Understanding your baby

Babies grow and learn faster than they do at any other stage of life so it will probably feel like your baby is constantly changing.

Understanding how your newborn will develop will make it easier for you to care for them.

It’s important to remember every baby is different, even in the same family. If you are worried about your baby’s development speak to your doctor or a community nurse.

Your baby’s feelings and brain

In the first months of life your baby is in a very new world.

They need to learn that this world is safe and there are people who will look after them.

They learn this when you give them food, comfort, warmth, smiles and cuddles.

They learn to love you and trust you. They also learn that they are lovable.

Your baby’s brain is growing faster now than at any other time of life. Billions of cells are expanding, connecting and building pathways to thousands of others.

Their brain wiring is being laid down for the future. What they experience every day causes connections and pathways to develop.

Your baby’s relationships

Your baby will grow and develop best if they have just a few people they are very close to in the first year.

This is called ‘attachment’ or ‘bonding’.

When your baby feels loved and connected to others in this way and has opportunities to be curious and explore, it helps them to:

  • learn how to respond and what to expect in future relationships
  • develop confidence, emotional control and the skills to get along with others
  • learn how to cope with stress
  • feel loved and learn to love you
  • make the most of learning during the school years.

Your baby’s signals

Your baby will communicate in their own special way from birth.

They will give little signals and cries to show their feelings and needs. These can be small and subtle or quite obvious.

When your baby feels good they might:

  • make eye contact
  • make little noises
  • smile
  • copy your gestures
  • look relaxed and interested.

To show they need a break or a different approach your baby might:

  • look away
  • shut their eyes
  • struggle or pull away
  • yawn
  • look tense and unsettled
  • cry.

When you respond to your baby’s signals you are building your bond with them. It lets them know they have been heard.

It’s the start of two-way communication and learning to talk.

Why babies cry

Crying is important for babies. It’s how they let you know they need something.

Your baby might cry because they:

  • are hungry, thirsty, too hot or cold
  • are frightened, bored or lonely
  • need a cuddle or closeness with you
  • need a nappy change
  • feel unwell or have pain - eg: stomach ache or earache.

Responding to your baby

It is important to respond quickly and warmly when your baby is upset. This will help them to:

  • learn to feel safe and secure and to trust you
  • settle better and cry less in the long run - when you soothe and comfort your baby they get better at soothing themselves
  • learn that the world is safe, and that they can relax and learn their best - no one can learn when they are stressed, afraid or crying.

You may have to try a few things until you work out what your baby needs. You could try:

  • holding them close if they are frightened or lonely
  • holding them upright against your shoulder if they are uncomfortable
  • rocking them in your arms or in a pram
  • finding out what they like - eg: a dummy, soft music or a ticking clock.

As you get to know your baby you will learn what helps them and what doesn’t.

You can’t ‘spoil’ your baby by going to them when they cry - but you can harm them by not responding to their needs.

If you are worried, call Parentline on 1300 30 1300, Health Direct on 1800 022 222 or see your doctor or a community nurse.

What your baby can do

Right from the start most babies can:

  • feel, see, hear, taste and smell
  • suck to feed
  • move their arms and legs - but not yet control them
  • notice and react to the tone of your voice and the gentleness of your touch.

Seeing

Most babies can see quite well at birth, especially things that are close. They can see:

  • your face - and will soon recognise you
  • things that are further away - but they will be blurry until they are a little older
  • different colours.

In the first few weeks a baby’s eyes often cross or wander in different directions.

By three months their eyes should be lined up so they both look at the same object.

If you are concerned, talk with a community nurse or your doctor.

Hearing

Most babies can hear well before birth and may recognise familiar voices, especially their mother’s.

They can be calmed by soft noises and usually startled by sudden, loud noises.

Your baby’s hearing will usually be checked at the hospital soon after birth.

Smell and taste

Babies can recognise different tastes such as salty, sweet, sour and bitter, and react to unpleasant tastes, such as some medicines.

They do not need salt or sugar on their foods when starting solids. They learn to like the tastes they are given.

Touch

Babies are sensitive to touch and can feel pain. Gentle, caring touch is very important for your baby to feel loved and cared for.

Your baby might enjoy gentle stroking or a soft massage.

Reflexes

Most of a newborn baby’s movements are random and they are not able to control them at first.

These are called reflexes and will reduce as your baby develops.

Startle reflex

Baby’s arms stretch out, their back arches and head goes back.

Grasp reflex

Baby grips things put onto the palm of their hand, such as your finger.

Rooting reflex 

Baby turns towards and sucks on something that touches their face.

Sucking on things that are put into their mouth

Babies need to suck to survive - many babies find it soothing.

Tongue thrust reflex

Babies push things out of their mouth with their tongue, especially when starting solid foods.

It doesn’t mean they don’t like the food. They need to learn to control their tongue.

Read more about what to expect during your baby's development in Milestones: birth to four years.

Separation anxiety

From about six months your baby can remember you when you are not there. They may cry because they want you.

This is called separation anxiety. It is a normal part of learning that they are a separate person.

Often babies will wake at night or be harder to put to bed because they miss you and don’t yet understand you always come back.

You can help your baby develop trust in you by:

  • always letting them know when you are leaving - wave goodbye and let them know when you are back
  • playing games such as peek-a-boo to help them get used to your going and coming
  • leaving them only with people they know well and feel safe with.

What you can do to help your baby develop

It is important to think of your baby as a unique person with their own likes and dislikes.

Be warm and responsive as you work out what they need.

They grow quickly, so be flexible and change your routines as their needs change.

Talking and listening

Look into your baby’s eyes, smile and talk to them gently from birth. They will notice the tone of your voice.

Talk to them. Tell them what you are doing and name things they are looking at. This helps them learn that sounds make words and have meaning.

Say what will happen next - that you’re going to change their nappy, feed them or put them to bed. This helps them feel safe and secure and learn what to expect.

Use the same words every time - eg: ‘I’m going to pick you up now ’ or ‘Here we go’. Don’t just pick them up without warning.

Listen to your baby’s little noises and copy them back - it’s the start of learning to talk. 

Sharing books

From birth, share a book with your baby for a few minutes each day.

Looking at bright pictures and hearing your words can be a special time for closeness, safety, seeing, hearing and learning about sounds and what they mean.

Babies learn that books, reading and stories are enjoyable.

Playing

Playing is how babies learn. Enjoy spending time with your baby when they are awake - they love your company.

Give them lots of chances to be curious and explore. They might enjoy:

  • different things to look at and touch
  • a walk outside to look at leaves or grasses moving
  • things they can hit or push that make a noise
  • copying games - your baby pokes their tongue out and you do it back, leaving plenty of time for them to take their turn
  • simple songs and rhymes while you rock or gently jiggle them
  • tummy time on the floor each day from birth helps develop muscles for crawling and head control - never leave them alone on their stomach.

Don’t:

  • play rough games such as throwing your baby up in the air, lifting or pulling them by an arm - this could harm them
  • overwhelm them - if they yawn or look away they may be saying they need a rest.

Sleep

Managing sleep is a common concern for parents. It can help to know that each baby’s sleep is different, even in the same family. Sleep needs change quickly.

Newborn babies

Babies in the first weeks sleep much of the day and night. Most wake every two or three hours needing a feed and attention. Many sleep 14 to 20 hours a day.

Older babies

By three months many babies are awake longer during the day and may sleep longer at night. Most babies of this age still need one or two night feeds. 

When a baby sleeps about five hours straight, this is considered ‘sleeping through the night’.

What you can do to help your baby settle

Have a relaxing bedtime routine to help your baby settle. This might include:

  • a bath
  • a feed
  • a song
  • a story
  • a goodnight kiss
  • special soft words.

Some babies settle best in a quiet, dark place. Others prefer noisier, lighter places.

Notice your baby's tired signals

They might yawn, cry, rub their eyes or have random jerky movements. This is the time to put them to bed.

A tired newborn can often be put in their cot while awake and fall asleep on their own.

Wrapping

Some babies settle better if wrapped in a light cotton cloth - others do not. 

Make sure the wrapping is firm, but not too tight so babies can still bend their knees. Make sure they are not too hot. 

When babies can roll it is time to stop wrapping them, as there is a chance they could roll on to their face and suffocate.

Sleep safety

Always sleep your baby on their back - never their tummy or side. This helps prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

Sleep your baby in a cot next to your bed for the first six to twelve months.

Do not have them sleep with you as they may be rolled on or get tangled in bedding and suffocate.

Use a cot that meets Australian standards. Do not use doonas, pillows, bumpers or put soft toys or other objects in the cot.

Keep the cot away from curtain or blind cords and keep pets away.

Do not expose babies to tobacco smoke.

Baby safety

Protect your baby from being frightened. Don’t shout, play loud music near them or make sudden loud noises.

Never shake your baby. This can cause brain damage and some children die.

If you feel upset or angry, take a short break until you calm down. Make sure your baby is safe first.

In and around the home

Check your house for safety.

Keep your baby away from power points, curtain cords, things that could fall on them and poisons such as cigarettes, medicines and cleaning products.

Never leave your baby alone in the bath - they can drown in only a few centimetres of water.

Keep them away from pools, ponds, dams, troughs and buckets of water such as those left out for pets.

Protect them from pets - put up barriers if you need to. Never leave them alone together.   

Never leave your baby alone on a change table or similar surface. They can easily fall.

Baby capsules and restraints

Use a rear-facing baby capsule in the car and make sure you have the correct restraint as they grow. 

It’s against the law to smoke in a car with children under 16 years.

Getting support

As a parent it’s normal to have lots of different feelings, or to feel overwhelmed at times. 

It can help to:

  • talk to other parents, family, friends, your doctor or a community nurse
  • find out about babies so you know what to expect
  • take time to enjoy special moments with your baby
  • make time to spend with your partner or do other special things you enjoy
  • notice and feel proud of what you achieve each day - even small things
  • join a parent group or baby play group - your baby will love it and it can help to share ideas with others.

All parents need help at times. Don’t be afraid to ask trusted family or friends to lend a hand.

Even someone washing the dishes can help.

Take your baby to a remote health clinic or public health clinic.

The nurses can answer your questions and support you with your parenting.

More information

Find out more, including where you can get support to help understand and respond to your baby, on the following pages: 

Copyright

This information was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

Last updated: 18 September 2017