Someone you love has just had her first baby: your sister, your best friend, your close colleague from the office. You know you can’t wait to get over there and squeeze that tiny bundle and sniff her little head. That newborn smell! So good.

But you’ve been there, mama. You remember how hard those early weeks are and how unhelpful visitors tend to be. Everyone wants to snuggle the baby while mom sits there with her arms crossed, feeling protective of her newborn and just waiting for the first sign that baby needs to eat. So if that new mama in your life is ready for a visit, make sure yours leaves her feeling filled with love instead of more exhausted and annoyed than when you arrived.

In the first two weeks of a baby’s life at home, it is really important that new parents limit visitors. It is hard enough to manage the early days of parenthood without them needing to worry about what they look like, what their house looks like, or what people think of the way they are doing things. Also, in the early weeks mom should be literally feeding the baby, feeding herself, or sleeping at all times, so any interruption to any of these three elements can lead to excessive exhaustion, frustration, and emotional break downs from mom, dad, and baby.

Past the first two weeks, new parents may be more open and willing to have you over to visit, but don’t assume that they are “back to normal.” They certainly aren’t and they won’t be for quite some time. This is especially true if they are struggling with breastfeeding. All the rules below still apply for a mother in the first six weeks.

If you are planning on visiting a postpartum family in the first two weeks of their baby’s life, here are some ways you can be helpful and not unhelpful and certainly not harmful:

1. Set a date and time to come over.

Let the parents be flexible about the time, but you shouldn’t be late or change your time. Limit your visit to no longer than two hours. Texting is a great way to communicate without being intrusive. Once you have set a date and time to visit the new family, send a text a few hours ahead of time asking if the time still works for them. Remember that newborns are highly erratic. Despite your best efforts, your visit will inevitably fall at the beginning or end of a feeding or nap or diaper change. Be willing to wait in the car for a bit until they are ready for you to come in. Do not be annoyed with any of this. That said, also do not be late. They will be expecting you at a certain time and will try to plan accordingly. If you are late, it messes everything up. Also, don’t ring the doorbell when you get there.

Then, when the visit needs to be over, leave. Two hours is the maximum amount of time you should stay. That is a feeding cycle. If you stay longer than that, it should be for a specific purpose, like to hold the baby while the parents are napping or to do more chores. Keep track of time and initiate the leaving process. It is awkward for anyone to ask someone to leave their house, so don’t make it awkward. Just leave.

2. Wash your hands without being asked.

Newborns are very susceptible to disease in the first eight weeks of their lives. Frankly, you should always wash your hands or use sanitizer before touching another person, but in this case, be sure to announce you are washing your hands before touching the baby. This reminds the mother that:

  • Everyone should do this.
  • She shouldn’t have to ask. It is awkward to ask someone to wash their hands.

3. Bring food that requires little to no prep work and leaves left overs.

If you make it while you are there, clean up after yourself. Comfort food works really well here. Lasagna, mac and cheese, etc. If you aren’t a chef, bring Boston Market or Panera. Bring a sweet treat—because when one is stressed, exhausted, and up all night, sweet treats hit the spot.

4. Be helpful while you are there.

Holding the baby is not helpful unless the parents say specifically that it is. Take out their trash, move a load of laundry, wash the dishes in the sink. Take the initiative and offer knowing that they will say you don’t need to do it. Nobody wants to let someone take out their trash; everyone wants someone to take out their trash.

5. Be very careful about what you say and what you talk about.

If they want to talk about their birth experience, listen without commentary unless it is supportive and encouraging. Talk about the baby or whatever they want to talk about. Avoid small talk or gossip or anything unrelated to the baby. They don’t want to talk about that.

New parents are very susceptible to judgment and are overwhelmed with the learning curve of being a new parent. They do not need to be reminded of what they aren’t doing, what could have gone better in their birth, or what they need to be worrying about.

6. Don’t bring extra kids.

Leave your toddler at home with dad. Toddlers are exhausting and they will prevent you from being truly helpful during your visit. If you can’t find someone else to watch your young children, you can’t visit. It just isn’t fair to the new parents.

If you have an adolescent, though, bring her. You two can tag-team any tasks that need to be done. Or your teenager can hold the baby while mom and dad catch a nap and you do something useful around the house.

7. Leave at a set time and don’t stay longer or ask to stay longer.

Offer to follow up with something they need you to do or pick up, then do it.

Rather than saying, “Do you need anything?” say, “What can I pick up for you?” Offer to drop it off on their front door step so they know that taking you up on your offer doesn’t necessarily mean another visit.

8. If you have a special skill, bring it. If you have an awesome referral, bring it. Otherwise don’t try to act like you know what is going on. (With, for instance, breastfeeding.)

If you have a nice camera, offer to snap some shots. If you have a knack at swaddling, offer to demonstrate if mom or dad expresses frustration at figuring out how to do it.

If mom is already in the middle of a complicated situation (a medical difficulty or a tough relationship with her or her husband’s family, for example), it’s best not to get involved. But if you can offer advice about the basics of caring for a newborn (e.g. how to wear baby in a sling or what your favorite brand of diaper rash cream is), feel free. As a mother who probably struggled through the early weeks of motherhood and may have figured out a thing or two, share this expertise. Mothers learn from one another.

Photo credit: Angie Gray

Before you head over, make a mental list. What were some of the things you found most helpful when people came to visit you and your baby? Try to remember, too, the visits that left you feeling drained and think about why those visits were so unhelpful. Make your visit about truly offering assistance to people who are in the throes of probably the biggest sudden change they’ve ever experienced. Don’t make your visit about your opportunity to meet the new baby. Since this is someone you’re close to, you’ll have plenty of chances to get the know the little one. But the chance to help a brand new mama in her early weeks of motherhood—that only comes around once in a lifetime. Make it count.