From a Midwife: How to support new mamas; what's helpful + what makes it harder
So often on the maternity ward, I hear loved ones asking, 'how's bub going? Have they got a name? How much do they weigh? When can I snuggle them?' Everyone is excited for a new little love to be born into the world, so much so that they sometimes forget that a new mama has been born too. Without realising and despite their very best intentions, loved ones can make having a new bub a bit more challenging. Yes, everyone is excited to meet bub and wants to soak in that newborn goodness. Everyone wants to hold the baby, but who holds the mama?
In my time as a Midwife and mama, I've come to realise there are a few things you can do, right from the beginning of pregnancy, during labour and birth, and well after bub is born, to help a mama and papa bear adjust to parenthood and life with a new little one. Here are those best-kept secrets:
- Offer to organise a baby shower. I learnt early on, even before having my own bubs, that some mamas don't have anyone who can or is willing to organise a baby shower. Yes, they could organise their own, but some mamas are overwhelmed with growing a little one alone, let alone having something else to sort out. Some mamas don't want to host their baby shower. So offering to host a mamas baby shower can be really helpful, particularly if no one has offered to host for them, they're too embarrassed to ask or feel as though they don't have anyone to ask.
- Chat about normal life. Just because a mama is pregnant doesn't mean the rest of her world stops spinning. She's still a painter/ sport lover/ into gardening. When many other people see a bump and immediately [and only] ask about bub and pregnancy, it can be refreshing to talk about something else.
- Offer to come with her to the glucose tolerance test. If a mama has a glucose tolerance test, she'll be sitting in the waiting room for at least 2 hours. If you tag along, she'll have someone to pass the time with, and you can grab some brunch together afterwards.
- Ask her what she needs. Some mamas are single mamas; others have FIFO/ defence partners, and some have busy partners who work a lot. If you ask her what she needs, and she says nothing. Ask again.
- Offer to help her prepare for bub's arrival. Maybe it will be shopping for and swooning over beautiful baby clothes. Perhaps it's packing the hospital bag or installing the car seat. You might find yourself building a cot together or painting the nursery. While she might want to do some of these tasks with her partner, offering to help lets her know that you're there to support her.
- If it's not the first bub, offering to babysit older kids allows a mama and her partner to reconnect, have some alone time or go on a date before the arrival of their newest little love. While it may not seem like much, one-on-one time becomes a rarity after little ones arrive.
- If you're family or a close friend, offer to babysit bub when a mama goes into labour/ in for a c-section. Often, a big source of stress for a mama is who will look after her older bubs when she goes into labour because you essentially need someone on standby. If you're able to, being on standby to watch bub can alleviate a huge source of a mama's stress. Depending on where a mama chooses to birth her bub, her partner may be able to stay overnight once bub is born too, so keep this in mind if you offer to babysit older bubs.
- TLC. Depending on your relationship with a mama, helping her with some self-care at the end of pregnancy can make a huge difference. Think along the line of painting her toenails, rubbing swollen feet or massaging a sore back.
- Organise a cook up. If you've read our previous blogs, you'll know that having frozen meals ready to go that are healthy, delicious and nutritious helps a mama look after herself too. If you find four friends and each cook three dinner meals in the last week or two of a mama's pregnancy, that's 21 dinners or three weeks worth of dinners a mama and papa bear don't have to worry about.
- If a mama is in hospital as an inpatient during pregnancy, and you want to send them something, instead of sending flowers [yes, I know they're beautiful], consider things that will help pass the time, such as find-a-words, adult colouring books, crosswords, cards games, puzzles or crocheting materials, depending on what their interests are.
During labour + birth
This section is broken into two parts; if you're the birthing partner, and if you're not. That's because the way you can support a mama during her labour differs depending on your roles.
If you're not the birthing partner
- In many of the births I've been in, birthing partners are taken away from supporting a mama by answering the numerous phone calls they're receiving. I know you're worried, excited and want to make sure everything is ok, but there are more supportive ways to go about it than calling every hour to check if bub is born yet. It can also be disheartening to a mama who is hearing regular reminders that bub isn't born yet. Instead, call once, or better yet, send a text that the birthing partner can respond to when they've got time because, at that very moment, their focus is supporting a mama to bring her bub earthside.
- Offer to bring food for the birthing partner. While in hospital, a mama will receive meals from the hospital, but in a public hospital, a partner won't. So in that text message you send, offering to bring food for the birthing partner can be really helpful and a positive way you can be a part of the labour without overstepping.
- "Call me when you get a chance." This links in with the first point, except this one focuses on after bub is born. In my experience, once bub is born, and a mama and papa-bear are ready to share the news, they call loved ones or send a picture and message of bub around. Once they do, their phone starts blowing up with love. So when you get back to them, asking them to call you when it suits them rather than calling them while they're being contacted by everyone else can help take that pressure off and give them time and space to get to know their bub first before.
- Take care of the parking. If you're close to the hospital, offer to move the car, so the birthing partner doesn't have to leave a mama. I know it sounds silly, but over the last four years, I've seen one papa bear completely miss, and FOUR others almost miss the birth because they were moving the car.
- Offer to pet-sit or babysit. Like I said above, having someone to watch older kids or pets can be a big source of a mama's stress. Taking care of that lets a mama focus on being present in her labour and birth.
If you are the birthing partner
- Knowing a mamas birth plan and being her advocate is a huge part of a birthing partner's role in supporting a mama during labour and birth.
- Help physically support a mama. Whether that's rubbing a mama's back, creating a positive and relaxing birth environment, holding the shower handle, holding a mama while she leans on you or feeding her snacks.
- Handle the phones. As I said, you might get an influx of phone calls or texts from loved ones checking in during labour or shortly after birth to see if bub is born. Try and find a balance between reassuring family and supporting a mama, but if it gets too much, remember that your priority is supporting a mama to birth bub.
- Take photos. If you don't have a birth photographer, snapping some pictures or asking someone else in the room to do so gives a mama some beautiful pictures to look back on. If a mama has a c-section, ask theatre staff, and they may even be able to get photos just as bub is born. If a mama has a vaginal birth, a second midwife may be present who can take a couple of photos initially, which you can take over after bub is born.
- Remind her she's doing a good job. Labour and birth and having a c-section isn't easy. Sometimes a mama needs reminding that she's beautiful, strong, and you're proud of her.
After birth is often when mamas and papa bears need the most support. In most cases, they're sleep deprived with heightened emotions, running on fumes, trying to maintain a house, entertaining other bubs, and recovering from labour and birth. So you could try:
- Organise a time to come and visit. If you decide to 'drop by', you might turn up in the middle of witching hour, when a mama has no pants on and is not up to entertaining guests. The best approach is to ask when suits her and go from there. This counts for when she's on the maternity wards too.
- Be a helpful guest, not a needy one. I've done some home visits before when a mama had guests over who were asking her for cups of tea or to grab them a blanket while they held bub. I know it's tricky if you're not relatively close. However, a new mama needs rest, not someone else to wait on. Instead, you could offer to do things like hold bub while mama has a shower, sweep the floor, hang out a load of washing, or take the dog for a walk. They seem like small things, but to a sleep-deprived couple with a newborn, they're the big things.
- When you visit, bring food. That might be a snack for you to share while you're there, a bag of groceries like bread, fruit and milk, or dinner for mama and papa bear. Making sure a mama and papa-bear are fed and watered helps them take care of themselves.
- Keep being there. Lots of people are there when bub's born or the first few weeks, but they start to fade away as life goes on. Keep showing up, keep being present and keep supporting them.
- 'How are you, really?' Asking a mama how she genuinely is can be the open question she needs to share that she's struggling. Alternatively, be aware of the signs, and watch for any mental health red flags. Mamas and papa bears can both get postnatal depression anytime in the first year after birth, so if you see any of those signs, encourage them to get help.
- If a mama and papa-bear experience a bad outcome or lose their bub, don't avoid them - be there for them. Ask bub's name. Help them remember that their bub was here and that they mattered.
- Offer to take older kids to the park to give a mama and papa-bear a break to sleep, wash, cook or have some time one-on-one with their new bub, without having to juggle the needs of more than one little one. I'm sure the older kids will thank you for the outing too.
- Update her on life outside of bub and keep inviting her places, even if she says no. Once a mama has a new bub, a large percentage of her conversations will be about bub. Keeping her updated about life outside of bub and inviting her places will help her feel like she still has an identity outside of being a mama.
- Ask about bub too. Everyone's circumstances are different, and some mamas may not have people they feel like they can share about bub with. Asking the questions opens the conversation and lets a mama know she's not alone.
What's not helpful
- Sharing a couple's pregnancy news on social media before they do. Sharing a mama's in labour on social media before she does. Sharing bub's arrival or name on social media before their parents do. Sharing a picture of bub on social media before their parents do. I know you're excited, but to put it simply, this is not your news to share. And yes, I have seen a handful of mamas broken-hearted from loved ones sharing their news before they had a chance to.
- Asking a mama to stop feeding bub so you can have a cuddle. This is a pet peeve of mine as a midwife, particularly after birth. When bub needs to feed, they need to feed. Please don't interrupt; you can have a cuddle later because bub feeding is really so important.
- Telling a mama that she's done a poo/ it smells during birth. It's just not helpful and not what a mama needs to hear as bub is about to be born.
- Not giving bub back to a mama or papa-bear when they're crying. Any new mama will tell you that when their newborn bub starts crying, they feel the strong need to hold, feed or comfort them, so try to avoid interfering with this maternal instinct unless specifically asked to keep holding bub. At the very least, ask a mama if she wants bub back.
- Be so careful telling a mama or papa-bear that you don't like their baby name. You might have noticed a pattern- before bub is born, people tend to tell parents if they don't like the name they're considering for bub, but after birth, no one says that because it's hurtful. In reality, it's hurtful whether you say it before or after birth. If it sounds funny or unusual, there are much nicer ways to go about making sure a mama and papa-bear are aware of your thoughts. But before you say anything, ask yourself, does your opinion really matter in this situation?
- Commenting on a mama's bump size, commenting on her decision to breastfeed or formula feed, pushing her to share her birth story, turning up unannounced on the maternity ward, not giving bub back to mama when they're crying and making things about you instead of mama and papa-bear.
I hope this list helps you navigate supporting your loved ones with their new bubs. And for all our new mamas and papa-bears, as much as you try, you can't do it all and be it all while healing postpartum. Accept the help, surround yourself with love and take it easy. Lower your expectations of the housework, take a deep breath, and remember, you need to look after yourself, and you're doing a great job.
Let me know how your loved ones supported you best when you had a newborn!