Here are a few basics you need to know about your new arrival.
Baby may be, well, a little funny-looking. His head may be smooshed from his journey through the birth canal, and he might be sporting a "bodysuit" of fine hair called lanugo. He could also be puffy-faced and have eyes that are often shut (and a little gooey). After all, he just spent nine months in the womb. But pretty soon, he'll resemble that beautiful baby you imagined.
Don't expect rewards - smiles or coos - until about the 6-week mark. Up until then, you're working for a boss who only complains! To get through the exhaustion and emotional upheaval, keep this in mind: your efforts aren't lost on baby in those early days. "He feels comforted by his father or mother, he feels attachment, he likes to be held," says Los Angeles-based pediatrician Christopher Tolcher, MD
Give baby sponge baths until the umbilical cord falls off. If it's kept dry, it falls off faster -- usually within two weeks. Besides, newborns don't get very dirty! If the cord does get wet, pat it dry. And if the stump bleeds a little when the cord falls off, that's okay, too, as Alyson Bracken, of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, learned. "It scared me at first," she says, but then she found out that, as with a scab, mild bleeding was normal.
The soft spot can handle some handling. "I was terrified of the soft spot," admits April Hardwick, of New York City, referring to the opening in the skull, also called the fontanel, which allows baby to maneuver out of the birth canal. "Gemma had a full head of hair at birth, and I was initially afraid to comb over the soft spot," Hardwick says. But there was no need to worry: "It's okay to touch the soft spot and baby's hair near it," says Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, pediatrician and author of Mommy Calls. The spot may pulsate because it's directly over blood vessels covering the brain.
She'll let you know if she's getting enough food. Baby needs to eat every two to three hours -- but if you're nursing, it's tough to know how much milk she's getting. "The baby's weight is the best indicator in the early days," says Dr. Tolcher. Your pediatrician will check it within a few days of discharge. A newborn loses 5 to 8 percent of her birthweight within the first week but should gain it back by the second. Diaper-counting can also act as a gauge: her schedule those first five days is haphazard, but after that, you'll see five to six wet diapers a day, and at least one or two stools.
Dry skin is the norm for newborns. Initially, he may be soft and silky, but that changes. "If you soaked yourself in liquid for nine months and then hit the air, you'd be dry too!" says Laura Jana, MD, pediatrician and coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn. You don't have to do anything about dry skin (it typically peels and flakes off), but if you're so inclined, reach for a hypoallergenic baby lotion that is fragrance-free. Little pink bumps, diaper rashes, and even baby acne may also make an appearance. "Acne tends to last for a few months," Dr. Jana says. "So get those cute newborn pics before one month!"
You don't have to hole up at home. "Lead a normal life, but use common sense when you go out in public," Dr. Tolcher says. Keep baby out of the sun, and avoid sick people (no toddler birthday parties!) and crowded enclosed spaces (such as the mall during the holidays). "Teach older siblings to touch baby's feet instead of her hands and face, which will help prevent the spread of infection," he adds. And make your older child the hygiene police, says Dr. Jana. He'll love telling guests, "Don't touch the baby without washing your hands."
Babies cry a lot - that's how they communicate! Their piercing wails will let you know they're hungry, cold, have a dirty diaper, or want to be held. These early "conversations" can be frustrating, but rest assured, you'll get a better handle on what she needs in time. Laurie May, of Boardman, Ohio, and her husband quickly learned to read their daughter's hunger signal. When they were brand-new parents, they set an alarm to go off every two hours to wake Carter for a feeding. "We did not need the alarm!" she says. "We love to laugh at that one now."
Newborn babies also sleep a lot - but not for long stretches. Those first three months are a free-for-all. Baby needs to eat every two to three hours, so you're not getting much sleep either. "It does get better," assures Dr. Altmann. "Most infants can sleep for six to eight hours by 3 months of age." In the meantime, try to get baby on a day and night schedule: during the day, don't let him snooze more than three hours without waking him to feed; at night let him sleep as long as he wants once he's regained the weight he lost at birth.
The newborn stage is fleeting. Stressed, tired, and lonely? Yes, those early days are hard. But they'll soon be behind you. Barbara Evans, of New York City, says, "I wish I'd known how quickly the time goes." The mom to Luella, 8 months, says, "I didn't take enough pictures or keep notes!" Rabeea Baloch, of Sugarland, Texas, shares some veteran-mom experience: "With my first, I stressed over every single thing, from changing diapers to whether baby was crying more than usual. With my second, I just enjoyed holding her, smelling her, kissing her, and loving the time together."