Now that you’re home from the hospital and you’re getting ready to adjust to your radically changed life, you may begin to ask yourselves some questions: Just who is this little person in my house? What is my baby going to be like? Can she see and hear? What else can she do? What should or shouldn’t I be doing with her? Explaining newborns sounds mysterious. Not really. Let’s get to know her.
Explaining Newborns Is Like Explaining a Pinball Machine
Babies arrive fully loaded. They are born with all the capabilities of a human being. They only need a dozen years of love, care, and feeding to develop into complete people. But not every system works the way an adult’s does, or even the way an older infant’s does. Take the sensory organs, for example. All five of a baby’s senses work: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Explaining newborns means explaining that all five senses are working all the time, and the baby cannot filter out any of the sensory data.
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To explain further: The reason you are able to read this is that you are able to filter out most of the sensory inputs that are coming your way. You don’t pay attention to the lights in the room or to extraneous sounds coming from outside. You probably are also filtering out the scents around you and the taste in your mouth. Now imagine that you are forced to pay attention to all these sensations equally. If you were, you’d be incapacitated. You’d be forced to stop everything and go lie in bed. This is what the world is like for a newborn. Fortunately, newborns are lying down already. This is why most babies prefer low-sensory environments. They do well in places where there isn’t too much light, noise, and temperature fluctuation. They tend to prefer dim lighting, near silence, and contact with warm human bodies. We can tell that babies prefer these conditions and do well in them because they eat and sleep better than in noisy, light, cold, and hot environments.
Because babies are unable to filter out sensory stimulation, they’ve developed a way to protect themselves from overstimulation. I call it the “tilt” function. In the era of desktop-based and hand-held gaming, fewer and fewer people remember old-school arcade pinball machines, complete with silver-ball plunger, electronic bumpers, and flashing lights. Classic pinball machines all came equipped with a “tilt” feature, which prevented you from cheating by jiggling the machine to make the ball go where you wanted. If you jiggled the machine, a “tilt” light came on, the machine went to sleep, and you lost the ball.
A baby’s “tilt” function is not so dramatic. In fact, most parents never see it in action. They only find out about it after the fact. For example, if parents take their newborn to a Labor Day picnic with lots of people and loud music and smells from the barbecue, afterward they might turn to each other and say, “Wow, our baby was so GOOD! She slept through the entire picnic. ”
Well, of course the baby slept through the entire picnic: She was overstimulated! She responded to all this stimulation by going “tilt” and shutting down. In this way she protected herself from becoming overwhelmed with all the sensory inputs coming her way. Parents often find out just how overstimulated their baby is when she becomes incredibly fussy later— after the sensory overload— when she has difficulty going to sleep or even feeding. For this reason, I recommend that parents of newborns avoid overstimulating environments, such as holiday celebrations.
Explaining Newborns: A Bundle of Infantile Reflexes
Remember that your baby is a fully functional human being with an unfortunate lack of ability to filter sensations. Otherwise, your baby is a real person. Another major difference between a baby and an adult is that a baby is a bundle of infantile reflexes that interfere with her ability to coordinate her actions and to interact with you. You may have heard of some of these reflexes: the startle reflex, the Moro reflex (it looks like the baby is trying to grab hold of the air), the tonic neck posture (aka the “fencer’s pose”), and so on. If it weren’t for all these immature reflexes, your baby would be much better able to move purposefully and to interact with you. There are a lot of things a baby would probably like to do but can’t because she’s just too uncoordinated!
Even though your baby is held captive by a bunch of infantile reflexes, inside is a fully alert person who is paying attention to her environment. She’s capable of feeling happiness, pain, hunger, cold, warmth, and pleasure, even though it appears that she just lies there, cries, and eats.
Explaining newborns by explaining cues
The things she’s paying attention to are cues. She needs cues to learn how she’s supposed to act in this world: Should I be afraid of this world? Should I cry a lot? Or should I feel reassured and safe in my mother’s and my father’s arms, knowing everything is going to be all right? The way your baby asks questions is by crying. Your baby always cries because she needs something. She could be hungry, she could have a gas bubble or a wet diaper, or she could just want to be held. She needs to get a specific response from you to feel that her needs are being addressed. A baby can tell if you’re stressed. She can feel it in your muscle tone. She can smell it in your sweat. And if you’re stressed, she’s going to be stressed. So how do you avoid giving her the cue that she should be stressed? It’s not easy, but try to act as if you’re cool, calm, and collected. Pretending can help you be calm, cool, and collected.
Explaining newborns is “cool”
If your baby senses that you’re on top of things and you know what you’re doing, she says to herself, “Okay, mom and dad are cool, so I’m cool too.” These babies eat better, sleep better, and appear to be happy babies. But you can see how easily the wheel can turn in the other direction. If you feel as if your colicky baby is making you stressed, and in turn your stress is making your colicky baby more colicky and friend explaining newborns to you is making you even more stressed… you can see how things can spin out of control. You want to try to stop the wheel and turn it around.
Here’s how: Take a break. If there is anyone who can come over and take care of your baby, invite that person over. Then leave the house or apartment. You should go for a walk, to the gym, to the salon, to the movies— anything to give you time and space to breathe and to consider how far you’ve come in such a short time. Find someone to tell you you’re doing a great job as a parent. All parents need someone to tell them this. If you don’t have anyone in your life to tell you you’re doing a great job, you should tell yourself. Try it. It works! In general, less is more when it comes to babies: less sound, less light, less stimulation, and if humanly possible, less stress.