The New Dad’s Guide: 8 Tips to Surviving the First Year

The New Dad’s Guide: 8 Tips to Surviving the First Year
Where the rules are made up and the sleep schedules don't matter.

If you have a baby on the way, then congratulations, my guy. You are in for so much fun. The cuteness, the poops, the pukes, the baby talk, the chunky toes, the baby baths, literally all of it is wonderful, and fulfilling, and hilarious. 

It’s also overwhelming, and emotional, and exhausting. 

And trust me, you can do it. If you’ve just had a baby, or you have one on the way, here are a few ideas to consider to get you started. 

You Can’t Be Perfectly Prepared

You got the crib, the wipe warmer, the stroller, and you put some money aside. But you need to embrace the fact that you can only be so prepared for this baby. 

You’re going to need more diapers. You’re going to run out of butt cream when the baby has a rash, and you’re going to stand over her at 2am just to make sure she’s still breathing. Oh and that baby is definitely going to have a full, green-poop blowout when you’ve forgotten to replace the backup onesie that she soiled last week. 

It’s ok. 

The point isn’t to be prepared for any scenario – that’s impossible. The point is to live in the moment with your partner and your baby. The poop, the rash, the anxiety, it’s all par for the course, and whatever happens, I promise you’ll figure it out. You’ll call your mom, or your best friend, or your older brother, or the pediatrician, and they’ll walk you through how to handle it.

illustration of a tired father carrying a lot of things, standing next to a stroller

It’s wise to be as prepared as you can, but at a certain point, you have to accept that the next few months will be rife with curveballs. You can handle it. 

Sleep When You Can

I know, everyone says this, and it’s easier said than done. But considering you now have a tiny human who has NO respect for the usual rules of wake time and sleep time, you really do need to sleep when you can. When the baby goes down for a nap, give yourself forty-five minutes on the couch. And I don’t mean forty five to scroll on Instagram. Turn your brain off and close your eyes. Even if you don’t fall asleep, you can do some deep breathing and give your body a rest. 

After forty-five minutes (or an hour if you’re so lucky), get up and swiffer the floor, load the dishwasher (yes, you should do regular household activities while the baby sleeps so she is used to sleeping through the noise), and catch up on that report for work. 

It’s better to already be awake when the baby wakes up. Trust me: there’s nothing worse than slipping into a deep sleep and being woken up by a baby who you’d hoped would sleep for another hour. 

You Need a Date Night

Those first couple of weeks, you’re going to cocoon: You’ll stay in the house as much as you can and soak up every single moment with your partner and your baby. And that’s damn right. 

If you can afford it, order in a few times so that once the baby goes down, you and your partner can sit and have some sushi or pizza. Talk, reconnect, watch one of your shows that you’ve been binging together. You’re going to be tired, but this is a critical time in your relationship, and you need to let the stress and exhaustion bring you closer together, not farther apart. 

Once you’re comfortable, have a date night out of the house. This is going to give both of you anxiety, but there are ways you can manage it. Hopefully you have a support system in place that allows for someone you trust to come hang with the baby while you and your partner get out. 

Start small – no one is saying you need to do dinner, the club, and movie. But maybe just dinner, and maybe some place within fifteen minutes of home in case something comes up. Give each other grace with checking in with the babysitter. My kids are 6, 10, and 10, and we still check in at least once with the babysitter whenever we have a night out. 

It’s Ok to Say No

When my daughter, Izzy, was born, my dad and I had lunch in the hospital. He said, “You know, the time will come where I’ll suggest that you come over, and you’ll have to remind me that it’s easier for us to come to you because you’re the one with the kid.” And he was right; I played that card plenty of times when Izzy was a baby (obviously as the kids get older, it gets easier to travel). The fact is, there’s no such thing as a quick trip anywhere with a baby. 

When you have a baby, people understand you’re busy. But they don’t always know how tired you are. Remember that it’s ok to say no.

text inset of worn text on blue background that says "When you have a baby, people understand you’re busy. But they don’t always know how tired you are. Remember that it’s ok to say no."

Your friend will find some other guys to help him move his pool table, and that couple you like to hang out with can take a rain check on dinner. And when your parents call and ask you to bring the baby over, sometimes you can say Actually, how about you come to us? 

Get Yourself a Dad Bag

I’ve talked about this before, but it’s a good idea for you to have a dad bag. At any given time, you need a handful of diapers, wipes, an extra outfit for the baby, and according to the comments in my original article, an extra t-shirt for yourself as well. No need to break the bank on the bag; grab a cheap one that will get you through the next two years. 

You Still Have to Take Care of Yourself

Before Izzy was born, I was in the best shape of my life. I lifted six days a week, and I ran 3-5 miles every other night. I was in my late twenties and I had all the time in the world. I also ate like a king (a healthy king). Meat or fish and veggies with every meal, protein shakes, constant hydration. Yes sir, I was jacked. 

And then Izzy was born. 

Suddenly working out was a luxury for which I seldom had the time or energy. And as far as eating, I don’t even want to talk about it. A few scrambled eggs and half a glass of milk became an ordinary meal for me in between bottle feedings, playing, catching up on sleep, and trying to keep the house clean. 

The fact is, you’re no good for your kid or your partner if you’re not taking care of yourself. You need to exercise, and you need to eat right. No need to suddenly become a fitness influencer; just a few adjustments can keep you in check. Instead of binging your favorite show for two hours, take the baby for a walk in the stroller and listen to your favorite podcast or an audio book (you have to keep your mind sharp too). 

If you know you’re not going to go to the gym or down to the basement where you keep the weights, then bring two 25-pound dumbbells up into the living room. Do curls in between folding laundry. Throw on some ankle weights while you cut the grass. The point is that you can exercise while you complete other tasks. 

As for your diet, it’s probably going to suffer a bit – that’s fine: it’s survival for the first few months. Remember that Oreos are an easy snack, but so are baby carrots (so hey, have both). 

More importantly, just make sure you’re eating. I can’t count how many times I’ve had my girls out for hours at a time only to realize my hands were shaking because I hadn’t eaten all day. Keep your caloric intake up; you need energy and patience. When you take a bottle for the kid, take a snack for yourself too. Protein shakes and granola bars are your friends. And give yourself some grace on this one: When push comes to shove, it’s better to have a Big Mac than nothing at all. 

One last thing: If you don’t have a therapist, start seeing one now, before the baby is born. You want mental health care to be a normal part of your routine before you’re over tired, overworked, and generally overwhelmed. 

You don’t see a therapist because there’s something wrong with you. You see a therapist because you recognize that mental health matters and you want to be the best version of yourself for your partner and your baby. 

Your Partner Still Comes First

I might catch some hate for this one, but your relationship with your partner must remain your top priority. Your partner is your equal, your soulmate, and even though you love this baby more than you ever thought possible, it’s a different kind of love. 

A birthing coach once told me, when you come home from work, you kiss your wife first, then you kiss the baby. At first, I balked at this. I thought, if I’m spending all day at work, I’ll do what I want when I get home. But the birthing coach was right: While I was at work, my wife was at home, exhausting herself attending to our baby. She deserved my attention and the first kiss. She also deserved for me to jump into action when I walked in the door. I got the baby; you go get a manicure with your best friend, or pour yourself a drink and sit on the porch. 

Today, our girls always get grossed out when they see Katie and me show affection, but they also know that while I love all of them endlessly, mom is my number one, ride-or-die girl. She’s my partner, my equal, my companion. 

Don’t Underestimate Your Power

Sometimes I lose my patience. I raise my voice. I get so tired that I can barely think straight. But I also remind my girls how strong they are. I make them say aloud that they are brilliant and beautiful and proud. I play charades and sing goofy songs, and draw them pictures, and I clap when they do cartwheels and show me magic tricks. I make nutritious dinners, and once in a while, I’ll grab them a happy meal (if they’re good listeners while we’re in Home Depot). 

None of these make me a great dad, but I’m engaged, and engagement is everything. 

You have the power to build your kid’s self-esteem (a power that a lot of our dads didn’t use well). You have the power to protect your kid but also to love them unconditionally, to encourage them to accept whoever they become and celebrate their own accomplishments. Use this power healthily, so your kid can become the person they want to be. 

Congratulations, dad. Take a deep breath. You got this. 

Mike Henson

Mike Henson is a literature teacher in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He enjoys shooting 35mm film, restoring vintage straight blades, purchasing too many American-made goods, and spending time with his wife and their three daughters.