Just imagine for a moment what life is like for your newborn baby. You’ve been tucked up all warm and cosy for months, your mom’s heartbeat and smell a constant companion. Then, suddenly, you find yourself out in the world, saddled with a super-strong instinct to stay connected to Mom. But that’s tricky, because although you’re pre-programmed to look for your mom’s face, you can’t see far at all. “Imagine you’ve got very poor vision, so everything is blurry, and you can just see shades of grey and things moving,” says Professor Scott Johnson, research director of the UCLA Baby Lab.
You recognise the sound of Mom’s voice, and can hear it just fine. “But you can’t move your head to gauge where the sound is coming from,” adds Professor Johnson. Think you’d better cry to get Mom’s face to loom back into range, so you know she’s 100% there? Go for it!
As soon as you get a glimpse of life from your baby’s point of view, you instantly understand why he’s only at his most chilled and contented when he’s physically connected to you. “There’s no question a baby has a strong, natural instinct to be close to his mother,” says Professor Johnson. “Each sense is at a different stage of development at birth, so it’s a good few months before all are fully developed.” But while some are less developed than you might imagine, others are pretty advanced. “From our tests, we know babies are processing more than we might give them credit for,” says Professor Johnson.
So, understand just how much your newborn can see, hear, smell and feel, and you can tailor your actions to match his developmental level and let him know you’re there for him. Satisfying his innate need to stay connected to you will leave him feeling happy and relaxed. “These are all important ways to help your baby feel secure,” says Professor Johnson.
Can you see me?
Research has found newborns are pre-programmed to look for their mom’s face, and one study found babies between 12 and 36 hours old could recognise Mom over a stranger. But your baby needs you to be up close and personal to do this. Not only can he not see very far, he hasn’t learnt to focus yet, so the world is a fuzzy place. Studies suggest babies can only see things up to between 20cm and 38cm away. “A newborn can see your face pretty well while he’s feeding,” says Professor Johnson. “But, if he’s out in the pram, he won’t be able to make out much at all. His vision won’t be fully developed until he’s around six months old.”
In the meantime, to help your baby feel connected to you when his sight is so limited, you’ll need to keep your face close to his while you feed and cuddle him. He’ll love lying face-to-face on your bed for cuddles, or being carried in a sling facing towards you. And whenever you move out of his range of vision, use his other senses to let him know you’re still there.
Handy, then, that your baby’s hearing is fully developed when he’s born – he’s been listening to your voice and your favourite Netflix series from inside your womb for ages now. By chatting away to your baby as you fade out of his view, he’ll feel reassured. Feel a bit weird having a one-way conversation with your baby? Just get into the habit of providing a running commentary on whatever you’re up to – he’ll soon start responding with smiles and gurgles. “Speech is incredibly important to your baby,” says Professor Johnson, “and you can help him a lot by simply talking to him.”
“Babies prefer higher-pitch, female voices with a sing-song pattern,” says Professor Johnson. “This is an innate preference and may be because a female voice is present at birth and that’s what he is most used to hearing.”
Keeping household noises to a constant hum will help him feel settled, too. “Your baby is used to all sorts of sounds in the womb, where there’s lots of squishing around of digestive noises and your beating heart,” says Professor Johnson. So don’t make the house too quiet. “Babies have the ability to tune sounds out so they can go to sleep, so don’t worry,” says Professor Johnson.
Your newborn also relies heavily on smell, and his brain’s smell centre developed early on in your womb. The chemical messages that are sent from the olfactory receptors in his nose to his brain can help him bond with you.
“The smell that is most familiar is Mom,” says Professor Johnson. Want to understand how your baby might feel as he drinks in your scent? Shut your eyes and sniff the top of his head – soothing, right? Scent is heavily involved in the connection process and, while you and your baby cuddle up and smell each other, both your levels of the bonding hormone, oxytocin, are boosted. So, it’s a good idea to go easy on scented products in those early days, so your baby can really soak up your natural smell.
Touch is the first of your baby’s five senses to develop, at around week seven of pregnancy. One study found that when a pregnant woman rubs her belly, her unborn baby can feel the vibrations. “Babies need touch,” says Professor Johnson. “Their sense of touch is fully developed and their skin is very sensitive.” So, although he doesn’t yet know what the sensations are, your newborn can definitely feel the lightest massage, or his toes being tickled. Now, we’re guessing that you’re already cuddling your tot for a pretty big proportion of the day, but introducing extra moments of touch into his day will help to keep him more content. So, enjoy a two-minute snuggle together in the morning when he first wakes, before you even open the curtains. Make his first feed of the day a skin-on-skin one, whether you’re bottle- or breastfeeding. Give him your finger to grasp when you arrive at baby group, and add a simple five-minute massage to his bedtime routine.
Now you know you need to use all your baby’s senses to compensate for his still-developing eyesight, you can help him feel connected to you even when he can’t see you. And that is the secret to contentment.
5 more teeny-tiny ways to keep a connection with your newborn
“Babies are very interested in faces –even if they can’t see the details yet,” says Professor Johnson.Making exaggerated facial expressions will mean he likes yours even more. “The movement will help attract his attention,” explains Professor Johnson. Keep the expressions positive, though – a study found that infants look longer at happy faces than sad ones.
Have face time
Hold or lie your baby on your lap facing you and lean over slightly so he can study your face. This is one of his favourite things to do, so don’t rush it. By six weeks, he’ll be paying attention to individual facial features and, by around three months, he’ll be able to keep your face in his memory for about 24 hours.
Sing in a sling
If your baby is fractious, super-soothe him using all his senses. Pop him in a sling, aiming for some skin-on-skin contact, and walk around as you sing him a gentle lullaby.
Share your shirt
When Grandma is looking after your baby, get into the habit of leaving your unwashed T-shirt from the day before for your baby, to keep your scent close. Your baby mustn’t sleep with it, but Gran holding it during snuggles and cuddles will help to soothe him.
Babies pay attention to baby talk 40% longer than to adult voices. So, copy whatever noises your baby makes, and let him teach you how to gurgle.
Thobeka Phanyeko is mom to Oratile, 4. She is a journalist with a BA in Media studies from the University of Cape Town and has extensive experience as a journalist and content producer which she gained from Reuters, eNCA and Caxton Magazines. She is also a life coach and NLP Practitioner and is passionate about motherhood and women empowerment.