Baby Basics for New Dads, Part 1

6 important tips every father should know

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Are you a nervous new father? Education can be the best cure for novice dads. Take the mystery out of holding your baby, diapering, swaddling, and caring for the umbilical stump and circumcision, with this how-to guide.

Congratulations on becoming a new dad! Soon, you will be knee deep in diapers and propping those sleepy eyes open with toothpicks. To help you hit the ground running, here are some tips to get you started on the right foot.

Trust Your Paternal Instincts

Taking care of a new baby is not as hard as it may seem. The biggest challenge for men—and for many first-time moms, as well—is cultivating a trust in their parenting abilities. This is not easy considering the stereotype of the clueless dad, who decimates the kitchen making breakfast and sends his children off to school in the snow wearing rubber boots, sunglasses, and shorts.

Newborn care takes practice for both men and women, and maintaining a positive attitude and being willing to make mistakes are crucial to successful parenting. Resist the temptation to relinquish the job to your partner. Ultimately, you and your children will be glad you didn’t.

Picking Up, Carrying, and Laying Baby Down

Many new parents worry about accidentally dropping or mishandling their infants. Relax. Even severely sleep-deprived moms and dads rarely drop their children. When handling your new baby, however, support weak neck muscles during the first four weeks. Here’s how to keep baby’s head from flopping around like a bowling ball at the end of a wet noodle:

  • Picking Up: Face your baby and gently slide your hand under her shoulder blades. Place your palm on the back of her neck, using your fingers to support the head. Slip your other hand firmly underneath the baby’s buttocks. Lift her up slowly against your chest as sudden movements can startle her. 

  • Carrying: There are a variety of safe holds. You can cradle Baby in the crook of your arm or lean him up against your chest. Use both hands and always support the head and neck. Avoid the temptation to answer the phone or open the refrigerator while carrying your child. Always place your baby in a safe place while doing other activities. 

  • Laying Down: Lean down while keeping Baby against your chest, one hand behind her head, the other supporting her back or bottom until Baby is safely resting on her back.

Note: Infants should always be placed on their backs in a cradle, crib, or bassinette. Doing this reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Short periods of tummy time are fine under supervision.

Swaddling

Many parents find that mimicking the cozy conditions of the womb soothes fussy or colicky babies. The following instructions are adapted from The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby-From Birth to Age Two, by Dr. William Sears, MD, and Martha Sears, RN. 

  • Lay a receiving blanket on a stable, flat surface, like the floor. (Thin, stretchy blankets work best. Do not use a puffy comforter or quilt). 

  • Position the blanket in the shape of a diamond, with a corner at the top.

  • Fold the top corner one third of the way down the blanket.

  • Place your infant on his back with the head resting just above the top fold.

  • Fold the right edge of the blanket over your baby’s left arm. Lay the arm diagonally over the chest, tucking the right corner of the blanket snugly under the right armpit. 

  • Bring the bottom corner of the blanket up over the feet. Tuck the corner into the fold made in the previous step.

  • Fold the left side of the blanket over the baby’s right arm. Bring the arm across the body (the two arms should approximate an “X” across your baby’s chest). Tuck the left corner of the blanket tightly around baby’s back.

Et Voila! A baby burrito, cute enough to eat.

Diapering

Cloth or disposable? Safety pins or Velcro tabs? Kermit or Barney? The dizzying array of diaper choices can make filling out your tax return seem easy. Fortunately for new dads, the newborn options are relatively limited. If looking for disposables, look for an “N” (newborn) and opt for unscented, alcohol-free diapers and wipes; scents or perfumes may irritate your baby’s skin. Some newborn diapers even have a waist notch for the umbilical cord. Or simply fold the top of a newborn diaper away from the site until it is healed.

Whatever your choice, there are some common safety musts:

  • Assemble everything you need ahead of time including diapers, moistened and dry tissues and unscented baby wipes, diaper safety pins (if using cloth diapers that don’t have Velcro strips), and a change of clothes.

  • Never leave your baby unattended on an elevated surface (including a changing table or bed). Babies, even some newborns, can wiggle and roll. The floor is safest and can make the first few changes easier.

  • Keep one hand on the baby at all times.

  • Lock all pets out of the room if the baby is on the floor.

Cloth Diapers

  • Carefully remove safety pins from the soiled diaper. Stick the pins in a bar of soap (a safe storage option with the soap film making it easy for pins to slide through the cloth.) If pins make you nervous, consider diaper covers with Velcro strips. 

  • Fold the front flap of the soiled diaper under the baby’s buttocks, clean side against the skin.

  • Cover a boy’s penis with a small washcloth to avoid being sprayed. 

  • Slowly lift your baby’s legs (not too high) and remove soiled diaper. 

  • Gently spread the baby’s legs (like a frog), to clean genitals and buttocks with moistened, unscented tissues. Wipe from front to back to avoid spreading bacteria. Do not forget to clean the folds of skin of the vagina or the underside of a penis and scrotum. Double check your baby’s back, behind the knees, and feet for leaked fecal matter.

  • Use the dry tissue to blot (never rub) any residual moisture from the creases of the legs and genitals, as moisture can cause rashes and irritation. 

  • Place open diaper under the buttocks, lengthwise. If your baby’s umbilical cord has not totally healed, place the diaper higher in back than in front. Gently point a boy’s penis down to keep urine from escaping over the top of the diaper.

  • Fold the front of the diaper into thirds by bringing the left and right sides over the padded, middle portion.

  • Pinch the fabric together and bring it through baby’s legs. 

  • Fold the front of the diaper under baby’s belly button. This keeps the diaper away from the umbilical cord and doubles the front layers from three to six. (Place this portion of the diaper in the front for boys and under the buttocks for girls). 

  • Hold the front of the diaper in place with one hand. Fold one corner of the diaper around the top of the baby’s leg with the other. 

  • Place your hand between diaper and skin to avoid pricking the baby. 

  • Slide pin through all layers of the outer fold, but only the top layer of the inner fold. Pins should point away from the navel. Repeat on the other side.

  • Check that material is not bunched or pinching by running a finger under the waist and around your baby’s legs. The diaper should feel snug, but not tight.

Disposable Diapers

  • Remove the dirty diaper and clean the baby as in steps two through seven above. 

  • Bring diaper through the baby’s legs and fasten Velcro side strips to front of diaper.

  • Fold top of diaper below umbilical cord. 

  • Check for a snug but not too tight fit around your baby’s waist and legs.

Use a wipe to clean your baby’s hands after every diaper change (cloth or disposable). Wash your own hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.

Umbilical Cord Care

“The cord can be cleaned a few times a day with alcohol or it can just be left to air dry,” says Dr. Nadine Schwartz, MD, a pediatrician and mother in Philadelphia. “Leaving it alone is the better option, according to the latest literature.”

Most important is keeping the cord dry (see diapering instructions, above). Dress your baby in cotton clothing that allows the skin to breathe. If you decide to use rubbing alcohol, avoid getting it on the skin as it can cause itching and irritation. Change the diaper before cleaning the stump to minimize the risk of spreading bacteria.

To clean the stump you will need cotton swabs and rubbing alcohol:

  • Place your baby on the back using a flat, secure surface. 

  • Soak tip of cotton swab with rubbing alcohol.

  • Gently wipe swab around the base of the umbilical cord, including any folds and crevices.

  • Dip the opposite end of the swab in alcohol and repeat step three.

  • Dab the top and sides of the cord itself with a second cotton swab moistened in alcohol.

As the umbilical cord heals, it will darken, then will eventually fall off completely. This usually takes two weeks to a month, but the time can vary significantly. Notify your pediatrician if you notice a pus-like discharge or a foul odor emanating from the stump.

Circumcisions

This task can make the heartiest of dads squirm; yet caring for your son’s circumcision is fast and easy.

You will need Neosporin ointment (not cream) and cotton swabs.

  • The circumcision does not need to be cleaned, though you do need to wipe away any fecal matter you find with a clean tissue before applying ointment. 

  • Apply a generous amount of Neosporin ointment to the head of the penis with a cotton swab. 

  • Do not rub in the ointment. (The ointment keeps the diaper from chaffing against the sensitive skin.) 

  • Dr. Schwartz advises applying the ointment at every diaper change for the first week.

The site will initially look red and swollen. Some yellow scabbing may occur. This is normal. The circumcision should heal in one to two weeks. Call your pediatrician immediately if the site begins to drain pus or if the head of the penis is red, swollen, or overly warm to the touch.

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