Have you ever wondered what makes babies so incredibly resilient and determined to survive – even when the odds are against them? From the moment of birth, your newborn needs to suddenly breathe on her own in a world that’s so different to the womb where she was snug and warm and didn’t have to breath, eat or even poop.
Your baby has no control over the environment she is born into, but her main objective is to survive. First on her checklist is breathing, which she manages to do quite well with a loud, robust cry in response to noise, lights and cold air on her warm and wet body in the delivery room. This state of panic shouldn’t last too long, because it puts pressure on her tiny heart, which may be pumping at the rate of 120 beats per minute. As soon as she is reunited with you, skin-to-skin between your breasts where she can listen to your heartbeat, savour your unique smell and hear your voice clearly for the first time, she calms down and adjusts to life outside the womb. Your baby has just had her first lesson on habituation and orientation.
During the first three days of life, babies go through what American paediatrician and author Dr Brazelton called behavioural disorganisation. This means babies have to orientate themselves to the new, haphazard environment that’s alien to the cosy comfort zone of the womb.
Your baby quickly learns to self-soothe. To do that, she needs to learn to block out unnecessary stimulation and focus on sleep. This is called habituation. “Babies have to work very hard to stay asleep,” was one of Dr Brazelton’s favourite expressions. Throughout the day and night, your baby goes in and out of sleep-awake cycles despite constant interruptions. By the third day, she has begun to master the skill of ignoring lights, sounds and other annoying disturbances by self-soothing. If you watch your newborn carefully, you’ll notice how she quietly whimpers, twitches her face and appears to smile, yawns or slowly moves her arms and legs. Then she settles back to sleep again.
Inexperienced moms can make the mistake of thinking her baby is waking up and not realise she is self-soothing – especially if she makes sucking movements. Picking your baby up and trying to feed or rock her back to sleep will only annoy her and undermine her self-soothing instincts. If it’s not time for a feed and your baby is disturbed, gently reassure her with a calm, gentle voice, and she will soon go back to sleep in her crib.
Sudden loud noises and abrupt jolting disturb the rhythm your baby is trying to adjust to and throw her into a state of alert shock or stress. Crying increases the heart rate and breathing, and because a crying baby takes longer to inhale, oxygen levels in her blood can decrease. The distraught baby may gag, tremor or twitch. Luckily, babies without complications quickly recover and settle down to the sound of a comforting, consoling, monotonous voice or gentle swaying.
This type of stress on a premature baby (whose central nervous system is not ready to deal with overstimulation), or a baby with compromised breathing, birth injuries or developmental anomalies, can be very distressing, and it will take longer for them to recover.
This involves your baby learning through smell, sound, sight, taste and touch. Called sensory stimulation, orientation is an essential learning skill your baby will need for life. Orientation establishes mother or carer bonding with the baby, which happens during feeding, bathing, swaddling and other interactions. During this time, your baby focuses on your face, listens to your voice, enjoys your comforting touch and the taste of your warm, sweet milk.
Your baby is also learning social skills. In other words, she responds to cuddling, smiling and playing.
By watching your baby carefully and learning to interpret her body language, you can anticipate your baby’s temperament – does she enjoy being held and cuddled, or does she stiffen and turn away?
When to worry
Babies who don’t learn to habituate and orientate may well have an undiagnosed, underlying problem. We know today that the sooner a problem is recognised and treated, the better the outcome. Ignoring subtle symptoms won’t make them go away. Babies who continue to be disturbed by normal household noises and those who don’t respond to sensory stimulation should be seen by a paediatrician.
Mothers always know best. Your instincts tell you when there is something wrong. If a doctor plays-down your concern, you should get another opinion and persevere until someone is prepared to take you seriously.
Top tips to help your baby adapt
- Avoid overstimulating your baby, especially during the first three months – also known as the fourth trimester of your baby’s life. There’s ample time for this in years to come.
- Help your baby learn to self-soothe by recognising body-language and habituation.
- Offer her your little finger to grasp or your pinkie-knuckle to suck.
- Place your hand, rolled blanket or teddy bear gently but firmly against his back or bottom.
- Speak to your baby in a deep, soothing, calming comforting voice. She can sense panic in your voice, touch and behaviour.
- Swaddle your baby to recreate the sensation that she is still in the womb.
The first three months are critical for a baby’s survival and the first three years will be the foundation of your child’s learning skills for life. While you are on maternity leave, treasure this special time with her. Use it to get to know one another.
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