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New Mom's Etiquette Guide

When you become a mom, you enter a whole new country. While there are guidebooks to help you navigate diaper rash, sleep habits, and how to give your slippery newborn a bath, you're on your own when people come up to you and offer their "expert" advice or your mother insists it's fine to put the baby to sleep on his tummy (after all, that's what she did with you). If you find yourself baffled by these and other dilemmas unique to motherhood, take heart. You're not alone. Here's how other moms have found their way.

The Thing That Wouldn't Leave
When my son Zander was born, thousands of relatives flew into town to "help" me. The average visit was a week long, which meant that by the time everyone left, Zander was nearly 5 years old. (Okay, I'm exaggerating. But only a little.) Amanda Palmquist, mom of Luka, 10, and Kiara, 5, in Oakland, California, had a similar situation. "My mother-in-law moved into our one-bedroom apartment and stayed for three months when Luka was born," she says, shuddering at the memory. "She couldn't afford a lot of trips  -- she lives in Costa Rica  -- so I felt I couldn't object. Sure, she helped with childcare and cooked from time to time. But she also destroyed any sense of privacy and autonomy that my husband and I might have shared."

Houseguests can be draining at the best of times, but when you're recovering from delivery, even the most amiable visitor can drive you up the wall. How can you keep people away, or at the very least get them to give you some breathing room, without hurting their feelings?

"Enlist the help of a sympathetic relative," suggests Lesley Carlin, coauthor of More Things You Need to Be Told and the mom of a 1-year-old girl. "Have that person relate stories of a friend who was driven mad by hordes of incoming relatives after her baby's birth. Such tales should end with 'I know no one in our family would dream of doing that to Isabel and Jon. It's so inconsiderate. Don't you think new parents deserve some time alone to bond with their baby?'"

Or try dangling an incentive. Tell relatives that if they wait about six weeks, the baby will be smiling! Or suggest that what you really need is a loving family member to help with the transition from maternity leave back to work. Especially eager kinfolk might like the idea of two visits  -- a peep right after the baby's born and a slightly longer stay once you've had time to settle in.

When your guests do arrive, make sure they know you're convalescing. "I had my husband remind me every morning  -- in front of his parents  -- that I needed to take an afternoon nap," says Dylan Nelson, the Los Angeles mom of Milo, 1. "And I capitalized on my father-in-law's squeamishness about nursing by hiding upstairs whenever my nerves began to fray." She also declared her bedroom a visitor-free zone  -- every mom needs a sanctuary  -- and retreated there right after dinner. "Taking to my bed like a Victorian heroine, with a stack of magazines and the baby by my side, felt wonderful," she says. "I looked forward to it all day."

Fernanda Moore, a mom of two, has written for New York Magazine.

Everyone's An Expert

No mom would ever wear a T-shirt that begs, "Tell me what I'm doing wrong!" But she might as well. "How can you take that baby out in the rain/sun/snow/wind?" the mailman will chide as she pushes her stroller down the block. Later, in line at the supermarket, she hears, "If she keeps sucking that thumb, she won't be pretty anymore!" Her own mom, who should know better, chimes in at naptime with "You'll never get him to go to sleep by himself if you keep coddling him." Over coffee, a childless friend gasps, "You're still nursing?"

In an ideal world, the only thing anyone should say to you and your baby is "She's beautiful!" (Okay, and "You're back in shape already!" is hereby officially sanctioned.) But here in reality, babies are magnets for unsolicited advice. When strangers subject you to their unwelcome opinions, it's best to smile vaguely and make your escape as soon as possible. If a snappy retort comes to mind, go ahead and use it. Carlin suggests telling the thumb-sucking police, "Well, if she stops sucking her thumb, she's going to scream like a banshee, and that's really not pretty." Or play along. "People always used to tell me Patrick needed socks, and I got so tired of it I decided to have a little fun," says Julia Steury of Afton, Minnesota, whose son is now 2. "I'd stare at his feet, aghast. 'Socks!' I'd cry. 'They were right there! What happened?'"

Whatever gets you through the moment  -- one of my friends used to pretend she didn't understand English  -- is the best strategy, since it's a pretty safe bet you'll never cross paths with that nosy person again.

With people you don't see often, master the art of the little white lie. The correct answer to the inevitable "Is she sleeping through the night?" is "Yes!" (even if she wakes up every 45 minutes).

"Within two days of having Jack, I realized that everyone I knew had a different idea about everything related to babycare," says Nina Hale of Minneapolis, whose son is now 3. "I quickly stopped letting myself in for criticism by keeping quiet about things most didn't approve of, like co-sleeping."

Friends or relatives you see frequently require a bit more thought, and some careful handling. Advice from strangers is irritating, but advice from someone you're close to can downright rankle. "When my aunt suggested we let six-month-old Vivienne cry it out, I smiled tolerantly," says Margo de la Cruz of San Diego. "But when my mom said the same thing, I flew into a rage."

Be gentle but firm. Blaming your pediatrician ("Our doctor says to wait to start solid foods") might take the heat off. You can also smile wanly and chant, "This is what works best for us. This is what works best for us," over and over again. Eventually, they'll get the message and leave you alone  -- till next time.

Handling Grubby Mitts

Lani Holgersson of Maplewood, New Jersey, remembers her first outing with 3-week-old Lailah (which happened to be my birthday party. Whoops.) "Your sister had a cold, and she sat right next to me," Holgersson grumbles, adding that she immediately fled to my bedroom, where she and the baby hung out.

In my defense, though I'm sorry my friend missed the party, Lailah did not catch her first cold at my house. Believe it or not, newborns are fairly robust. While no one wants a stranger in the grocery store poking his microbe-laden fingers into her child's face (it feels somehow like a violation, though the baby probably doesn't mind), a sniffly toddler in the checkout line is no reason to flee the premises.

Still, sometimes strangers get too close for comfort. Says Carlin, "People are nuts. In our Realtor's office, a crazy lady came at my sleeping three-week-old shaking a giant keychain and yelling, 'Wake up, baby!' Other people have tried to touch her without my permission. An icy glare can work; I'm also holding in reserve, 'Please don't. She's going through a phase  -- when strangers pinch her cheeks or touch her feet, she throws up all over them.'"

Wearing your baby in a front carrier or sling may help; even people who love to pester infants will often hesitate to invade your personal space to do so. "I'd pull the sunshade way down on Milo's car seat when I carried it around, so that she was invisible," says Nelson.

Holgersson got the jump on potentially germy visitors to her house by making sure she was always holding Lailah when they arrived. "They'd have to ask to hold her, instead of just swooping her out of her bassinet. 'Sure,' I'd say. 'But would you mind washing your hands first?' I had my next line  -- 'Because the doctor says it's a good idea'  -- all ready, but I never had to use it."

"Have You No Shame?"

Nursing babies are like ticking time bombs  -- any mom who ventures out for more than a couple of hours will eventually have to pop out her breast away from home. Sure, you'll try to breastfeed in a public bathroom the first few times, but it's such an unappetizing experience, eventually even the most modest among us tend to throw caution to the wind and bravely nurse wherever hunger strikes. But how to do so with confidence?

Pearl Yu, who works as a lactation consultant in Menlo Park, California, and nursed her daughter Avery, now 8, in dozens of unorthodox locations (including a blimp!), advises moms simply to practice. "Find a peaceful, child-friendly location, like the children's room at the library or a mothers-only playgroup. The more you nurse in public, the more comfortable you'll feel," she says. A nursing top or well-placed blanket can also help you feel less exposed.

Know that to most people, a quietly breastfeeding baby is practically invisible. "When Jack was two months old, I nursed him right at the table through a dinner party," says Hale. "I felt very self-conscious, but you know what? I found out later that everyone else just assumed he was sleeping in my arms the whole time."

What if a stranger pipes up and tells you, "You should nurse that baby somewhere else"? Yu suggests trying to sweetly deflect the comment. "Smile and say something like 'Yes, isn't she cute? She's such a happy baby.'" If the person persists, politely remind him or her that your legal right to breastfeed in public is protected in every state. Then do your best to ignore the person.

"In My Day, There Were No Such Things As Car Seats"

When Debbie Eiel of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, left her 5-month-old son, Tommy, with his grandparents for the first time, she let them know she'd be back in a flash. "I'd just nursed him, and I was gone for less than an hour," she says. "When I got back, they'd given my baby  -- who was totally breastfed up to that point  -- a gigantic bottle of formula! I'd have fired a babysitter who did that. But how can you fire Grandma?"

When relatives volunteer to watch your baby, it's a blessing. But the blessing quickly becomes a curse if they flout your parenting guidelines  -- or, worse, inadvertently jeopardize your child's safety. For minor infractions, however  -- permitting extra sweets, for instance  -- choose your battles. "My in-laws constantly gave Jack sugary juice and even soda in his sippy cup, even though I begged them not to," says Hale. "Finally I gave up; I just made sure to brush his teeth when we got home."

Videos are another common area of contention. "My mom always griped that she never saw the baby," says Nelson. "But when I brought Milo over, they'd watch Elmo all afternoon." Chances are, your relatives don't set out to defy your rules. They may resort to videos from sheer exhaustion. Be sympathetic  -- you know how tiring babies are  -- but suggest spending downtime with books instead.

Some family caregivers equate permissiveness with love. "My in-laws adore the idea of spoiling their grandchildren, and to them that means lots of soda and TV," says Hale. "Obviously I don't agree, but I'm less angry now that I understand where they're coming from."

Where your child's safety is at issue, though, you can't afford to compromise. You need to make it absolutely clear, even if your mom put her kids to sleep on their stomachs, that putting yours on her back is nonnegotiable. It's your job to make sure all caregivers can manage all the car-seat buckles before they take your baby on the road.

If you suspect a relative is doing something that's a danger to your baby (smoking near her, for instance), confront him or her right away. If things don't change, you may need to pull the plug on unsupervised visits.

Finally, childproof your relative's house a little. "My mom had five kids, but it's been seven years since she had a baby," says Palmquist. "So I moved the cleaning supplies and made sure her bathroom cabinets were secure."

In the land of motherhood, nothing stays static for long. The changes your baby goes through will astonish you  -- and this week's most challenging etiquette dilemmas might vanish in a few months' time. Sure, new ones will emerge, but by then you'll no longer be a neophyte. You'll be Veteran Mom  -- ready to lend your road map to a brand-new voyager.