Your baby is in cahoots with Mother Nature.
Together, they lure you (and any other helpless adult) into feeding, touching, talking to, listening to, and bonding with the newborn members of our species. About twelve inches from target is the best distance for a newborn’s built-in binoculars to see most clearly.
You play into their hands every time you position the highly-favored roundness of your face and your eyes’ rounded irises approximately that distance from your baby’s face — an inevitable consequence of breastfeeding.
Your new infant also appreciates the easy-to-see contrast between light and dark. That’s why you’ll notice his gaze fixed on your hairline, your eyebrows, and even your moving mouth — you are talking to him during feedings, right?
Your Baby’s Physical Tools
Within the first moments of life outside the womb, your baby has reflexes that help ensure survival. Some reflexes are strongest in the hours following birth, but subside, then disappear, within days or weeks. Just in time for mother to bounce back from the labor of … well, labor. And delivery. One of the most powerful of these survival tools is the rooting reflex. When a nipple (or even a finger) brushes by his cheek is touched baby’s mouth opens, and his head turns toward the stimulus, as he searches for the breast. What comes next, a strong sucking action, is another survival strategy. Your baby’s perfectly engineered taste bud system and mouth are ready to receive whatever nutrition he manages to extract with all that rooting, hoping, searching, and sucking.
Your Baby’s Psychological Tools
Just as day-to-day Mommy rebounds from the postpartum period, layer by later of Mother Nature’s innate physical protections for the newborn melt away — to be replaced by parenting skills. Different states of consciousness can be observed (think “hints-on-how-to-handle-me”). No longer living in a climate-controlled, sound-insulated womb, baby learns to rely on strategies (like falling asleep in a roomful of noisy voices) to ward off sensory overload. Learning to ask to have his needs met is another valiant attempt to communicate. My work with babies and their parents has shown me that the seemingly complex relationships between new baby and nervous parent could be much simpler, with the addition of a few tools to the parenting kit. The moms, dads, and caregivers who learn how to observe and recognize the distinct states of consciousness will soon learn how to respond to cues, and therefore, needs. In the school of life, displeased babies issue loud progress reports.
States of Consciousness
It might seem like there are only two states of mind for a newborn: crying or not. Your child is much more interesting than that!
Here are some notes for your upcoming pop quizzes: To assess what state of consciousness your baby is experiencing, observe the level of physical activity, facial expressions and activity, breathing rhythms, responsiveness to people and things in the environment. There are six-count-em six distinct states of consciousness that your little one will experience during the day:
- Deep sleep — my mother used to call this “sound asleep.” That makes sense. During this state, the baby seems oblivious to sounds, or siblings, and most other stimulation for that matter. This is what people mean when they say “slept like a baby.” It’s not a great time for attempting a feeding; it is a great time for caregivers to rest.
- Light sleep — there’s a lot of activity during this kind of sleep. Fluttering eyes, sucking motions, and body movements in this state can be confusing to new parents. It’s actually a very normal state that accounts for a lot of newborn sleeping time.
- Drowsy, but awake — I call this “to be determined.” It really could go either way. Your baby might sleep more, or wake on up. He will respond to stimulation but then again, he might have a good cry.
- Quiet, but alert — Great time for feedings, conversations, hugs, or tapping on the pages of a cardboard book. An infant’s bright eyes, fully open, signal that he is receptive to paying attention and receiving attention. If you shake a rattle, and he’ll look at it. Speak his favorite language (parentese), and he might move his mouth, too.
- Active and alert — Some parents call this fussy. Baby might be getting hungry, he might want some space, or he might want to be soothed by you. Observant parents will note that this isn’t the best time for playing, or chatting, but it’s a great time to make sure baby is comfy, and that the environment isn’t overwhelming his senses.
- Crying — Okay, so you’re new at this, and you didn’t quite handle the “fussy” window of opportunity to his liking. No worries, you’ll get more chances. And you’ll get better at it. Just so you’ll know, most babies under 3 months old have crying periods, especially toward the end of the day. It’s important to respond immediately, knowing that it is impossible to “spoil” a baby under six months of age. If he can soothe himself, let him. If he needs your help, give it calmly. Just be glad he still tells you what’s on his mind. That will change in about 12 years.
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