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There’s something very special, exciting and a bit scary about becoming a parent. Babies don’t come with an instruction manual and each one is different! It’s hard to know exactly what your baby wants, so it’s important to ‘tune in’ to them and learn to understand the messages they give. Behaviour is a baby’s language and can help us to recognize what they need.
The first few months after the birth of a baby can be very tiring. Accepting help and talking to people is important. Nobody is an expert and we can’t expect ourselves to be perfect at something we’ve never done before! Learning the baby’s ‘language’ can help ensure lots of positive experiences that will help him or her to grow healthy brain connections. Early loving experiences release chemicals in the baby’s brain that helps it to develop and grow.
“The kind of parenting we get as babies makes a big difference to the brain we develop. If we are nurtured lovingly, we thrive emotionally.” - Sue Gerhardt (2004) Why Love Matters
1. A baby’s brain has not completely formed at birth. It has lots of brain cells and few connections. Babies exercise their brains and develop connections when they experience things - such as; being talked to; played with; cuddled; smiled at; fed; having nappies changed.
Babies need adults to create an interesting, safe world - giving them experiences that help to build the connections in the brain and support the complicated learning and development that babies need to grow healthily.
2. A baby’s brain can do lots of things from birth. It tells the baby how to feed; control their temperature; send messages to people around them using sounds like crying and cooing; and helps the baby begin to understand and make sense of the messages that adults give to them.
Babies need adults to think about things for them, create a safe, interesting world and understand and respond correctly to the messages they are giving.
3. Babies need to feel happy and content. When they do, their brains release important chemicals such as oxytocin and serotonin. Gently touching, massaging and keeping your baby warm at temperatures recommended within FSIDS guidelines releases chemicals that help your baby feel happy and content.
They will follow faces and objects and respond to contrasting colours. At birth, newborn infants have a natural preference for what is familiar. Human faces are of interest, though most infants will only focus on them briefly and fleetingly.
An infant’s visual system develops in the first two months to the point that the baby will be able to focus on human faces for a greater amount of time, and will particularly focus on the faces of individuals who also speak to them.
They interact with us long before their first proper smile. From very early on they can imitate the facial gestures of others by doing things like moving their tongue and widening their eyes. Their reflex is to join in the 'social dance' by meeting your eyes in a shared gaze and by taking turns with these facial gestures.
When they do this it makes you want to look at them and they keep your attention. Turning away is the end of the social dance. Look out for the times when your baby turns away from you.
This means that babies respond to the world first through their hearing before all of their other senses. You may notice that your baby seems to responds to your voices – particularly the mother’s voice, which many believe is a result of hearing these familiar voices while in the womb. Talking to your baby without background noise in a soothing and gentle way can make them feel relaxed and safe.
It’s easy to see why it’s so important. Being able to suck and to drink milk is vital to a baby’s survival. Some babies will place their fists in their mouth and pacify themselves by sucking on their fingers. What does your baby do?
Chemicals that allow your baby to feel safe and secure are released. Your loving, warm cuddle is reassuring, soothes tension and provides reassurance. Babies really do benefit from being cuddled as much as possible. When babies are upset a loving cuddle can reassure them. When they get older they will learn to soothe themselves because they feel confident a cuddle is not too far away.
Babies behave in different ways. They send out cues that help us to respond and give them what they need. They have a special language that we can learn to understand by watching what they do. Each baby will be slightly different. Taking time to learn and understand these messages will help to develop a very special relationship.
Learning your baby’s cues can help you to see the world from your baby’s point of view.
Engagement cues - These mean your baby wants to be with you and take part.
What you might see - smiling, chuckling, turning towards you, bright face and eyes, relaxed movements, babbling or ‘talking sounds’, reaching out to you.
Disengagement cues - These mean your baby needs a break from whatever it is experiencing at that time. This may mean it needs a rest or a quiet cuddle and some reassurance.
What you might see - crying, squirming, fussing and upset, turning head away, back arching, dull looking eyes and face, turning away from you, yawning, jerky, restless movements.
• If your baby is tired, hungry, or in pain then they will not feel like being sociable.
• If your baby is comfortable, happy and alert then they will be keen to play.
Awake / Alert state
This is a good opportunity to connect with each other and a time when they will want to play.
You may see all the engagement cues described above and your baby may:-
• Turn towards you and the sound of your voice
• Be wide eyed and maintain good eye contact
• Their mouth may be open, moving with the tongue sticking out, like they are trying to talk.
– This is called ‘pre speech’
• Their arms may be rising up to their head with their fingers opening, and possibly point
- This is a good time to play!
Drowsy / Asleep state
In the first few weeks of life babies sleep on average 15 – 16 hours a day, this can vary from day to day and all babies have individual differences. Babies go through a sleep cycle, starting with REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement). This can be seen as fluttering eyelid movements, their breathing may be irregular and their arms and legs may twitch and jerk. They then go into deep sleep, their breathing becomes steadier and they are still
and not easily aroused.
During sleep your baby will go through cycles of light and deep sleep. During light sleep there will be periods where the baby appears to stir. They will begin to move to an awake state but this does not mean your baby is ready to wake up and will often go back to sleep.
Your baby may:
• Look drowsy
• Have glazed eyes
• Turn away from you and your voice
• Avoid light and noise
• Be sensitive, fussy, irritable
• Become upset when you touch or try to cuddle him / her
This is definitely not a good time to try and play with your baby. Some babies cry more than others, this does not mean your baby is ‘BAD’, will be difficult to manage or that you as a parent are to blame. There is generally a peak in crying between 3 and 6 weeks, with most crying being in the late afternoon or evening.
The quality of the cry signals the baby’s level of distress. Getting to know the different cries will help you and your baby. Crying can be extremely distressing for a parent. By reading your baby’s cues and learning what upsets or soothes your baby you can begin to prevent an increase in the crying.
If you leave them crying for too long they will begin to feel frightened and unsafe and they will become more and more distressed. Leaving your baby crying for a short time to settle is quite normal but this should not go on for too long. Imagine how your baby must be feeling when s/he is crying.
Your baby may find the following calming:
• Sucking their fists
• Sound of a familiar voice,
a lyrical lullaby, steady
low noise eg tumble dryer
• Watching something eg a mobile
• Gentle rocking movement
Some babies may fret or cry for a short time before they settle
to sleep; it may help to reduce light and stimulation at this time.
Children are more likely to succeed and achieve brighter futures if their early relationships are grounded by love, security and sensitive parenting. Support with this process is always available within your local health visiting team. Please contact them if you want further support or advice.
The information on this page is also available as a PDF leaflet to download - click here to download. Tuning_into_your_baby.pdf
Net Mums: local websites, which are totally interactive, with much of the information
coming from local mums.
CRY-SIS: Support for parents whose children cry excessively, have sleep problems or
Telephone: 0845 122 8669
Parentline Plus: A confidential freephone helpline for anyone caring for children.
Telephone: 0808 800 2222
Fatherhood Institute: influences the public debate on fathers and supports the role of the
father within the family.
Telephone: 0845 634 1328
Dads Info: essential information for fathers on all aspects of family life, education, health etc
Gingerbread: Support for lone parents and women facing pregnancy on their own.
Telephone: 0800 018 5026
TAMBA Twin Line: A national, confidential, support and information service for all parents of
twins, triplets and more.
Telephone: 0800 138 0509
Home-Start UK: Volunteers offer friendship, advice and practical help for families or individuals
with children under the age of five.
Telephone: 0800 068 6368 or for local branch details visit www.home-start.org.uk
Family Information Service: Information services, across the UK, on local services for families, including suitable child care and children’s centres.
Northamptonshire – firstname.lastname@example.org