of hemorrhage after surgery, friends and family willing to drive and lend a hand with housekeeping, as well as with baby and mom, are particularly valuable. And while women who have already had a baby may be confident about caring for a newborn, they almost always need help getting rest, which often requires one person to care for the older child and another to take care of the baby for the first several weeks.