What New Parents Need to Know About Taking Care of a Newborn

Every new parent needs some help. Here’s everything you need to know about your newborn, from sleeping and feeding to crying and pooping.

By Lisa Milbrand

You’ve no doubt been dreaming about your baby for months: what they’ll look like, what they’ll sound like, and even what they’ll feel like. But no matter how much you’ve prepared, you’ll likely welcome tips for taking care of a newborn—especially if it’s your first child.

Well, take heart. Lots of parents have been there, struggling to know how to care for their baby in those exciting but often challenging first weeks. If you’re a new parent, keep reading our newborn care guide for advice on handling visitors, choosing clothing, navigating car seat safety, maintaining a feeding schedule, settling into a sleep routine, handling fevers, and more.


Family and friends will probably want to visit as soon as possible, but you may choose to keep them at bay for a while. That way, you can focus on spending time alone as a new family. Because a newborn is usually alert and receptive immediately after birth, it’s the perfect time to bond, so look them in the eyes and talk to them. They know your voice from being with you throughout pregnancy and may find it soothing. Let the visitors come whenever you feel ready!


A cute going-home outfit may be irresistible, but remember that babies can’t regulate their body temperature until they’re about 6 months old. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), babies generally need one more layer of clothing than adults to be feel comfortable. Pack layers to be safe, and if you aren’t sure about sizing, give yourself options with a NB size and a 0-3M size. We also recommend choosing clothes that are easy to put on. Don’t forget the socks or booties, depending on the weather forecast, and consider brining a blanket to avoid the standard ones provided by the hospital. Check out the AAP website for more tips on dressing your newborn.

Car Safety

A few weeks before your due date, check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) website to ensure you install your chosen car seat properly. Alternately, you can call 866-SEAT-CHECK to locate a certified child passenger safety expert who can make sure the car seat is secured correctly in your vehicle.

First, the basics, according to NHTSA:

  • The harness may not fit properly if your baby wears too much clothing. If it’s cold out, put your baby in the seat first, buckle them in, then place a blanket on top. Puffy coats might loosen the harness, making the car seat less safe during a crash.
  • The harness must be snug against the hips and shoulders.
  • The chest clip should be level with your baby’s armpits.
  • The seat must be installed at an angle so the baby is semi-reclining; their head must not flop forward (see your car seat manufacturer instructions for details).
  • Once you’ve installed the seat, push on it—hard. It shouldn’t move more than an inch in any direction.

Newborn Feeding

No matter how you feed your baby, there are some things to remember. Below are tips for breastfeeding and formula feeding in the early weeks.

Breastfeeding and chestfeeding

Nursing may be a natural phenomenon, but it can prove challenging at first. These strategies will help if you choose to breastfeed:

  • Don’t delay: If you can, try to nurse within an hour of delivery when your baby is most alert. This will also help your newborn adjust to the world, and they can bond with their new parent right away.
  • Nurse on demand: Your new baby will help your body establish a robust milk supply through frequent nursing —so let your newborn feed whenever they want. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), newborns might want to eat every 1 to 3 hours during their first few days. “Frequent feeding helps increase your milk supply and gives your baby practice at sucking and swallowing,” says the organization.
  • Get a proper latch: A proper latch helps prevent sore nipples for you and ensures enough milk for your baby. If you’re unsure what this looks like, don’t hesitate to ask a nurse, pediatrician, or lactation consultant.
  • Ask for help: Most hospitals have lactation consultants on staff. In addition to helping you get a proper latch, they can guide you in experimenting with different positions.
  • Create a nursing nest: A comfy chair, pillows, footstool, and access to water and snacks can keep you supported and comfortable while you feed your baby.
  • Eat and drink enough: While breastfeeding, you need an additional 300–400 calories per day, according to the CDC. And since you are losing fluids while breastfeeding, drink at least eight glasses of water every day.

Expressing breast milk

If your baby has trouble latching and is not getting enough colostrum (early nutrient-dense breast milk), or you are separated after birth due to complications, you may choose to express breast milk in the first few days or even long-term.

In some cases, parents choose to feed their newborns expressed colostrum with a spoon or syringe in the first few days of life. These methods can help you avoid nipple confusion in those early days should you wish to try nursing directly from the breast later on.

Some pumping tips include:

  • Pick the pump that’s best for you: For expressing colostrum, hand expressing can be especially effective. But as time passes, most parents who pump prefer manual hand pumps or electric pumps.
  • Get support: Don’t hesitate to request assistance from the hospital’s lactation consultant; they may even be able to hook you up with a hospital-grade rental pump.
  • Be patient and persistent: Like breastfeeding, pumping takes practice and will get easier with time should you choose to continue long-term. Also, pumping should not hurt; if it does, reposition or lower the suction and try again.
  • Do your best to relax: Your milk ejection reflex is inhibited when you are tense or stressed, so try looking at your baby or distracting yourself with a TV show, guided meditation, or even a phone call with a friend.
  • Store breast milk safelyAccording to the CDC, you should store pumped breast milk in food-grade containers. In addition, you can store freshly pumped breast milk for four hours at room temperature, four days in the fridge, and six-12 months in the freezer. If your baby does not finish the milk from a feeding, you can reuse it within two hours.

Formula Feeding

Since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates formulas to ensure they’re safe and contain the most essential nutrients, most commercial formulas are essentially the same. Ask a pediatrician if they recommend a formula with added iron, DHA, or other nutrients for your baby. Your choice of powder, liquid, or concentrate primarily boils down to issues of cost and convenience.

Fear of food allergies makes some parents reluctant to give their babies cow’s milk-based formula. However, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, only 2% to 3% of children under 3 years old have a milk protein allergy.

If your baby has a milk protein allergy or milk intolerance, a pediatrician may advise a hypoallergenic formula (in which milk proteins are broken down so they’re more easily digested) or soy-based formula (which doesn’t contain any milk protein).

Keep these formula-feeding safety tips from the CDC in mind:

  • If you want to heat the formula, do so under running warm water (being careful not to get water in the bottle) or with a bottle warmer. Never use a microwave, which can create dangerous hot spots. Check the temperature by putting a few drops of formula on the back of your hand.
  • Use room-temperature formula within two hours; after that, the risk of bacteria growth increases, so you should discard it.
  • Use refrigerated formula within 24 hours.
  • Store containers of formula in a cool, dry place (not the freezer or refrigerator).
  • Don’t save any formula your baby leaves behind in the bottle; bacteria from their saliva can contaminate it.
  • Use formula within one month of opening; never use after the “use-by” date on the packaging.
  • Clean and sanitize all bottles and parts between feedings.

Your Newborn’s Body

newborn baby’s body isn’t just smaller than yours; it also has some distinct characteristics. Knowing what to look for can help ease your anxiety and enable you to keep your baby clean and comfortable.


Wash your baby’s face and neck daily with lukewarm water or a mild baby soap and a soft washcloth. Note that seeing a newborn with a red, blotchy face may be disconcerting, but baby acne is a common and harmless condition.


To care for your baby’s eyes, wipe the area using a cotton ball moistened with warm water. Some babies have a yellowish discharge or crusting in the eye or on the lid, usually caused by a blocked tear duct, which can last several months.


Wash your baby’s hair with a gentle baby shampoo no more than three times a week. Then gently brush the scales daily using a baby hairbrush or soft toothbrush. Many newborns develop a scaly scalp condition called cradle cap; this typically disappears in the first few months.


Babies’ narrow nasal passages tend to fill with mucus. Often, they will clear it by blowing their nose, but sometimes they may need a little help. Gently unclog nostrils with an infant-sized nasal bulb syringe. To loosen mucus, use saline solution or nasal spray before suctioning.


A newborn’s nails are usually soft, but they can scratch their sensitive skin. The idea of keeping a baby’s nails trimmed often scares new parents but once you get the hang of it, it’s not so bad. Use baby nail clippers or blunt-nosed scissors made for baby nails. Clip after their bath when nails are soft or when they’re asleep and their fingers are relaxed.


The AAP recommends waiting to give your newborn their first bath until 24 hours after birth—and after that, the organization recommends three baths per week during your baby’s first year. Limit baths to 10 minutes, and use a mild, fragrance-free soap and lukewarm water. Then liberally apply hypoallergenic lotion immediately afterward. Stick to cotton clothing.

Some babies develop red, itchy patches called eczema or atopic dermatitis—an inheritable skin condition. Since babies can’t relieve their itchy skin, they’re relying on you to help them out.


Change diapers frequently. Using wipes may irritate sensitive skin—instead, try rinsing your baby’s bottom with water and blotting dry. Too much moisture plus sensitive skin can equal diaper rash for many babies. Diaper rash can be painful, so they may be fussy if they have a rash on their bottom. Diaper rash creams may help.

Umbilical stump

Keep the umbilical cord stump clean and dry. It will shrivel and fall off within a few weeks. In the meantime, don’t be surprised by a stinky smell coming from the area. Once it falls off, it will go away. Avoid covering the cord area with a diaper and stick to sponge baths until the stump detaches.


Gently clean your baby’s genital area with warm water daily. If your baby has a penis, you may notice that their testicles appear large. This swelling is due to maternal hormones and will go down within a few days. If your baby is circumcised, the tip of their penis will be tender as it heals; use petroleum jelly to protect the site and prevent the penis from sticking to a diaper. If they are not circumcised, no additional care is needed. You should not attempt to retract the foreskin; this will occur naturally on its own—sometime between 5 years old and puberty.

If your baby has a vulva, you may also notice swelling for the same reason as above. In addition, those same maternal hormones can also result in a bloody vaginal discharge in the early weeks. This discharge typically only lasts a few days.

Legs and feet

Newborns tend to have bowed-out legs and turned-in feet. This position mimics their position in the womb. Their legs and feet will straighten around 6 to 18 months. Also, newborns’ toes frequently overlap, and sometimes the nails look ingrown (usually, they aren’t).

Newborn Sleep

Newborns don’t come into the world with adult-friendly sleep habits. That’s primarily because of their tiny tummies—newborns generally need to eat between 8–12 times in 24 hours, including at night. So, don’t expect a newborn to sleep for long stretches at first. However, there are some things you can do to make bedtime easier.

Sleep close to them

Being close to their parent regulates a baby’s heart rate, immune system, and stress levels, and makes breastfeeding easier, says James McKenna, Ph.D., director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “It also keeps the baby in lighter phases of sleep so he can practice arousing and going back to sleep, which is good in case of any problems, such as sleep apnea.”

As part of their safe sleep guidelines, the AAP recommends sleeping in the same room as your baby for the first six months—but not the same bed, which might lead to suffocation. Room-sharing (but not bed-sharing) may also reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the AAP. Here are other SIDS prevention strategies:

  • Always place your baby to sleep on their back—never on their stomach or side
  • Don’t put anything in the bassinet except a fitted sheet. Avoid crib bumpers, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, etc.
  • Ensure the crib mattress is firm and flat
  • Never sleep on the same surface as your baby
  • Make sure your baby isn’t overheated
  • Consider offering a pacifier
  • Don’t smoke, drink, or use drugs while pregnant

Bedtime rituals

Newborns often get their days and nights mixed up and you may find them sleeping more during the day and having more awake time at night. If your baby has fallen into this pattern, encourage them to switch, says Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., associate director of the Sleep Center, Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, and author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep.

“At night, keep the lights low and move slowly when you feed him. Be boring. Make sure he gets bright light in the morning, and keep him as busy as you can during the day. Make noise. Play with him.” In other words, during the day, be interesting.

In addition, “sleep time should be consistent,” says Dr. Mindell. “Each family has to develop its own routine, but doing the same activities in the same order every day helps the baby anticipate what will come next.” Dr. Mindell suggests doing three or four winding-down activities for 20 to 30 minutes. These activities can include infant massages, baths, lullabies, prayers, rocking, nursing, and reading.

Taking naps

Newborns generally sleep about 16 to 17 hours per day, according to the AAP, though each stretch might only last one or two hours. Look to your baby for their evolving schedule after about 3 months—before that, anything goes. “You don’t have to be rigid,” Dr. Mindell says, “but some structure helps both parents and baby. By age 9 months, most babies naturally move to napping at around 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.” But don’t try to force a schedule on your baby for your convenience.

Sleep training

While sleep training may be OK for some older babies, it’s not a good idea for newborns and younger babies. Jennifer Waldburger, L.C.S.W., co-owner of Los Angeles-based Sleepy Planet and author of the book and DVD The Sleepeasy Solution, suggests that when babies are about 5 months old, it’s safer to experiment with sleep training methods like letting your baby cry a bit at night (maybe for three to five minutes at a time).

Newborn Poop

Sometime in the first days after birth, your baby will pass a thick black or dark-green substance called meconium; this is normal. Within a few days, a breastfed baby will begin having six to eight bowel movements daily, which will be soft, yellow-green, and sometimes filled with seedlike particles. If your baby is formula-fed, on the other hand, they will likely have one to two stools per day, which will be thicker and yellow or tan in color.

Note that unless your baby has signs of diarrhea, wide variations in your baby’s poop color, consistency, and frequency are normal.

Newborn Baby Crying

Newborns can cry—a lot. It makes sense because crying is their only way of communicating their needs. But it can take some detective work to figure out why they’re crying.

Some tips for soothing crying babies:

  • Rule out the obvious potential causes: Are they hungry? Are they wet? Are they tired? Are they gassy? Are they too hot or too cold?
  • Let them suck on your breast, a bottle, finger, or a pacifier. (To avoid nipple confusion if you’re breastfeeding, many experts recommend waiting to offer a pacifier until nursing is going smoothly.)
  • Re-create a womblike environment by swaddling them securely in a blanket. Then hold them snugly on their side or stomach and jiggle them gently while making loud “shushing” sounds in their ear. (But remember that you should always put your baby to sleep on their back to prevent SIDS).
  • Walk, rock, sway, take them for a car or stroller ride, or put them in an infant swing. (Babies love motion!)

Above all, keep your cool! If you’re tense, your baby will be, too. Remember that babies cry—and it will pass.


Fever can be a sign of serious illness, especially in a newborn. Call a pediatrician if your newborn’s rectal temperature hits 100.4 F (or 101 F if your baby is 3 months or older). Also, watch for other signs of illness: If your baby is acting oddly, not eating or drinking, or seems to be in pain, contact a health care provider regardless of their temperature.

When to Call a Pediatrician

A good rule of thumb is to check in with a doctor for any fever in a newborn. It’s always best to call to be safe. As your baby ages, you’ll be able to relax more about low-grade fevers, but the following symptoms in babies warrant medical attention:

  • Has a fever of 100.4 F or higher if the baby is 3 months or younger; 102 F if they’re older than 3 months
  • Shows changes in their eating patterns, such as refusing to nurse
  • Has very watery or mucusy stools
  • Is excessively sleepy, lethargic, or unresponsive
  • Is overly irritable and cries inconsolably for longer than normal
  • Has a red or swollen rash anywhere on their body
  • Has redness or swelling at the base of their umbilical cord
  • Exhibits symptoms of constipation, like discomfort (e.g., straining) when they move their bowels
  • Has a distended abdomen or vomits (as opposed to spitting up)