Baby Care Basics – The Newborn Days
Keeping Baby Clean in the Early Days
Your baby clears meconium out of his intestines within the first few days after birth. Meconium is the black, tarry stool that builds in a baby's intestines while he is in the womb. It's important for your baby to go ahead and clear this out. Breastfeeding early and often helps your baby pass all the meconium. Your colostrum is specially designed with laxative properties to help your baby.
There are three ways to handle pee/poop in the early days. Cloth diapering is one choice. Cotton, hemp, or bamboo diapers are soft and gentle to your baby's skin. Change them right away. Read the cloth diaper pages for more information on cloth diapers and all the many options you have. Fold any diaper you use under baby's cord stump.
Some parents, even those planning to cloth diaper, use disposables in the first few days. This allows for easier clean up since meconium is very sticky. If you're worried about having disposable diapers against your new baby's skin use gel free disposables. Tushies is one gel-free brand name with a full range of sizes (preemie on up) and services many countries.
You can also buy a length of fleece from the fabric store and cut small liners from it. Fleece doesn't ravel and it will provide a barrier between the diaper and your baby's body. Since it's inexpensive, you can toss meconium-stained liners. Or you could use the liners to line your cloth diapers
A third option is elimination communication. This natural way of taking care of your baby's needs means she never has to sit in diapers. You can place an absorbent cloth pad, diaper, or a “chux” pad underneath your baby. Lying on your chest is an ideal place for your baby. As soon as you notice your baby begin to pee or poop, lift her a little and make a gentle “cue sound” such as “shhhhh.” Soon your baby will associate this sound with pottying. You can also hold your baby over a small container and “catch” her waste. If you have a boy, you may want to keep a cloth over him to avoid streams going everywhere! Read more about getting started with elimination communication on our EC pages. It is the way baby waste has been handled in many cultures the world over and is as natural and gentle as nursing your baby.
Your newborn's cord stump will dry up within the first couple of weeks of life. When it falls off your baby will be left with a belly button 😉 If you choose a lotus birth (where the cord and placenta stay attached to the baby) then your baby's cord will dry up and fall away in about the same time.
It's an important part of baby care basics to check on your baby's cord at each diaper change or many times each day in the first few days. You will want to keep it clean. Use a clean cotton ball or cotton swab (“q-tip”) to gently clean around the base of the cord stump with water. Use fresh water and use sterile water if possible.
Natural baby care is a good idea for cord care too. If you feel like your baby's cord needs a little more than just regular cleaning, use a few drops of alcohol to help dry the stump out. Some midwives recommend sprinkling a little goldenseal powder around the cord stump. A drop or two of honey is also drying. If your baby's cord stump seems infected or has a bad smell, call your midwife or your baby's doctor.
Good cleaning should see it dry up and fall off quickly, sometimes within a few days of birth. It can be bittersweet to see that last bit of what attached your baby to you fall away. You will soon be able to share with your child “where belly buttons come from.” ;D
Jaundice occurs when bilirubin builds up in your baby's body and causes a yellow pigment to his skin and sometimes his eyes. Bilirubin is a byproduct of red blood cells. The liver usually processes it out, but after birth a baby often has many extra red blood cells and his liver is not fully mature yet. Some jaundice is normal in the first week of life.
Doctors used to believe that breastfeeding could worsen jaundice. Some doctors still erroneously believe this and try to give breastfed babies formula or sugar water to “clear the jaundice.”
In reality the best way to “clear the jaundice” is frequent breastfeeding. As stated above, your colostrum has laxative properties to it that help your baby to clear all the meconium from her bowels and begin having regular bowel movements. Breastfeed early and often. Refuse supplements and instead request that your baby be with you always so that you can nurse frequently.
A natural baby care method that works for jaundice is sunlight. You can place baby in indirect sunlight for five minutes on his front and five minutes on his back each day. Sunlight helps to break down the bilirubin in his system. Indirect sunlight means place baby beside a window with mild sunlight coming in.
Have baby undressed to the diaper or undressed on a soft cloth. You can place your baby on a heating pad turned on low. The heating pad should be covered with a blanket and you should stay right next to your baby. Keep the windows in your home opened in baby's early days so that both of you benefit from the sunlight. You can ask your partner or someone else helping you to take your baby for a brief walk outside if the weather is warm enough.
An alternative to sunlight is phototherapy: “bili-lights” or a “bili-blanket.” Both of these do the same thing as sunlight, which is to break down the bilirubin in babies' skin. Bili-lights require that your baby be isolated under the lights with a cover over her eyes. If you choose to use phototherapy, request a bili-blanket, which allows your baby to be with you and have her eyes uncovered.
Continue to breastfeed frequently. Good hydration and elimination are keys to clearing up jaundice. When you depress your baby's skin with a finger, your baby's skin should be white underneath and not yellow-tinged. If jaundice persists for several days and you are worried, call your midwife or your baby's doctor. There is a rare form of jaundice called breast milk jaundice. Even for this rare form, frequent breastfeeding is the major treatment recommended.
Your baby doesn't need a bath right away (you may want to give your newborn a bath and that's fine). If your baby's skin seems irritated a bath is a good idea. Your baby's skin absorbs anything you put on it, so choose natural baby soap.
To give your baby a sponge bath, lay out a soft towel or blanket. Have a basin of warm water, your natural soap, and soft towel for baby. You can use either cotton balls or a soft washcloth to wipe your baby clean. Keep the parts of your baby you are not washing covered with a towel or blanket.
You can dip the washcloth in warm water and put just a little soap on it. You can also use just warm water if you prefer. Use gentle, but firm strokes to wash your baby. Wash your baby from top to bottom. After you are done washing your baby's head, cover it up with a warm cap or with the hood of his hooded towel. Be sure you get into all of baby's creases – behind the ears, armpits, and neck rolls like to hold dried milk and fuzz from blankets and clothing.
Wash your baby's bottom and genitals last, after you've washed her legs and feet. Be sure to get all the creases around her legs and genitals. You can get a fresh washcloth or cotton ball and dip it in warm water to go back over and “rinse” your baby after you wash each part of her.
After baby's bath you may want to rub your baby down with something to moisturize his skin. Remember that your baby's skin absorbs much of what you put onto it, especially when it is warm and his pores are open from his bath. You can use something as simple and gentle as almond oil or olive oil. You can also get natural baby lotions. This might also be a good time to give your baby a massage. There are several baby massage oils including some in lavender, which is a favored natural scent for calming babies (and mamas!)
Once you are ready to give your baby baths in the water, see the bathing baby page for some tips.
Eyes and Ears
Keeping eyes and ears clean are another baby care basic
A cotton ball dipped in warm water can be used to clean your baby's eyes. Wipe from the corner of his eye to the outside. Use a fresh cotton ball for each eye. If you need to wipe more than once, use a fresh cotton ball for each wipe. If your baby's eyes are “weepy” and you see a discharge, your baby's tear duct has probably not opened. Massaging downwards from the corner of his eye several times a day may help. Dripping a few drops of fresh breast milk (or colostrum) also helps and has antibacterial properties. If you're worried about discharge, ask your midwife or your baby's doctor about it.
Your baby will probably produce a lot of ear wax. You can use a cotton swab (“q-tip”) to clear the wax from the outer part of baby's ear. Never push the swab into your baby's ear canal. Doing so could cause permanent damage to your baby. It is better to leave it be – or consult your midwife or baby's doctor if you are truly worried.
Your newborn's nails will probably be long, but they are paper thin. Many parents are very nervous about clipping their new baby's nails. If the thought of clipping those tiny nails causes you great anxiety, you can keep a simple pair of newborn mittens on your baby's hands in the early days. These will keep your baby from scratching himself.
Clipping baby's nails is really pretty easy – and one of the most important baby care basics because eventually you'll want your baby's hands uncovered! You can use blunt nail scissors to quickly snip baby's nail, or you can use tiny nail clippers. Some baby nail clippers actually come with a magnifying glass to help you see your baby's tiny nails better.
One last option, a favorite natural baby care trick that goes way back 😉 is to simply bite your baby's nails off with your teeth. You may not feel comfortable doing this, but some mothers feel much better with this option than with sharp clippers.
It's easiest to clip your newborn's nails as she is sleeping. Push her finger-pad down away from her nail and give a clean snip straight across. It will be done quickly and you won't need to worry about your baby scratching herself.