Not all newborn babies are cherubic visions of beauty. Their heads may be an odd shape after the birth (especially if the delivery was by ventouse or forceps) and their noses may look squashed. Their eyes may be puffy; their skin (especially if they were overdue) may be wrinkly and flaky, look greasy or be covered in downy hair, and it may have a bluish hue. Their genitals may be slightly swollen. All these strange features are normal and will start to disappear over the next few days and weeks.
What your baby can sense
Babies enter the world fully equipped to apprehend and understand their environment. That is, they are in possession of all five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch – and begin to use them straight away.
Babies need touch in order to thrive. Your baby is most sensitive to touch around the mouth. Even tiny newborns respond well to gentle stroking and older babies usually enjoy massage too.
♦ Smell and taste
Research shows that babies have a natural preference for sweet tastes right from the start. They react to smells in the same way as adults: they recoil from bad odours and are drawn to sweet ones. They also quickly learn to differentiate their mother’s smell from that of other people.
Babies respond to sound in the womb and may recognize music that they heard regularly before birth. But it is voices that they like best, and they show a preference for their mother’s voice above all others. They also show dislike for certain sounds and will jump if they hear a sudden loud noise.
Newborns find it easiest to focus on objects 20-30cm / 8-12in away – roughly the distance of your face when you hold a baby in your arms or breastfeed. Babies show the most interest in faces, but are also fascinated by simple patterns.
Babies don’t have the muscle power to hold up their heavy heads, so you must keep a newborn’s head well supported at all times. Gradually, the muscles in the neck grow stronger and they will be able to support the head, but watch out for sudden lapses as the head lolls.
Your baby’s reflexes
A newborn baby is entirely dependent on your care, but is born with some instinctive reactions designed to help him or her survive.
♦ Rooting, sucking and swallowing
if stroked on the cheek, a baby will turn and search for the nipple (this is called rooting). Babies suck when they feel pressure on the hard palate in the mouth and swallow automatically.
If you put a finger in your baby’s hand, he or she will grasp it. Your baby will also curl the feet if the soles are touched. These reflexes are left over from our primate ancestors, who needed to cling to their mothers’ fur. They gradually develop into a deliberate holding action.
When placed on their tummies, babies will curl their legs and arms beneath their bodies and may even produce a crawl – like movement. Gradually your baby’s body uncurls from its foetal position and he or she will lie flat.
If they are held so that their feet touch a firm surface, newborn babies will lift one foot after another in a stepping motion. This reflex disappears after a few days, and has to be re learnt many months later when it is time to learn to walk.
♦ Startle reflex
If newborns are startled, they fling out their arms and legs as if to grab hold of something. Your baby finds this distressing, so see it as a reminder that he or she should be handled gently.
The reflex disappears at about two months.
♦ How your baby communicates
As helpless as newborns are, they can communicate in a way that almost guarantees they get their basic needs met: they cry. At first your babies cries will all sound the same to you. But in time you may notice that he or she makes different sounds depending on what is wrong, and you may learn to distinguish between, say, a cry that means “I am hungry” and one that says “I’m in pain”. After a few weeks, your baby will also start to communicate pleasure, by gurgling, cooing and making other repetitive little noises.
The person who looks after the baby most often – usually a parent – will probably see the first smile, which comes by about six weeks. At first babies will smile at any face – including a picture of one – by three months they smile more readily at the people they know best.