Newborn Babies and What They Need


"The first three months are like the fourth trimester for a young baby. They want and need exactly what they had in the womb. So, we use a swing, we have a sound machine on at night to imitate the sounds of the womb, and we always wrap our baby tightly and have them on our chest/front most the day. It works great! My little one rarely cries, she sleeps well during the night, and she rests easily in our carrier and swing. And, when she does cry we swing her around and shush in her ear and she calms right away."

Newborn babies and what they need! It’s hard to find another subject that has more passionate opinions, and why not? A new life with unlimited potential is at stake. There is plenty of research on the most minute details, such as the fourteen primitive reflexes (Reflexes, Learning, and Behavior, Sally Goddard), to the documented growth of preterm babies given daily massages (Touch Research Institute, Tiffany Field), to the behavioral changes seen in infants with depressed mothers. Add to that the wealth of traditions passed on through generations, such as the infants in Mali, bathed while propped in a sitting position, rubbed with rough sponges, and then shaken dry (Handbook of Cultural Developmental Science, Mark Bornstein)! One childcare provider I worked with told me her mother in Mexico blew a puff of cigarette smoke onto the newborn’s fontanel to cure colic. One reason for this wide scope of beliefs is that infants cannot tell us with words what they need (some grownups can’t do this either!), so to some extent, we have to make educated guesses. Guesses based on research, intuition, emotion, and hopefully, some common sense.

The concept of the fourth trimester is a beautiful one that satisfies some parents and professionals. It’s one way of looking at the newborn, and our interactions with them. It helps us, as parents and professionals, to make sense of what seems almost inexplicable; seeing and feeling the world through the eyes of a newborn.

We try to picture, with both science and imagination, what the newborn experiences. Not just what they experience, i.e., sounds, warmth, movement, but also how they experience it. But life in utero is constantly changing, with growth and development at a pace so rapid, baby will never experience anything like it again. We think it must be very positive, if we want to recreate that for them after birth.

So this newborn, in a swing, swaddled, held closely, shushed, and rocked, is being quieted. Parents need rest and they need to feel like they are doing a good job with their newborn. It’s important to have short term goals, day to day, sometimes hour to hour, in those first months at home. Knowing this, it makes sense for parents to come up with a framework for solving what we see as baby problems; how to understand and stop crying and fussing. If the method works, that’s a big plus. And even better, this family seems to have a plan to parent baby together.

I also like to look at other perspectives, when thinking about parenting and raising children. I like to think about what I’m doing, and ask myself, “is this sustainable over a month, a year, five years?” I think about whether my practice can be carried out by anyone else, like Dad, or older siblings or a childcare provider, or even the Mom at the slumber party my child might go to, eight years from now.

I like to use research (and my imagination) to think about what my practices are teaching or not teaching my child. For example, if my goal is a confident child that is physically secure, I would try to give my child plenty of opportunity for free movement, even at an early age. I wouldn’t prop them into a sitting position with pillows, or pull them into standing and hold onto them to keep them up. I’d be very cautious about using swings to calm them because I’d think about how long I want them to have that habit for. I would try to avoid intervening and interrupting them during physical play, so they can really focus on their own bodies. I imagine that if I follow my child around with frequent warnings about not falling, not tripping, or being careful, that might interrupt their focus and send the message that they are not safe and not capable.

If I wanted my baby to learn to fall asleep on their own sometime, I would start early, at least thinking about how to support them. It might be by having a bedtime routine, it might be by lying them into their crib while they are still a tiny bit awake, or making sure they have plenty of physical movement and some exposure to sunlight daily. I would imagine that if my role is their sleep is very involved, from beginning to end, when will that end? When will it become unsustainable? For some parents, very quickly, and for some, much later! When will my child learn to have healthy sleeps habits?

It’s good to form goals together, i.e. keeping baby from crying and making sure the family gets rest, in this case. It’s also good to think about our larger, long term parenting goals. That’s why I love the Educaring® Approach. In thinking about a bigger picture, I want to do all I can to help a child be more authentic, confident, active, curious, and competent. Magda Gerber’s ideas about allowing even the youngest infant the opportunity to spend some time physically free (i.e. in a safe space, able to move their bodies, and look around, lying on their backs), support the idea of physical confidence. Her suggestions for time together (wants something time and wants nothing time) feel like good ways to help baby develop authentically and independently. The Educaring® concept of the active participant rather passive recipient, helps me to see value in going to baby and talking to them about what they might be saying with their crying, rather than making it my first goal to stop the crying.

The Educaring® principles are guidelines, not rigid instructions. Both Dr. Pikler and Magda spoke about the infants’ readiness – when moving from one milestone to another, in transitions between activities, in transitioning into the independence of the toddler years. I’d like to think about our readiness as parents. It’s good to balance our lofty ideas of perfect parenting with our actual abilities. It’s never too late to start adding aspects of the RIE® philosophy, and leaving behind other practices because they worked at solving short term issues at that time but might not support our long term goals.

RIE® Associate bio Alexandra Curtis (Eugene, Oregon) has presented nationally and internationally on a variety of “birth to two” topics. Author of Simple Toys Make Active Babies, a book about play spaces for infants and toddlers, Alexandra earned her Associate Degree in Early Childhood Education and Bachelor’s Degree in General Studies with a Public Health focus at the University of South Florida. Mother to three lovely daughters, Alex was a founding Board Member of the Pikler/Loczy USA Fund and the Hillsborough County Breastfeeding Taskforce. She is an IBCLC (International Board Certified Lactation Consultant) and works at Lane Community College’s Family Connections program, providing training to child care providers.

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