Normal Newborn Behaviour
by Rebecca Scott-Pillai
When you’re pregnant, I think it’s really common to not think too far ahead. Often, the birth looms like a tall mountain in front of you, and it’s hard to think about what’s beyond that mountain. Then you give birth, and suddenly you find yourself staring at this tiny little human that you’re completely responsible for. It’s incredibly overwhelming and a little bit frightening too. How on earth are you supposed to know what’s normal, and what you need to worry about? As a culture, we often have a mental picture of what our babies will be like after they’re born – I think most of us assume that they will sleep in a cot contently, from one feed to the next, which will probably be every 3-4 hours. Does this sound like what you’re expecting?
The reality is that most babies don’t behave like this.
Babies have tiny tummies – about the size of their fist. Those tiny tummies don’t hold much milk, and milk is digested quickly. If you are breastfeeding, the amount of milk you make increases rapidly over the first few weeks. On day one you might only produce a few mls of colostrum at each feed, but this increases every day in response to frequent feeding. And your baby is designed to feed very frequently! In fact, it has been suggested that a fairly normal pattern in the first few days would be for a baby to feed every hour, sleep for a short space of time before waking and wanting to feed again (Bergman, 2013). Certainly, feeding around 12 times in 24 hours would be completely normal (UNICEF, 2018).
Human babies are born helpless and rely on us for survival (BASIS). For this reason, babies are often most content when they are being cuddled on a parent’s chest. There is nothing wrong with a newborn baby that doesn’t want to sleep in a cot – they are just exhibiting normal newborn survival skills – to stay as close to a parent as possible. It’s really common for babies to only sleep for short periods of time in the early days (remember, they need to feed frequently with those tiny tummies!). Babies can’t distinguish between night and day until around 12 weeks, when they start to produce melatonin (the sleepy hormone that helps us stay asleep at night time) (Hookway, 2019). Therefore, it would be really normal for babies to be awake as much during the night, as they are during the day.
Immature brains and gassy guts
Babies are born with loads of brains cells (about three times as many as an adult), but with very few connections between these brain cells (Sunderland, 2006). Their little brains are full of potential for development, but are also really immature. They rely on us for emotional regulation. Our responsive care for babies actually helps to build secure connections between the areas of the brain responsible for emotion, reaction and thought – our care builds those connections between the brain cells (Sunderland, 2006)! But babies often cry. A lot. That crying and fussing is an activation of their nervous system – imagine it’s like a little dial that gets turned up in their brain (Douglas, 2014). It can be stressful trying to work out why babies are crying – often our dials get turned up too! Responding, comforting, soothing, every time a baby cries, is the best thing you can do. If you are breastfeeding, you can offer the breast as this often soothes and calms them (it’s not always just about milk). Keeping your baby as close as possible for the first few weeks often helps – that contact helps to regulate their nervous system. If you’re worried about spoiling them, perhaps it helps to reframe it as “building their brain” – because you really are!
One consequence of this “dialing up” of their nervous system, is that they get really gassy. Have you ever experienced a stressful situation? Perhaps a job interview, or moving house? How did your gut react? Now imagine that you’re a tiny helpless human, in a very unfamiliar environment, with a very immature brain. How do you think your gut might react? That brain-gut connection is really strong! And here’s the clever bit – by dialing down their nervous system (lots of cuddles, responding promptly, frequent feeding), we help to soothe and settle their gut too.
Making it easier
There is so much more to be said about normal newborn behaviour. But in a nutshell: It’s normal for babies to feed frequently, to only sleep for short periods of time, and to be most settled and content when in contact with you. It is often very intense, and exhausting.
IDEAS TO MAKE THOSE FIRST FEW WEEKS EASIER:
- Take all the help you can get! If friends and family offer to help, take it!
- Hire a postnatal doula if you can afford one. They will help with baby care, light housework and laundry, and often prepare delicious and nutritious meals too.
- Get a baby sling – hands down the most useful purchase you can make for those early days. Here’s a blog I wrote on choosing a sling.
- Try to get out every day – even for a short walk. It’s great for your mood, and it usually helps to calm babies too.
- Be kind and compassionate towards yourself – it’s a big learning curve for you too. It’s ok to feel unsure about what you’re doing and to second-guess yourself.
- Lower your expectations of what you’ll be able to achieve in those early days. Then lower them some more. And just so you know, your expectations are probably still too high.
Three great books for learning more about what’s normal in the early days are:
Dr Pamela Douglas: The Discontented Little Baby Book
Professor Amy Brown: Let’s Talk about the First Year of Parenting
Margot Sunderland: What Every Parent Needs to Know
Douglas, P (2014), The Discontented Little Baby Book, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia
Hookway, L (2019) Holistic sleep coaching, Praeclarus Press, Armadillo
Sunderland, M (2006) What Every Parent Needs to Know, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, London
UNICEF (2018) Breastfeeding assessment tool