When you anticipate what your baby needs, you are able to read her signals and respond appropriately. Keep your baby’s environment calm and pleasant. Keep lights low as your new baby’s eyes are still getting used to the light. Play quiet songs or even read the paper out loud so your baby hears your comforting voice. Provide quiet times when she seems overstimulated (acting fussy or bored and looking away). You are teaching her that you and her new life are a secure and safe anchor. And in such a place, your baby’s brain will grow.
Personal interaction with your newborn is the best toy ever. Show your happiness when handling your baby and smile at her. Look deep into her eyes and watch how she stares back. Soon baby will stop crying if held and comforted, and she will smile when she sees you after the first few weeks of life. What a treat! Let’s take a look at more specific ideas for encouraging your baby’s attachment to you—and encouraging her brain to grow!
As a newborn, your baby will gaze at faces, especially at the eyes and mouth. In fact, she will gaze at faces longer than at anything else! She can see clearly eight to 12 inches away, about the space between her face and yours while feeding. Human faces, after all, are full of motion and sound. Stick out your tongue, and your baby just might stick hers out, too! Position yourself close to your baby when singing or talking to her. She’ll get to know your face very quickly. It will seem like she is examining every part of your face—every nook and cranny! And that is exactly what she is doing. Repetition will make Baby remember who Mommy is and that she is the sure thing in her life. (Most infants prefer female faces to male faces due to this “mommy connection.”) This security enables her to soon move on, in baby steps, to the next milestones. It is also an early intellectual development—college, here she comes! Imagine her studying a chemistry book as deeply as she is studying your face!
This natural reflex provides your baby with great comfort and satisfaction. Her sucking will become better and voluntary a few weeks after she is born. Allow her to use her thumb, fist, or pacifier to meet the natural need for sucking. You can even help her put her fist or thumb in her mouth. Remember that repetition makes strong neural pathways that make Baby’s brain grow.
Baby Heather was born with blisters on her thumbs from sucking them while in the womb. As soon as she was born, her thumb went straight back into her mouth as if birth had only temporarily disrupted her. Her mom did not have to help baby Heather find her thumb for the next five years!
Babies are born naturally knowing how to get nutrition through the sucking reflex. At first this is an involuntary action, but soon your baby will make the connection that sucking is pleasurable and provides feelings of security. Experts disagree on thumbsucking as the baby gets older. Some experts point out that thumbsucking in toddlers and preschoolers can interfere with the alignment of teeth and influence the shape of the child’s palate and facial development. Other experts feel that an older child will be too busy playing and running to remember to suck her thumb, and therefore the habit of thumbsucking will die out on its own. Work with your pediatrician on this issue as your child grows into toddlerhood and preschool. But in the first year, thumbsucking, pacifiers, and fist-sucking are calming and positive experiences for the brain.
Tummy time is important for strengthening your baby’s upper body, and it’s another way to teach your baby that her world and you are safe and secure. Lay your baby on her tummy on a soft blanket. Put one or two colorful toys in front of her or around her in a circle. Allow her to practice movements for very short periods of time at first. One minute of tummy time three times a day is a good goal for a newborn. She will work hard to hold up her head and look around. She may drop her head in exhaustion, bonking her little nose in the process. Pick her up and don’t let her get frustrated. Make tummy time just part of play. As weeks pass, you’ll pick up on her cues that tummy time can last longer. Never leave your baby by herself while she’s on her tummy (to avoid the risk of suffocation). Rub her back, talk to her about what she can see, rattle a toy. You can even lie on your back and have baby lie on your belly, looking at your face. Chances are your baby will keep her head up longer if she sees your face and hears your voice. If she’s not a big fan of tummy time, it may help to put a firm pillow or Boppy under her chest, with her arms out in front of her, so she can see what’s going on.
Babies need to be touched, caressed, and held just as much as they need to eat and sleep. Baby massage is another great way to really feel connected to your baby. Loving touches nourish your baby’s emotional development and improve her sensory awareness. They stimulate the production of her growth and digestive hormones. Skin-to-skin contact is also soothing and comforting. It reduces stress and helps your baby to sleep.
Your baby’s emotional needs are not the only ones met during a baby massage. When you massage your baby, it stimulates the release of oxytocin in your own body, which facilitates attachment and bonding. Oxytocin is a hormone that causes your uterus to contract during labor, promotes the “let-down reflex” during breastfeeding, and relaxes you for nursing.
Simply touching your baby in your day-to-day interactions (such as when you change her diaper or clothes) does not stimulate your baby’s brain as much as intentional touching and caressing. Your baby picks up nonverbal messages from you and discovers what it means to trust. These strong feelings of trust for their moms carry over to other people who are nurturing, loving, and warm. When you massage your fussy baby, you show her how to relax with your soothing touch and voice.
There are many avenues to learning about baby massage. (Get a primer here!) Ask the nurses at the hospital if there are any baby massage classes available during your stay. Check with your pediatrician for classes. Local daycare centers or parent education programs may sponsor classes. Numerous books and websites can help you educate yourself, your spouse, or even the grandparents. Simply rubbing down your baby with aromatic lotion in a loving, mild manner will work wonders. Soothing lights, a warm room, and music make a wonderful memory for you and make neural connections in your baby. And your baby will love it.
You can massage your baby a few times a day. Work it into your routine, maybe after her morning bath or before nap, and in the evening just before bedtime. Big sister or brother can help massage the baby’s feet, choose the music, and pick out the lotion and blanket for the baby to lie on. Massage can be a family affair as well as one-on-one time.
Baby massage is about learning to communicate your love for your baby through touch.—Jill Vyse
Another way to play and bond with your baby is singing. Babies love to be rocked and sung to. Nursery rhymes are fun for Baby, too, even at a young age. Find songs you like from a bookstore, off the Internet, in nursery rhyme books, and in hymnals. Choose five to 10, and make copies of the lyrics. Keep these by the rocking chair, couch, and kitchen to sing to your baby at various times during the day. At play time, sing in a silly, happy voice with lots of laughter and tickling of toes. At sleepy time, hold your swaddled baby gently in your arms while you feed her. Sing in a soft, sweet voice and look deep into her eyes. You can feel the love for your baby swell inside you as you do this time after time.
You may notice that the nurses have your baby tightly wrapped up like a little burrito for nearly her whole hospital stay. This is soothing, warm, and calming. Swaddling also helps confine your baby’s limbs, keeping the Moro reflex at bay, which causes your baby to startle and throw her limbs out, often waking her up. Let’s face it, once your baby is asleep, you want her to stay that way for a while. Swaddling also mimics the tight, very cozy feeling of being in the womb and reduces the symptoms of colic. Some babies like their little hands or arms free from swaddling, so watch for your baby’s cues on what she prefers. Also, be aware of overheating in warm weather. Use all those darling blankets you received at your baby showers. Learn how to swaddle your baby from the pros at the hospital.
A note about swaddling and SIDS: Babies should be put to sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). However, studies have shown that up to 30 percent of parents abandon the practice of putting babies on their backs to sleep within weeks or months because the baby doesn’t sleep well on her back. This is especially disturbing as two to four months is the peak risk period for SIDS. Babies who are swaddled, though, often sleep better on their backs because they’re not startled awake by the Moro reflex. Since swaddled babies are more likely to be placed on their backs to sleep, it decreases their chances of SIDS. Ask the nurses at the hospital to show you how to swaddle properly for maximum benefit and safety. Special swaddling blankets are also available.
Holding Baby Close
A sling allows your baby to fold up as she was in utero. This feels good to your baby for several weeks after birth. Wearing a sling or front pack with your baby will increase the bond you and your baby feel toward each other. She will get to know your smell, voice, and movements. She will feel your hand patting or rubbing her. You can pick up on your baby’s cues more quickly, too, if you and your baby are so close. (And imagine how much faster you’ll sense a dirty diaper if your baby is next to you rather than across the room or in a stroller!)
By engaging in these activities, your baby’s brain will learn when it is bedtime, play time, talking time. Not only will she get closer to you, but she will learn about communication, in both verbal and physical ways. Start these activities on the very first day of your baby’s life—you can’t start too soon! Neurons in her brain are connecting every time you repeat these activities with your baby, making the transition to the next baby milestones quicker and easier.
Here’s one last thing that will help you bond with your baby, and though it may sound contradictory to our previous advice, it truly isn’t: get some rest. An overtired, recovering mom isn’t what you want to be. Motherhood is hard; it requires a lot of thinking and energy! To handle both of these things adequately, you need sleep. Ask for help! Grandmas, aunts, cousins, and friends will love playing or holding your baby while you take a nap or rest.
Baby Trevor’s mom knew she was too tired and was beginning to feel frantic as night fell. She dreaded another all-nighter. She began to cry and feel like her life was going to be endless days followed by endless nights of crying, feeding, and diaper changes. Luckily, her next-door neighbor was home and had volunteered previously to take care of the baby. At 10:30 that night, Mom handed off her baby, along with a loaded diaper bag and a bottle of breast milk, to a well-rested, trusted friend. Mom slept deeply for five to six hours and woke up ready for another day with baby. Mom was happy and refreshed—the best kind of mom to be!
A Final Word on Bonding
Your nightgown or sweat suits might be all you wear during these hectic first few months. You may only be able to take a shower a couple of times a week. You may subsist on graham crackers and coffee (although we suggest you eat as healthy as possible, especially if you’re breastfeeding). Dust bunnies will float across the room, and you may feel cut off from the rest of the world. But when you ask anyone who’s been through the experience, they’ll share that your baby will grow out of this stage before you know it. She will be wearing the next size diaper and the bigger clothes from her full closet. She’ll be holding her head steady and eating more. And you’ll be so deeply in love, head over heels, starry-eyed, and crazier about your baby than you ever thought possible. You’ll be the image of Mommy that you always thought you’d be—only better.
Reprinted with permission from Boosting Your Baby’s Brain Power by Susan M. Heim and Holly Engel-Smothers, Great Potential Press, www.giftedbooks.com