The SRE Guide to New Parenthood
Updated: Oct 18, 2020
Having spent 7 years as a Site Reliability Engineer for some of the world's largest software products (e.g., Google Ads, Gmail, Google Cloud Compute Engine), I've gained an appreciation for risk management and contingency planning at scale.
While the scale of my parenting thusfar has only involved one baby, I have found that applying many of the principles from my time as an SRE to raising an infant has made the process more consistent, reliable, and sustainable. This has enabled better sleep, lower stress for everyone, and more time for enjoying my new life with the little one.
Disclaimer: this is based on my experience; there are many valid ways to parent and different things work well for different families. The below is what I've found to be effective for us.
1. Reducing Single Points of Failure (SPOFs)
Some aspects of parenting (e.g., breastmilk, if this is the path you are on) are a biological challenge in that the birthing parent is inherently a SPOF. The key is to enable the non-birthing parent to cover as many areas of parenting as possible, which is really most of them, i.e., burping, diaper changes, laundry/cleaning, soothing, tummy/play time. In that way, the birthing parent would be a bottleneck for only the actual milk production.
Redundancy was helpful beyond day-to-day care activities, for example, setting up a tiny refrigerator and bottle cleaning station upstairs to avoid going up and downstairs in the middle of the night, as well as a diaper changing station for each floor. During the late night feeds, every minute saved adds up!
The tiny milk refrigerator.
2. Oncall Caregiving Shifts
The most obvious parallel in providing 24/7 care for a large production system is setting up an "oncall rotation" among caregivers.
The way this worked for my family was to have a primary and secondary oncall caregiver at any given time, with an acknowledgment that escalation to the secondary as needed was accepted and encouraged. Especially for the night shift, this allowed both parents to get sleep while making sure if someone needed to pass the baton due to fatigue or frustration, there was an escalation path to do so. Given the overall lack of sleep, once both parents felt comfortable with regular care, this meant we were both much better able to function during the day.
3. The baby soothing "playbook" / checklist
With my baby, it seemed that for the most part, identifying the root cause of my baby's upset was made more straightforward when following a checklist, a straightforward "algorithm", to determine if the baby was physically uncomfortable. Reading the baby's cues (symptom-based alerting) would always be the preference, but as a fallback, running through a short soothing checklist for my baby helped to reduce decision fatigue during a 3am wakeup. The playbook entry would look different for every baby, but having a general checklist helps avoid the feeling of not knowing what to try next.
Wet (e.g. spit-up, dirty diaper)
4. Troubleshooting and A/B experimentation
Getting nursing going strong required a lot of troubleshooting and experimentation. The SRE background was quite helpful to me in identifying problems and trying different solutions.
The role of a lactation consultant is essentially to help diagnose and debug issues one-on-one, many helpful support groups exist for feeding, and of course other parents are always a great resource. Experimenting and quickly iterating with different nursing positions, latch techniques, and pillow supports allowed me to find what worked best for me.
With sleep training, I essentially implemented an exponential backoff approach, where we checked on the baby in increasing intervals to teach them to soothe themself to sleep, and eventually "automate myself out of a job".
The infinite selection of baby products can be overwhelming, and there is often a direct relationship between cost and convenience. Two months in, I learned there are two sizes of "standard" bottles, narrow and wide, and that they are not interchangeable off the bat. For example, Medela pumps work with the "narrow" size and Spectra works with "wide" neck bottles. There are all sorts of adapters that you can get to make one work with the other, but it is worthwhile to consider what bottles you are using because pumping directly to the bottles you are feeding from is a huge time and cleaning saver. This resource was super helpful in determining how to enable the different parts to work together, e.g., with adapters: https://www.theglassbabybottle.com/info-breastpump/
6. Eliminating toil
"We define toil as mundane, repetitive operational work providing no enduring value, which scales linearly with service growth." - SRE book
Changing diapers is one of the more mundane operations involved with babies. While the number of diaper changes decreases over the first few months, it can become repetitive quickly. After the first few weeks, assuming diaper rash is not a major issue for the baby, we found sizing up the diaper at night and skipping a middle-of-the-night diaper change to be a major help towards morning grogginess. Using a tiny spatula to spread diaper cream also drastically reduced the mess/cleanup. To make diaper changes more of a fun activity rather than toil, it can be nice to have a special changing ritual/song or set up a mirror for your baby to entertain themselves while you do the needful.
7. Monitoring and Metrics
In the early weeks, data collection is often recommended to understand baby's patterns and needs, specifically to ensure sufficient weight gain. There are a variety of apps to do so (e.g., BabyTracker), but what I found is that what matters most is the trend rather than the individual data points: namely, the trend should be up and to the right overall, but individual days will have their peaks and troughs. If weight gain is a particular concern, some products allow for finer-grained tracking (e.g., a hospital-grade infant scale rental, or the Hatch Grow Smart Changing Pad), which can help track how much milk is transferred to the baby during a feeding.
8. Sustainability and Long-Term Operations
The ergonomics of childcare is a topic not often addressed before birth. Going to a women's health physical therapist before and after the birth was one of the best decisions I made for my well being. In fact, I called my physical therapist my "pregnancy and postpartum consultant", as she was able to help me strengthen muscles that were weakening due to hormonal and musculoskeletal changes and help mitigate the effects of the poor ergonomics inherent to those times. During pregnancy, I discovered many new and exciting failure modes for my body, but thankfully most of them are quite treatable. For me, the main improvements stemmed from: 1) support braces and 2) behavior modifications to avoid triggering motions.
Before birth, I had round ligament pain and pelvic girdle pain. While stretches and muscle-strengthening exercises helped a lot, around week 25 I couldn't jog without supporting the belly, so getting a support band helped me extend my jogging routine a bit longer. Eventually as the ligaments in the pelvis stretched as birth approached, I found a sacroiliac belt to be super important towards being able to continue to walk. Getting in the recommended daily pelvic floor exercises was also critical especially in the second half of the pregnancy.
When I was primarily pumping the first couple months, it was really important to streamline the process. The flanges that come by default with the pumps (e.g., Spectra) were not designed in a way that worked for my body. The size was wrong, and more importantly, the angle was off. In order to allow the milk to flow downwards into the collection bottles, I needed to lean forward for gravity to kick in, which was horrid for my back and shoulders. I got the Pumpin Pals flanges, which were angled more steeply downwards, meaning I no longer needed to be hands-on when pumping to get the milk out. The extensive breast massage, which was very effective for expressing milk, contributed, along with all the baby lifting and fine motor tasks, to a repetitive strain injury known as baby's wrist (officially, De Quervain's tenosynovitis). This is a very common issue in new parents, which is compounded in knowledge workers who may struggle with carpal tunnel or texting thumb from their day jobs already. The issue is preventable and treatable: for example, rather than picking up the baby the intuitive way, use one hand under the bum and the other at the top of the back (technique description). Wrist splints (e.g. the Spica) help a lot for preventing the repetitive injury as well.
9. The Retrospective
Overall, the pregnancy, birth, and postpartum periods are a tremendous learning experience filled with joy and challenge. Fortunately, babies are very resilient. Shed the instinctive new-parent guilt and approach issues in a blameless, curious way. Reflect, maintain a growth mindset, and continuously learn from the inevitable missteps. Wishing every new parent positive experiences with the journey.