Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Newborn development: Reflexes rule!

By Jennifer Goldbronn

Just yesterday, my daughter, now 2, and I were looking through her baby clothes and we came across a newborn-sized diaper. Amazement swept over me as I tried to imagine my toddler ever having fit into something so small. I clearly remembered how tiny and fragile she seemed the first time I held her in my arms; yet, they let us take her home from the hospital, her survival dependent on us, her new, rather clueless parents!

Newborns are not born fully developed, but they are equipped with a few essential survival skills. At first, newborns are very disorganized and uncoordinated. Their arm and leg movements may appear jerky for awhile. Their sleep patterns and behavior can be erratic, but bear in mind that a newborn has just left the warm, safe confines of his mother’s womb. Suddenly voices and sounds are louder, lights are brighter, and he is experiencing many new sensations and smells. The outside world takes some getting used to, but with the help of his caregivers, he will grow and develop, adapting to his new environment. Infant brain development depends a lot on what babies see, hear, touch, smell and taste.

Babies are born with all 5 senses, but some are more developed than others. Vision is probably the least developed sense; newborn babies can only see objects about 8-12 inches away. They prefer looking at bright shiny objects, or even better, at mom or dad’s face! When babies are in the quiet alert state , they are ready to interact with you and will respond to your voice or an object you show them. Newborns can also pick up their moms’ smell and distinguish it from others. Babies listen to their mothers’ voice even before they are born and will turn their heads toward the sound of it. Breastfeeding is the culmination of many sensations in an infant: taste, touch, smell and sight. The distance between a mother and her baby while breastfeeding just happens to be the exact distance a newborn can see! But a newborn needs to coordinate several motor skills to breastfeed successfully.

Babies are also born with a set of reflexes that help them react to the world around them. One example: newborns are born with the ability to move their arms and legs in a swimming motion and lift their heads when placed on their stomachs. There are 3 main sets of reflexes present at birth that are important for a baby’s survival:

Feeding: the rooting (head turns toward cheek that is stroked), sucking and swallowing reflexes allow infants to take in nourishment.
Breathing: the breathing reflex, hiccups, sneezes, and moving arms and legs when something is covering the face all protect an infant’s ability to get oxygen.
Body temperature: infants can maintain their body temperatures by shivering, crying, and tucking their legs into their bodies to stay warm. To cool off, they will automatically push off blankets and decrease their movement.

Brain Development and Sleep
Newborns spend 70-75% of their sleep time in active sleep. During active sleep, babies dream and their brains are growing and developing. While infants dream, blood flows to their brains and neural connections are made. Because it is so important for their development, newborns may dream 30 minutes before they fall into deeper sleep. Research also shows that newborns need to wake up to be healthy. They need to wake easily if they are too hot or too cold, hungry, lonely, or need a caregiver’s help.

Newborns are amazing creatures who grow and change daily. Parents can help their newborns grow and develop by holding them close, talking to them, and learning their babies’ cues so that they can better understand and respond to their babies’ needs. While their erratic behavior and sleep patterns makes caring for newborns extremely challenging, the newborn period lasts a very short time.

Thinking back, I realize that at times I was too sleep-deprived to revel in my daughter’s early development. One thing I can picture, as clearly as if it were yesterday, is the first time I held her to my chest as she instinctively rooted around for her mommy’s milk. Aided by her acute sense of smell, she finally found her target and latched on. Listening to the subtle sound of her suck and swallow I sighed with relief: maybe I could take care of this new little being.

Next time: 2-4 weeks: By this age babies are able to follow their parents’ voices and begin to develop a distinct temperament.

Key Resources: Berger (Worth 2003) The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence and Brazelton (De Capo 2006) Touchpoints: Birth to 3 years

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