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The First Day of Life

You've waited for months: Now you finally get to meet your new baby. But like many new parents, you might not have a clear idea of what that meeting will be like.

Here's what to expect.

What Will My Newborn Look Like?

You probably have visions of a robust bouncing baby, but in reality many newborns are tiny, wet creatures when they first arrive. Often their heads are slightly pointed as a result of passing through the birth canal. This is only temporary — the head will take on a rounded look within a few days. It may surprise you that a newborn's head is so big compared with the rest of the body.

Newborns also may look scrunched up since their legs and arms have been kept bent at the knees and elbows while in the womb. After months of growing in ever-tightening close quarters, this is perfectly normal. The limbs will straighten out as your baby grows.

Look at your baby's tiny fingers and toes. You'll notice the paper-thin — and sometimes long — nails.

Your baby's skin may look somewhat red, pink, or purple at first. Some babies are born with a white coating called vernix caseosa, which protects their skin from the constant exposure to amniotic fluid in the womb. The vernix is washed off with the baby's first bath. Other babies are born very wrinkled. And some, especially premature babies, have a soft, furry appearance because of lanugo, a fine hair that develops while in the womb. Lanugo usually comes off after a week or two.

Rashes, blotches, or tiny white spots also are common on newborns. These usually clear up over the first few days or weeks after birth. The doctor will examine your baby within the first 12–24 hours of birth and make sure that any rashes or spots are normal.

Remember, your baby's appearance will change a lot over the next weeks. The limbs will extend, the skin tone will probably change, and the blotches will disappear.

How Do Doctors and Other Medical Staff Check and Care for Newborns?

Right after birth, an Apgar score will evaluate your baby's health. This routine test measures a baby's responsiveness and vital signs. It checks five things: heart rate, breathing, color, activity and muscle tone, and grimace reflex response.

Babies get a score of 0–2 in each category, and the five results are combined to get the Apgar score. The evaluation is done again at 1 minute and again at 5 minutes. This quick and easy test mainly checks to see if a baby needs help breathing. Generally, a score of 7–10 means a baby is doing well. When a baby gets this score, no special actions are needed. A lower score means a baby might need some extra help, such as getting oxygen.

Your newborn will go through a few other quick procedures, which may include:

  • clearing the nasal passages with a suction bulb
  • measuring weight, head circumference, and length
  • giving eye ointment or drops to prevent infection

The medical staff will dry your baby and place a blanket around him or her. All of this happens very quickly. If everything is OK with you and your baby, your baby will be in your arms before you know it for some special “skin-to-skin” bonding time. 

Your baby will get a vitamin K injection to help the blood clot properly and prevent a serious bleeding disorder. Newborns also get their first dose of hepatitis B vaccine.

Also, a newborn screening blood test is done before a baby leaves the hospital to look for PKU (phenylketonuria), congenital hypothyroidism, and many other diseases that need to be diagnosed early in infancy to ensure successful treatment. All babies should have a hearing screen before leaving the hospital so that any problems are found early.

Tests may vary from one hospital or birth center to another, and they also depend on the baby’s health status. A newborn may get a blood test to check blood sugar or bilirubin levels. If problems are found, the baby can get medical care right away.

Newborns delivered in a vaginal birth usually can go home from the hospital after about 48 hours. Those who had a cesarean delivery go home after about 96 hours.

What Will My Newborn Do on the First Day?

Many parents are surprised to see how alert a newborn really is. Right after birth, a newborn's eyes are open quite a bit and babies spend a lot of time studying faces — especially their parents'. Your baby may turn or react to the sound of your voices. Your baby is using all senses, including smell and touch, to further identify and become attached to you.

Your newborn will cry, sleep, and at times will look directly into your eyes. Their vision is blurry, so a newborn can best see something (such as your face) that is about 8–10 inches away. Your baby will grab onto your finger if you place it in his or her palm. And of course, your baby will want to eat.

After initially being very awake, most newborns get sleepy for about the next 24 hours.

Feeding Your Newborn

Most healthy full-term babies can feed “on-demand.” This means they're fed whenever they seem hungry. A breastfeeding newborn will usually eat about every 2–3 hours. Formula-fed babies might eat every 3–4 hours. Newborns should not go more than about 4–5 hours without feeding.

Breastfeeding can begin right away. Mom's milk probably won't fully come in for another day or two, especially for a first birth, but babies do get nourishment from colostrum, a precursor to actual breast milk. Colostrum can be thin and watery, or thick and yellowish. When a newborn starts to suck, it triggers hormones to tell mom's body that it's time to make milk.

Some babies (especially premature and smaller babies) have a hard time latching on or getting enough suction to nurse from the breast. A nurse, breastfeeding counselor, or lactation consultant can help you and your baby overcome any problems. Even if breastfeeding goes smoothly from the start, it can be helpful to learn as much about it as you can from a breastfeeding specialist.

Bottle-fed babies usually get their first meal within the first few hours.

How New Parents Might Be Feeling

Having a baby is a life-changing experience. Don't be surprised if you go through a broad range of feelings. You may feel everything from relief to concern to anxiety to pure joy. And your feelings may change suddenly and unpredictably. And a new mom has just been through quite a bit physically. There's a good chance she'll be exhausted, and both parents may start feeling the effects of sleep deprivation.

Every parent reacts differently. Some mothers "forget" the difficulties of labor as soon as they catch a glimpse of their newborns. Some feel high levels of energy driven by the excitement of finally having the baby. Still others feel sad and may have baby blues or the more serious postpartum depression.

A doctor, nurse, or counselor can help parents understand their emotions after the baby arrives.

Visits From Friends and Family

Try to keep the first day simple. Ask close friends and family members to pass the news along to other friends and relatives. This will free you to spend more time with your newborn.

It's fine to have your loved ones meet the baby the first day. Grandparents or siblings can meet the newest family member and start to bond right away. But avoid a parade of visitors in and out of the room to keep the baby's first day quiet and low-key. Parents and baby need plenty of rest and quiet bonding time.

It's also wise to limit visitors in the first few weeks to protect your baby from infections. Whenever visitors come, make sure they are not sick, and have everyone wash their hands before touching the baby.

What if There's a Problem?

If your baby is born with a problem or arrives early, this can be a difficult time. The hospital's medical team is there to help. If you're not up to talking with a doctor yet, don't be afraid to ask your partner or another close relative to do so. The medical staff will be sensitive to your needs.

For many parents, talking with a counselor or clergy member brings some comfort. Many support groups are available to give you the emotional backing you'll need. Don't hesitate to ask for help.

When your baby is born, you'll begin an entirely new phase of your life. Take the time during your baby's first days to enjoy this new beginning.