Meeting your baby for the first time
When your newborn baby is placed into your arms for the very first time, they are ready to begin forming social relationships. The first relationship that they form will be with you, their parents, and research now shows us that these relationships can have a powerful impact on how your baby feels and reacts to the world around them. All babies need to develop a strong relationship (also called ‘attachment’ or ‘bonding’) with one significant carer and, in the majority of cases, this will be their mother. Parents and their babies need a close attachment to give the baby the degree of security necessary for their optimal emotional and physical development. However, bonding with your baby, just like any other relationship, can take time and is in fact a process to be worked through. Many new mothers and fathers have strong maternal/paternal feelings that enable them to achieve a firm bond of affection with their newborn babies without difficulty, even where this might be after an initial period of separation. Occasionally however, parents may also find that they don’t immediately feel close to their baby or worry that they don’t love them. This can be the case where mum and baby are initially separated because of maternal illness and/or because the baby needs to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), or following a difficult labour and birth. In these circumstances opportunities to hold and care for the baby can be significantly disrupted, which may impact on mum and dad bonding with their baby. However, as you and your baby get to know each other the relationship should start to develop, even then it can sometimes take days or weeks before the baby appears to be an individual and yours.
Your baby’s abilities
As you get to know your baby you will be increasingly amazed by their capabilities as well as, their responses to the various social interactions and stimuli around them. Babies are ‘little people’ and are very sociable with their own individual personalities including, their likes and dislikes and the ability to recognise that they are loved and cared for. Where a newborn baby’s behaviour is misunderstood, this can undermine parents’ confidence, impede successful breastfeeding (where this is the chosen method of infant feeding) and interfere with bonding; in the worst cases, it may even contribute to neglect.
Eye contact between a mother/father and their newborn baby is very important in developing ‘attachment’ between parents and baby. This very first eye contact soon after the birth is usually with the baby’s mother, however it might equally be with its father or another birth partner; particularly where the baby is born by caesarean section or the mother is unwell. While the range of a newborn’s vision is likened to that of a softly focused photograph with its blurred edges, babies can actually distinguish between light and dark, and are also able to detect movement. The quality of their vision is limited to a distance of around nine to 12 inches, which is the same span as when a baby is being cradled in its parent’s arms or is being breastfed. Research has demonstrated that babies can distinguish their mother’s face and hairline from that of a stranger from two days of age.
Babies respond best to the human voice and soon after birth will respond/turn towards the sound of their mother or father’s voice in preference to that of a stranger. While they will also be aware of the different sounds emanating from the world around them eg household noises, voices on the television, music playing, these are no substitute for the sound of their mother’s or father’s voice. Research has shown that babies need the human voice to help them develop and soon learn to identify from the tone and level of their carers’ voices that they are loved and loveable.
Babies tend to have a preference for sweeter tastes; however, where they are being breastfed, they will experience a whole range of tastes that reflect their mother’s dietary intake. Babies can also differentiate between different smells at a very young age. An example being where a newborn is placed between two breast pads; one belonging to its mother and another belonging to another breastfeeding mother; research has found that a baby will always show a preference for its mother’s breast pad. Similarly, other research studies have recognised the importance of skin-to-skin contact between a mother and her newborn baby. This allows the baby to get used to its mother’s scent which can be very calming, helps babies maintain their body temperature (called ‘thermoregulation’) and promotes mother-baby attachment as well as, the initiation of early breastfeeding. For this reason, various authors have recommended that parents avoid using strong perfumes and other heavily scented lotions and fabric conditioners in the early weeks following the birth, so that babies can familiarise themselves with their mother’s natural body scent. This can help to soothe the baby and ease their adaptation to life outside their mother’s womb (uterus). Skin-to-skin contact can work just as effectively with dads too. Also called ‘Kangaroo care’, new fathers can also enjoy skin-to-skin contact with their newborns… babies don’t mind a bit of chest hair either!
Your baby’s behaviour patterns
As the relationship with your baby develops you will be able to recognise their capabilities, different behavioural states and cues, including feeding cues, which babies display when they are feeling hungry (eg opening their mouth, licking their lips, sucking their fists/fingers, ‘rooting’ for the nipple or bottle teat).
We all need sleep for our health and wellbeing and newborn babies are no different. Just like us, babies go through sleep phases which alternate between ‘light’ (also called ‘active’ or ‘rapid eye movement (REM) sleep) and ‘deep’ sleep. During light/REM sleep, your baby’s eyes are firmly closed; however, slow rotating eye ball movements are visible beneath their eyelids. When you watch your baby, you will notice that they make facial and mouth movements, including grimaces, smiles and frowns; they may also move and twitch and their breathing can be irregular or shallow. During this phase of sleep your baby is more likely to be disturbed and woken by a sudden noise. By contrast however, when in a deep sleep, their eyes are firmly closed, their breathing is deep and steady and because they are sleeping soundly, there is no movement of their body or limbs. A baby passes through these different phases of sleep in a cycle that lasts approximately 45 minutes.
Recognising these different phases of sleep can help you to better meet your baby’s care needs; however, just like us, your baby is an individual so while some will want to be cradled or rocked to sleep, others will find this too stimulating and settle better when they are put down in their cot. Similarly, while some babies are not disturbed by loud noises or light, others need a quiet, darkened area to aid their sleep. In the first weeks and months of parenthood your baby’s waking and sleep phases can seem quite erratic however, their waking and sleeping tends to occur in cycles of three to four hours, often coinciding with feeding.
Feeding patterns can also feel quite chaotic in the first days and weeks after the birth. Your baby is not being deliberately demanding by wanting to feed so frequently, instead they are showing you that they need to feel they have a full tummy and the action of their sucking (whether at the breast, on a bottle teat, or sucking their own fingers/thumb) is incredibly soothing for any baby. Compared with formula fed babies, those who are breastfed often wake more frequently; this is because breast milk is specifically designed for the baby’s nutritional needs and their digestive system, so is much more easily absorbed than formula milks. Consequently, their stomachs feel empty sooner and they want to feed more frequently. Breastfeeding on demand (ie baby-led feeding) also stimulates mum’s breast milk production and after a few weeks babies sleeping phases often settle into a patter, usually lengthening and evening out.
Crying is a newborn baby’s main means of attracting your attention because they have a need. It could be that they are hungry and want to be fed, are feeling bored and want to be cuddled, have a wet or dirty nappy that needs changing, are tired, over-stimulated, or are trying to let you know that something is wrong eg they are too hot/cold, or are not feeling well. However, some babies cry more than others, which can be stressful for new parents who are also struggling to cope with sleep deprivation. Most babies will cry for awhile at a certain time in the day, often the evenings, and this is recognised as a means of relieving a build-up of stress. Cuddling, rocking, swaddling, talking to your baby in a soothing tone, baby massage and allowing your baby to self-soothe (eg suck their thumb or fingers) are all useful strategies to help calm and comfort your baby. As stressful as it can feel, crying is not a negative thing. Research studies have shown that babies cannot be spoilt, so if you attend to your baby’s cries, in the longer term they will cry less. As you become familiar with your baby’s different cries you will also become more adept at responding quickly to their individual needs.
Parenthood is a steep learning curve, especially where it is your first experience of being a mum or dad. This feature has provided an introduction to your baby’s behaviour and capabilities, so that you can better understand your newborn and enjoy your developing relationship with them