When someone we love gives birth, our first instinct is often to head straight to their home bearing flowers and cute baby clothes – and to coo over the new addition.
While this outpouring of support can be profoundly moving for some new parents, the revolving door of visitors can be stressful and overwhelming for others – especially if they’re physically exhausted, sleep deprived and flooded with hormones.
“Until you have a baby, you don’t realise the true meaning of sleep deprivation,” says Julie Higgins, a midwife at King’s College Hospital London in Dubai who runs Instagram account @IGMidwife, where she shares her knowledge on pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Open conversations about how to support new parents are still often the exception, not the rule today. However, they're particularly important in the UAE, where many people live away from their families who would traditionally rally around.
With this in mind, The National asks experts to share advice about best practices.
Ask and let them receive
New parents don’t always know how to ask for what they need, so do the asking yourself instead and see if they would like something specific to remove some of the pressure. For example, offer to bring over a home-cooked meal and give two or three options of dishes.
People always need to be nourished and cooking healthy food can take time and energy that new parents don’t have. Bonus points if the dishes can be frozen.
Alternatively, if the parents have older children, offer to take them to the cinema or a park.
Sophie Jones, a child development professional and parenting adviser of more than 20 years, explains: “Offering to help with siblings so that parents can focus on the newborn can ease the common feelings of parental guilt for not being fully present for other children.”
Forgo traditional gifts
Babies can only wear so many onesies. Instead, it may be best to take a different approach to make those first few weeks and months easier. Jones suggests buying vouchers for a night nurse, home help or parenting adviser to troubleshoot any concerns.
Holistic lactation consultant Dr Soulaf Mansour also urges people to think about how to celebrate mothers in the lead-up to the birth, adding: “We spend so much money on baby showers, but we’re not focusing enough on how we can help mum feel confident and comfortable enough for the actual birth and baby’s early days.”
Plan your visit
While the birth of a baby is extraordinary, it’s also a time of adjustment and recovery for both mother and child. New families need time and space to bond, heal and recalibrate mentally and emotionally. It’s best to assume a visit won’t happen for a few weeks and then wait to be invited over. As well-meaning as it might be, never stop by unexpectedly, even if you’re just “dropping off a gift”.
If and when you do plan to visit, ask what time would be best and then don’t be late. On the day, refrain from wearing perfume as newborns are often sensitive to strong scents. Once you arrive, remove your shoes and wash your hands thoroughly, to help make sure you’re not bringing in any germs.
Be respectful if the parents are nervous about letting you hold the baby and wait for them to ask if you’d like a cuddle. You don’t want them to feel awkward about saying no. If they are comfortable, Higgins suggests: “Offer to watch the baby while the parents have a nap.”
The Dubai midwife also urges guests to help with laundry, errands and pets. If nothing else, take photographs of the new family, she says, and “don't overstay your welcome”.
New parents tend to feel vulnerable, so tread gently. If they want to talk about how the birth went, listen and hold space for everything they’re feeling. Avoid flippant phrases such as: “Oh, well, the only thing that matters is that you and the baby are healthy.” Birth trauma is real and looks different for different people.
The same goes for those having trouble breastfeeding. If they want to talk about it, listen; if they don’t, then don’t ask.
Mansour explains: “Society expects every woman to know exactly what to do and how to breastfeed as soon as she holds her baby. But we don’t live in tribes any more; we don’t see mothers breastfeeding all the time. So, it doesn’t come as naturally to women today as it did before. Breastfeeding is instinctive for babies, but for mums it’s a learning process.”
In general, Higgins’s advice is not to give parenting advice unless you are asked. Even if you’ve had your own children, what worked for you might not work for someone else.
Mansour agrees, adding: “Supporting a mother’s mental health is 80 per cent of the work. If a mum feels confident, happy and supported, she is more able to make the right decisions for her and her baby.”
As a friend or close family member, be an outlet to vent to and support new parents with open ears, an open heart and plenty of empathy. You want them to emerge from those early weeks feeling healthy, rested, cared for and empowered.