I was showing some previously unseen pictures to my daughter the other day. One photo captured her look of complete rapture just as she was handed her newborn daughter after delivery over three years ago. Then Anne said to me, “Oh mom, look how terrified I was!” I never saw any panic on her face in that photo, and I never knew that initially she feared her newborn baby.
Like most new mothers, she planned her first pregnancy, took great care of herself while she was pregnant, had all the proper testing, and made ready the baby’s nursery in her condo. She and her husband seemed excited to have a healthy little girl. Nevertheless, she told me much later that she was anxious about her ability to care for her baby, that she was having panic attacks, and could barely sleep at all during those first terrifying weeks.
Wow! I was blown away by her revelation. She was a pediatric ICU nurse at a huge children’s hospital and knew children and babies inside and out, all their symptoms, presentations, diseases, and treatments. I never dreamed that taking care of her own baby was a worry. However, after recently reading endless new mothers’ postings on Instagram and Facebook, I discovered that she is not alone. Lots of new mothers are scared of their baby.
I knew I loved biology in the tenth grade. I majored in biology in college and loved every biology course I took in med school. I knew I loved caring for babies as a babysitting teenager. I rediscovered my love of babies during my pediatrics residency and I grew to love babies even more as I learned to care for critically ill newborns as a trained neonatologist. I saw new babies and their new mothers as pure biology all rolled up into one beautiful package.
Let me explain: The newborn baby smells wonderful and has such soft, smooth skin. Mothers yearn to pick them up and hold them closely, keeping them snuggled over their shoulder, swaying with them in their arms. Newborns love the taste of mother’s milk, the sound of her voice, the smell of her skin, and all her bodily movements that make them feel secure. This dance of mother and baby is biology in action. The mother-baby dyad is a contract — one of needs met with care, one of hunger met with feeding, one of fatigue met with comfort, one of alerting met with smiles, coos, and love.
I want new mothers to know that their newborn baby gives them all cues they can. What new mothers must do is interpret those and respond accordingly. New mothers are totally equipped to care for their newborn. They just need to learn how to interpret and respond to their baby’s cues.
- When babies cry, they are telling you something — that they are hungry, or gassy, or fussy, or have a wet or dirty diaper. They may be too hot, or too cold, or they may be overly simulated and exhausted.
- Babies have no other language besides crying during the first two months. You will learn to read and interpret their cries to meet their needs.
- When babies yawn, they are telling you — “only 20% of my battery is remaining.” Yawning is most often due to drowsiness and fatigue, and sometimes it occurs just after waking up to get more O2 to the brain.
- When a newborn is tired or fatigued — they show yawning, they stare into distance, make jerky movements of arms and legs, arch backwards, frown, act fussy, suck on fingers (when not hungry), and clench their fists.
- When your baby is quiet and alert — they are ready for interaction, to see your face, your eyes, your smile. They can fix and follow on your eyes from the time of birth! This is the time for you to get up close, ten to twelve inches from their face, and talk to them, sing to them, cuddle, and coo. They love baby-talk and they love to hear it from their mother.
- Babies communicate from birth — through sounds (crying, cooing, squealing), facial expressions (eye contact, smiling, grimacing), gestures and body movements (moving legs in excitement or distress). When we match their vocalizations and expressions, we are teaching them to communicate.
- When your baby is fussy or overly tired — he or she may need rocking or patting to settle down. Newborns are soothed by carrying, rocking, and jiggling (all provide vestibular stimulation).
- Picking up your baby and holding him or her on your shoulder is more soothing to the newborn than contact per se. Being picked up and held upright briefly soothes a hungry infant and arouses a sleepy infant.
- When a baby is fussy — they need soothing. You soothe them when you allow them to suck, either nurse at the breast or suck on a pacifier. When you sway while holding them, swaddle, and shush them, you are soothing them.
- Soothing promotes visual alerting and visual exploration. Nursing and feeding promotes a calm, awake-alert state afterwards. See quiet and alert above ( #5).
- Your interactions with your baby while they are awake and alert promotes brain development, then you and your baby become synchronized.
Understand that you and your baby are part of a biological dance — one of cues and response, one of needs met with care and love. You are a better dancer than you think you are.
You can learn to enjoy this dance with your baby. I am sure of it — because I know babies and I know biology.
Susan Landers, MD