I’m not just a GP anymore. As of December, I am a dad with a little son to look after.
You might assume being a GP makes parenthood easier, but let me enlighten you…
Let me start off by saying that although my medical training has given me the skills to diagnose and treat an unwell child, it has given me very little head-start when it comes to caring for a newborn. I know what one looks like, I know broadly how one works and I know what to do when one goes wrong. But the nuances of caring for a baby still remain somewhat of a mystery to me. The vast majority of the skills I now have, came from the last four weeks of being a dad, rather than the previous fifteen years of medical training.
Parenthood starts the moment that pregnancy stick turns blue. You’re immediately thrust into a world of dietary prohibitions, medical appointments and choices about tests for conditions you’ve never heard of. Thankfully, the NHS maternity service runs like an enormous well-oiled machine and successfully guides thousands of couples each week from conception to childbirth.
Being a GP made me hyper-aware of the potential complications which can arise at any stage of pregnancy and childbirth. I found myself trying to keep a slight emotional detachment to the pregnancy, as a way to protect myself in case things took a turn for the worse. With each hospital appointment we attended, and then passed without any problems identified, I allowed myself to feel a little more excited and anticipative towards the prospect of having a child.
Nothing in the world prepares you for the moment you first set eyes on your own child and then the subsequent emotional rollercoaster
As the pregnancy progressed, the midwives started reminding us about the classes we should be attending to prepare for childbirth. At this stage, I was still a little blasé and thought that there wasn’t going to be much I could learn that I didn’t already know. I attended a weekend antenatal course with my wife, mainly to provide moral support and maybe pick up a few tips. I was absolutely blown away by the usefulness of the class and surprised by my own lack of knowledge. We were taught about many aspects of birth, breastfeeding and childcare which I hadn’t even considered. Additionally, the benefits of being part of a peer group of other expectant parents cannot be overestimated. The couples we attended the class with have been a constant source of reassurance and advice which is still ongoing now.
Labour started in the nick of time, several hours before an induction would have been necessary, and the birth process was guided by the competence and calmness of several fantastic midwives. Then in a flurry of shouting and concentrating and crying and pushing, a calmness suddenly descends, and you have a baby in your arms.
Nothing in the world prepares you for the moment you first set eyes on your own child and then the subsequent emotional rollercoaster of joy, guilt, excitement and fear, all experienced through the haze of extreme sleep deprivation. So many aspects of parenthood just must be experienced. Health visitors, midwives, doctors and relatives will offer helpful/unhelpful advice as to how best manage a particular problem or scenario, but you’ll find a huge amount of caring for your newborn is done via bumbling through it with a vague idea of what to do and a liberal application of common sense.
It won’t be too long until you become a bona fide expert on your own little bundle of joy.
Questions like; should my baby be left alone in the bath? Or; can I breastfeed whilst driving? Are very easy to answer. No, and definitely no! Others are more difficult. How many blankets does my baby need in the pram? Do I need to inspect the nappy straight after they’ve done a big fart? Why do they sometimes make a weird noise for a few minutes and then stop? These are things you only pick up through experience and the vast majority of hurdles and problems you’ll come across will fit into this category where there is no definitive answer, just a general sense of what feels right.
Thankfully, if you’re asking these questions, then chances are, you’re thinking about things enough to be doing a decent parenting job. As a GP, I’m always happy to see new parents with essentially well children and offer them my opinion and some reassurance. Many parents will apologise for ‘wasting my time’ but I see these consultations as an essential part of the GP service and I know many of my colleagues feel the same.
It won’t be too long until you become a bona fide expert on your own little bundle of joy. You’ll know what their different cries means, you’ll be able to anticipate a poo explosion before you enter the firing line and you’ll be the best person in the world when it comes to deciding whether they’re okay or, actually, something isn’t right. As a doctor, one of the most important factors to take into consideration when assessing a child, is the parent’s level of concern. If the child seems okay, but the seasoned, usually relaxed mum is fraught with worry, then it’s really important to take her concerns seriously. Becoming a parent myself has only served to reinforce this point and has also given me a newfound respect for any parent.
Here’s the advice I would like to give parents-to-be:
- Attend as many classes as you can but don’t expect to get all the answers.
- Buy the baby stuff; it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it at three in the morning and not have it. You can always sell it later.
- Talk to someone if you’re worried about your child, the NHS is generally excellent for antenatal and postnatal care and there’s always someone on the other end of the phone.
- Support your partner, childcare is tough and exhausting and a word of encouragement or a brief period of respite can go along way.
- If you are struggling time-wise to visit the doctor, it’s worth investing in a private GP consultation via GPDQ so that a doctor can come to you wherever you are within hours – your child’s health is of the utmost importance.
- But ultimately, try and enjoy it. Raising a child is the best thing in the world and you only get to be a first-time parent once.
For anyone considering or starting out on the journey of parenthood, it’s probably the biggest challenge you will ever undertake, but consequently will be the most rewarding.
Read more: Dr Tom York’s breastfeeding advice for new mums AND dads