First ever episode of the Sleep, Baby! podcast. Scroll to the bottom to play or download the podcast. Enjoy!
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. The problem with newborns is that all five senses are working all the time, and the baby cannot filter out any of the sensory data.
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.