Advice for new parents: 16 things you should know as a first-time parent

09 September 2020

mother and baby

About to become a parent or recently welcomed a newborn? Parents who’ve been there, done that and washed the sick-stained T-shirt share the things they wish they’d known when becoming a parent for the first time. See their top tips for ditching the guilt, keeping stress at bay and embracing the chaos that comes with new parenthood.

Children don’t come with an instruction manual and, as any parent will tell you, first-time parenting can be an overwhelming concoction of ethereal highs and challenging lows.

So to help you navigate the new-parent minefield, we’ve compiled a handy list of tips and advice from seasoned parents who’ve been through it all.

From seeking support to those must-have baby items parents wish they’d discovered sooner, here are some helpful tips for new parents.

1. Take time for yourself

A seemingly impossible task for any parent knee-deep in nappy changing and nursing, parents on the Mumsnet forums say it’s imperative that first-timers, especially new mums, indulge in some much-needed me time.

Whether that’s nipping out for a quick coffee with a friend or just taking that long-overdue shower, looking after yourself and retaining some sense of normalcy following the lifestyle overhaul that parenting inevitably brings will be hugely beneficial in the long-run.

What parents say:

“Look after yourself. You are important too.”

“It's OK to want a break. Don’t feel bad for taking time out to be you!”

“Don't become completely consumed by your newborn. You're your own person too. Even doing the food shopping by yourself can be self-care if it means you're concentrating on something else for a little while.”

2. Sleep whenever you can

Sleep may seem like a long-forgotten dream when going through life with a newborn, but, according to the NHS, a lack of sleep can have a negative impact on both your physical and mental health.

While cleaning the house or doing the laundry may seem of paramount importance when your baby is finally napping, catching up on some zzzs, or simply just resting your eyes, should always be the number one priority.

What parents say:

“With a newborn, if you have a choice between getting things done around the house while the baby is asleep or sleeping yourself, take the sleep option every time – you never know when the next chance will come!”

“Sleep when they sleep – an exhausted mum cannot function properly.”

“Try to take a few naps with them each day to top you up for the night ahead. If you find it hard to sleep on demand or feel too tense to sleep, don’t worry. Just rest and try listening to something relaxing on your headphones. I find ASMR videos on YouTube really de-stressing.”

3. Don’t be ruled by guilt

Most parents will tell you that guilt and parenting go hand in hand. And while it’s perfectly normal to second-guess decisions and to experience bouts of occasional guilt, being plagued by it can actually be quite debilitating.

So take some deep breaths, cut yourself some slack and know that you’re doing a great job even though it may not feel like it. Ditching the guilt and celebrating the small wins is one of the first steps to becoming a better parent.

What parents say:

“I wish I’d known not to stress about the small things, like housework, or feel guilty for cuddling my baby for naps.”

“Don’t feel bad if you use jars/pouches of baby food – not everyone has the time to batch cook and freeze tiny portions in ice cube trays.”

“Never feel guilty for sitting on the sofa having cuddles and forgetting everything else. You can never get those days back and who really cares if the place looks a mess? If people make a comment, as some will, ignore it – your baby, your house, your rules.”

“No matter what you do for your baby/child, you will always worry about what you are not doing. It’s called maternal guilt. Just know that you are making the best decisions for your baby, yourself and your family.”

Which brings us to…

4. Trust your instincts

Easier said than done, of course, but Mumsnetters consider this to be one of the most important rules of thumb for any new parent.

It may be tempting to take on every bit of advice that friends or family members who’ve already had children throw at you, but trusting your gut can work wonders for stress levels and self-esteem.

What parents say:

“Do what works best for you and your baby. Other people won’t always know best.”

“I wish I'd known just to trust my instincts and not feel I had to take everyone's advice and do everything by the book. Such a lot of unnecessary stress and pressure. I was so much more chilled with our other DC.”

“Take everything people advise you to do with a pinch of salt. You know your baby better than anyone.”

“Everyone does things differently and if you follow everyone's advice you will drive yourself insane. What works for one family may not work for yours.”

“You’ll start doubting yourself over the silliest things only to give in and stop caring what others think and just roll with what works for you all as a family!”

new parents and baby

5. Expensive doesn’t always mean better

When it comes to baby stuff, Mumsnetters recommend following the ‘less is more’ approach. With so many brands claiming to offer life-changing products, it can be hard to know what you need and, well, what you don’t.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules to making product selections, but second-, third- and even fourth-time parents suggest shopping around for products that fit you, your baby and your budget. This may mean opting for own-brand or secondhand items from time to time.

What parents say:

“I wish I’d known that there was such a thing as own-brand nappies! Must have spent a small fortune on expensive ones.”

“I didn’t know that buying expensive branded nappies didn’t automatically mean they were better until I discovered ALDI Mamia nappies. They cost far less and offer better protection for babies.”

“Branded nappies, wipes and bath products are not necessarily better. Once I realised that, I completely switched to supermarket-own brands and never looked back.”

“Don't buy expensive things! They use stuff for five seconds and don't even notice it. Secondhand is definitely best for everything except mattresses and car seats.”

“Secondhand is just as good as new for baby clothes and at a fraction of the cost. Also borrow equipment from others (i.e. sterilisers) when you can.”

6. Babies don’t need much

It might be tempting to furnish your baby’s nursery with all the latest kit (and many new parents certainly enjoy this process) but, according to parents who’ve spent a significant amount of time gearing up for a new baby, it isn’t always necessary – and can sometimes be more hassle than it’s worth.

Yes, there are newborn essentials that will make life easier, such as travel systems, maternity bras, breast pumps, baby bottles and nappies but, when it comes down to it, all a baby really needs is clothes, food and a comfy place to sleep.

What parents say:

“Babies need to be kept clean and comfortable, have somewhere safe to sleep, and to be fed and loved, which doesn't take shed loads of stuff. I'm a big fan of ALDI nappies, which last overnight, for this reason.”

“Don't go overboard buying ‘must-have' kit for your newborn. Most of it isn't necessary!”

“You need to buy so much less than you expect. Things like nappy bins and Moses baskets end up being used for such a small amount of time.”

“Take all the advice/books/articles/expensive recommendations with a pinch of salt – your baby hasn't read them and doesn't care! As long as your baby is fed, clean (most of the time) and warm, you're doing all they need you to do.”

“You don't need to waste money on all the latest equipment and gadgets that do everything apart from wipe a baby's bottom! They get shoved in a corner after the first two weeks.”

7. Muslins are handy for all eventualities

OK, so we may have said that a baby doesn’t need much, and that’s certainly true. But if there’s one surprising thing that Mumsnetters have learnt over the years, it’s that muslins are most definitely your friend, especially in those early months.

What parents say:

“Muslin cloths are a must! I remember wondering what exactly they were for before my baby was born, but immediately found them incredibly useful for a multitude of things – makeshift sunshade hung over the pram or car window, lining a car seat to make it cooler when the car was hot, lining a car seat to protect from poo leaks, swaddling, using in place of blanket in hot weather as well as over the shoulder to catch the milk vomit."

“However many muslins you have, it's not enough.”

Mumsnet-recommended muslins:

8. There are ways to minimise nappy-changing mess (yes, we’re serious)

Nappy changing may be synonymous with mess – think poo in their hair, wee in your face, and more baby wipes than you can shake a stick at. But, if there’s one tip Mumsnetters wish they’d known before becoming parents, it’s this…

“That you could take a vest off without going over the head. Saved me from some awful poo explosions!”

You’re welcome.

What parents say:

“Biggest thing is that envelope-neck vests can be pulled down to remove rather than up over head. Can't believe how long it took for me to realise this! Total game-changer when dealing with a leaked nappy.”

“Most baby vests can be pulled down over the body to get off. This saves you from getting the contents of an explosive nappy in your baby's hair.”

newborn baby

9. All babies are different

Seeing your baby hit those all-important milestones is an exciting time for any new parent, but it’s one that can also result in stress and panic, especially in the wake of not-so-humble brags from other parents whose child has already learnt to crawl or discovered where their nose is.

Babies are their own people and, while it’s only natural to worry about their development (not to mention how much they are sleeping or not sleeping), the resounding agreement among Mumsnetters is that comparisons are never your friend.

What parents say:

“Babies do everything at their own rate and you shouldn't compare them to other babies the same age and then worry if your baby is behind.”

“Parenting is a long game. Don’t panic when people start comparing what their babies can do with yours. All children are different, even twins!”

“I wish I had known that all babies are different – some sleep well, some don't – you can treat them both exactly the same, but they will be their own little person regardless.”

“Don’t stress about hitting every milestone on time. You think, ‘Oh my god, they're never going to get it and they're going to be behind!’ But the next thing you know they're doing it without you even trying. Every baby picks things up at their own rate.”

10. There’s no such thing as perfect parenting

Despite what celebrity Instagram accounts will have you believe, one sobering and, quite frankly, relieving fact is that there’s no such thing as perfect parenting.

While you may have visions of creating a beautiful, halo-crowned brood – not to mention looking like Kate immediately after giving birth – the reality of parenting will, unsurprisingly, be quite different.

So be kind to yourself, know that you’re allowed to get it wrong (there’s a lot to learn after all!), and realise that your best is most certainly good enough.

What parents say:

“I expected perfection and I expected to know it all but, in reality, I nearly fell apart! I would be a lot kinder to myself now and I think that would have led to me being a lot less anxious, more calm and would have rubbed off on my little man too – although he was a little champion despite my constant fretting!”

“We don’t know everything. We just make it up as we go along as best we can!”

“It's OK to not be perfect. Whether it's that I haven't got dressed today, the house is a mess or we ate biscuits for breakfast, the kids are fine.”

“As long as they are being fed, loved, snuggled, clothed, kept clean and comfortable, and generally attended to, you are doing everything you can and everything you need to do as a loving, caring parent.”

11. You can say no to visitors

You’ve arrived home from the hospital. You’re just settling into life as a new parent. Then you receive that inevitable question: “When can I see the baby?”

While you may feel pressured to allow visitors into your home, especially excited, first-time grandparents, Mumsnetters recommend waiting a few weeks before introducing your newborn to family and friends. This will allow you time to get to grips with your new parental responsibilities and allow you to put the wellbeing of you and your baby first.

What parents say:

“It's OK to say no to visitors!”

“If I was to do it all again, I’d politely tell my mum not to come 'for a coffee' every day when I needed to sleep. I was sitting chatting while my baby was asleep, but doing this made my first three months pretty exhausting.”

“Don’t feel pressure to go out and about with them from day one. It can be a bit stressful taking them out and it’s perfectly OK to hibernate for a few weeks while you get to know their patterns and rhythms. This is trickier when you have your second child but, by then, things are less mysterious and you know what you are doing more.”

12. Breastfeeding doesn’t work for everyone

Breastfeeding can be one of the most rewarding experiences you can have as a parent, allowing you time to build a strong emotional bond with your baby as well as providing some important health benefits.

But it can also be one of the hardest things new mums go through, leading to frustration, tears and discomfort – not to mention painful breasts and cracked nipples.

So, while breastfeeding support is available for mums who are struggling, it doesn’t work for everyone and that’s OK.

What parents say:

“Breastfeeding is hard, and some advice is helpful and some is downright stressful, so engage that 'what is good for me?' filter from day one!”

“Breastfeeding can be difficult in the early days when you're both learning how to do it, but that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong.”

“I wish I’d known that it’s fine, in fact it’s normal, to spend a whole day/days on the sofa breastfeeding more or less constantly!”

“No matter how hard you try, some babies just won't breastfeed.”

“Don’t put pressure on yourself to breastfeed. If you can do it, great! If you can't, it doesn't make you less of a mum.”

“I wish I’d known that I didn't need to spend the first four months in tears and upset because I had to spend the whole time either trying to breastfeed, expressing breast milk, making formula or giving my baby a bottle. Ditching the attempts to breastfeed and express would have made both me and my baby a lot happier.”

“Nipple shields can be used when the baby just won't latch. I was so close to giving up after five days when someone suggested trying them – game-changer! I am now a year into my breastfeeding journey after using them for the first few months.”

sleeping newborn baby

13. New mums feel lonely too

Having a new baby is one of the most life-changing things a person can go through. But after the initial rush of visitors has come to an end and your partner is back at work, the continual nappy changes and feeds on little to no sleep can be all-consuming and overwhelming, which is when feelings of inadequacy, isolation and loneliness can start to creep in.

Loneliness can affect people at all stages of life, including new mums who have just given birth and, while talking about loneliness may still feel taboo, it most certainly isn’t uncommon.

What parents say:

“I wish I'd known that other mums felt lonely too. I was quite isolated with my first and lacked the confidence to start up conversations at baby groups etc.”

“I wish I’d known how tired and lonely I'd feel. Your whole world has just changed and you need to change your priorities so that the baby and his needs come first.”

“I wish I’d know how much I would cry in the first few weeks and that it was OK to do that.”

14. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

In the early stages of parenting, it can sometimes be tricky to ask for help and, fundamentally, to recognise when you might need it.

Whether it’s someone offering to make you a cuppa or a grandparent babysitting for an hour so that you can use the loo by yourself or take a shower, help comes in all shapes and sizes, and can be more beneficial than you may initially realise.

What parents say:

“Accept the help you need early on if you're struggling. It doesn't make you a bad mum.”

“Take every offer of help! Even if it's someone offering to make you a cup of tea. People genuinely want to help.”

“I wish I’d known to accept any help offered. I didn’t and was exhausted as a result.”

15. Know that this, too, shall pass

While most Mumsnetters describe first-time parenting as a huge shock to the system (no sugar coating here), they also acknowledge that eventually things do get better.

Remember that light at the end of the tunnel? Well, it most definitely exists in parenthood too.

Plus, sometimes babies just cry and there ain't nothing you can do about it.

What parents say:

“The first weeks were such a shock to the system and it felt like my whole world was upside down. But it got better.”

“I wish I'd known that the first couple of months would be such a huge shock to the system. I was not prepared for a baby that screamed nearly constantly, struggled to breastfeed, and struggled to sleep. It was brutal, not the picture-perfect image of motherhood I was expecting. But I also wish I'd known it was OK to find it hard and that it would change so quickly that by five months she would be a happy, smiley cheerful baby who feeds well from a bottle, sleeps well, and has her reflux under control with medicine!”

“I wish I had known that, while it is tiring and exhausting, that that stage does not last forever – they will grow out of it and things do get better.”

“Crying is totally normal – and that goes for mums too. It was actually my GP who pointed it out to me when I had DC number two and she was so right. Me with my first child: ‘OMG, the baby is crying. What do I do?’”

16. Savour every moment

Finally, if there’s one thing parents everywhere have learnt, it’s to embrace every last little bit of the rollercoaster that is parenting.

What parents say:

“I wish I’d known how much I was going to love it! Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t the easiest ride, but I really love being a mum. I was so worried when I was pregnant and hearing all about PND, sleepless nights and never-ending responsibility. But when my son was born, I wish I hadn’t worried so much!”

“Enjoy the middle of the night feeds. It feels like you and the baby against the world, but it goes by in the blink of an eye.”

“There’s no such thing as spoiling a baby. Enjoy those cuddles – they're only little once.”

“Take time and just enjoy it. Also forget the small stuff. Housework will always be there. They won't.”

“It'll be the hardest thing you’ll ever do, but it’ll be the best thing you ever do too."

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