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Having a baby changes your life. There is a new little person to get to know, love and care for. New mums and dads may not have had a lot to do with babies until their first comes along and can have strong feelings they were not expecting.
The most important thing is to believe in yourself and enjoy this special time with your baby. Most parents learn about babies and work things out as they go along.
The early years of a child's life are the building blocks for the future. Research into how babies grow and develop shows how important it is to care for babies and provide experiences that help to prepare a strong base for their future.
There is a companion topic called What are babies like? which has answers to many questions you may have about your baby.
Much of the content in this topic comes from a Parent Easy Guide About babies developed by Parenting SA. Parenting SA is a partnership between the Department for Education and Child Development and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network South Australia.
These days many parents have not had a lot of experience with babies until their first baby comes along. If you are one of these parents you will probably find you have many questions about this new person who has come into your life and who is so small and helpless.
It can be overwhelming and scary when you realise your baby is so dependent on you for everything, especially if you feel you don't know a lot about babies. Understanding what babies are like may help to make it easier to care for your baby.
Most parents know that the early years of a child's life are the building blocks for the future but why do the first few years matter so much? In recent years there has been new research into how babies grow and develop. We now know how important it is to care for babies and provide experiences that help to prepare a strong base for their future. For more about this have a look at the topic 'Right from the start'.
are babies like?
These are some of the things discussed in the companion topic What are babies like?
- Cradle cap, crying, fingernails and toenails, fontanelles ('soft spot' on the top of the heads, genitals and breasts, head shape, hernia, umbilical care, hiccups, jaundice, care of the penis, poo (bowel actions), spilling. spots, sticky eyes, urine, and vaginal blood loss. There are links from this topic to many other topics which have more in-depth information.
Baby’s feelings and brain
In the first months of life your baby is in a very strange world they know nothing about. Babies:
need to learn that the world is safe and there are people who will look after them
learn this when you give them food, comfort, warmth, smiles and cuddles. They learn to love you and trust you and 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.
When babies feel loved, safe and secure the connections for feeling good and learning are strengthened.
When you talk to baby, smile and look into their eyes, the connections for talking, learning, thinking and all the other things they will need are strengthened too.
When baby feels unhappy or stressed a lot of the time, or is not touched, noticed or talked to, the connections that react to stress are strengthened. As baby grows they may be less able to learn and develop their best.
Did you know that babies…
love it when you smile, talk and play with them
communicate from birth using their own special signals
learn from what they feel, see and hear every day
grow best when they feel loved, safe and secure.
When babies feel loved they learn to love you too.
Babies grow and develop their best if they have someone they are very close to in the first year. This is called ‘attachment’ or ‘bonding’.
Babies learn how to respond and what to expect in future relationships. This is why these first relationships are so important.
Babies can learn to know other people but it’s best if most of the caring comes from a few people without too many changes.
Positive early relationships and opportunities to be curious and explore also provide the building blocks for learning and help children:
Babies who have loving early relationships are better able to cope with stress as they grow up.
Babies communicate in their own special way from birth. They give little signals and cries to show their feelings and needs. These can be small and subtle or quite obvious.
When babies feel good they may make eye contact, little noises, smile, copy your gestures, look relaxed and interested.
To show they need a break or a different approach babies may look away, shut their eyes, struggle or pull away, yawn, look tense and unsettled or cry.
When you respond to baby’s signals you are building your bond with them. It lets them know they have been heard. It is the start of two-way communication and learning to talk.
Crying is important for babies. It is how they let you know they need something. They might:
be hungry, thirsty, too hot or cold
be frightened, bored or lonely
need a cuddle or closeness with you
need a nappy change
- be unwell or have pain, e.g. tummy ache or earache.
Have a look at the topic Crying baby for more about this.
What babies can do?
Right from the start most babies can:
feel, see, hear, taste and smell
suck to feed
move their arms and legs - although they cannot yet control their movements
detect and react to the tone of your voice and the gentleness of your touch.
Most babies can see quite well at birth, especially things that are close. They can see:
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 your doctor or child health nurse. Have a look at Your baby's eyes for more.
- Most babies have been hearing since well before birth. They are familiar with mum’s voice and may recognise other voices too.
Your baby’s hearing will usually be checked at the hospital soon after birth. Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if you are not sure whether this has been done. (Have a look at Your baby's newborn hearing screening)
Your baby will be calmed by soft noises and startled by sudden, loud noises.
Smell and taste
- Babies are sensitive to touch and can feel pain. Gentle, caring touch is very important so babies feel loved and cared for.
- Some babies enjoy gentle stroking or a massage. (Have a look at the topic Baby massage)
Most of a newborn baby’s movements are random and they are not able to control them at first. These are called reflexes and include:
- the startle reflex - baby’s arms stretch out, their back arches and head goes back
the grasp reflex – baby grips things put onto the palm of their hand, such as your finger
the 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 very soothing
the ‘tongue thrust’ reflex – babies push things out of their mouth with their tongue, e.g. when starting solid foods. It doesn’t mean they don’t like the food - they need to learn to control their tongue.
These reflexes will reduce over the next few months as babies develop.
Development in the first year
All babies are different but they usually follow a similar pattern of development. Your baby might:
by 8 weeks:
by 3 - 6 months
by 6 - 9 months
know familiar people and be wary of strangers
delight in playing ‘peek-a-boo’ games
sit for a few minutes without using their hands for support
9 - 12 months
9 - 12 months
become anxious if main carer is out of sight
find a toy hidden under a cloth
pull themselves up to stand
walk while holding on to furniture.
For more on development see Parent Easy Guide ‘Milestones 0-4 years’ or checklists in the ‘Blue Book’ (My Health and Development Record) given to South Australian parents when babies are born.
Every baby is different even in the same family. Your baby might do things faster, slower or differently from others and this is usually OK. If your baby is doing things much more slowly or not doing some things at all, it is important to talk with your doctor or child health nurse to make sure all is well.
There are many topics on The Raising Children Network website about normal child development. You could start looking at our topic 'Child development 0 to 3 months' for a link to the section on development in young babies.
Babies from about six months 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 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 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.
Have a look at Separation anxiety for more about this,
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.
Enjoy spending time with baby when they are awake - they love your company.
Talking and listening
Look into baby’s eyes, smile and talk to them gently from birth. They will notice the tone of your voice.
Tell baby what you are doing – name things they are looking at.
Say what will happen next – that you’re going to change their nappy, feed them or put them to bed. They learn what to expect and you are helping them feel safe and secure.
Use the same words every time, e.g. ‘I’m going to pick you up now ’ or ‘Here we go’. Don’t just pick them up without warning.
Listen to baby’s little noises and copy them back – it’s the start of learning to talk.
Talking to baby helps them learn that sounds make words and they will gradually learn that words have meaning.
- It is never too early to start sharing a book with 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.
Have a look at Reading with babies.
Playing is how babies learn. Give them lots of chances to be curious and explore. They might enjoy:
a variety of 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
mimicking games - baby pokes their tongue out and you do it back. Leave plenty of time for baby to take their turn
simple songs and rhymes while you rock or gently jiggle baby on your knee.
It is important for baby to have some tummy time on the floor each day from birth. It helps them develop muscles for crawling and head control. Never leave them alone on their tummy.
Don’t play rough games such as throwing baby up in the air, lifting or pulling them by an arm. These actions can harm babies.
Have a look at Play with children for more ideas.
Be sensitive to your baby – don’t overwhelm them. If they yawn or look away they may be saying they need a rest. Too much activity when they don’t want it is as unhelpful as too little activity.
Managing sleep is one of the common concerns for parents. It can help to know that:
each baby’s sleep is different even in the same family and their sleep needs change quickly
babies in the first weeks sleep much of the day and night. Most wake every two or three hours around the clock needing a feed and attention. Many sleep 14-20 hours a day
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’.
Have a look at Sleep in early childhood for more about this.
Use a rear-facing baby capsule in the car and make sure you have the correct restraint as they grow. It is against the law to smoke in a car with children under 16 years.
Never leave baby alone on change tables or other surfaces - they can easily fall.
Protect baby from pets – put up barriers if you need to. Never leave them alone together.
Protect baby from being frightened. Don’t shout, play loud music near them or make sudden loud noises.
Never leave 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.
Check your house for safety. Keep babies away from power points, curtain cords, things that could fall on them and poisons such as cigarettes, medicines, cleaning products.
Never shake a 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 baby is safe first.
Your feelings matter
When you are a parent it is 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 child health nurse
find out about babies so you know what to expect
take time to enjoy special moments with 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.
If you feel upset or low much of the time talk with your doctor, nurse or contact services such as Beyond Blue or PANDA. Have a look at Post-natal depression.
All parents need help at times. Don’t be afraid to ask trusted family or friends to lend a hand. Even washing the dishes can help.
Take baby to the Child and Family Health Service. The nurses can answer your questions and support you with your parenting. Remember to take your ‘Blue Book’ (My Health and Development Record) with you. Phone 1300 733 606 (South Australia) for an appointment.
This is a good time to join a parent group or baby play group – sharing ideas with others can be a great help. Baby will love it too!
Parent Helpline - South Australia
Phone1300 364 100 For advice on child health and parenting
Child and Family Health Service (CaFHS) - South Australia
Phone1300 733 606, 9am-4.30pm, Mon-Fri for an ppointment.
Phone 1300 22 4636 Phone and online support if you are feeling low www.beyondblue.org.au
PANDA (Post and Antenatal Depression Association)
Phone 1300 726 306 For information, support and counselling for new parents, family and friends
Red nose - SIDS and Kids
Phone1800 308 307, 24 hours For information about safe infant sleeping and bereavement support
Phone 8161 6318, 9.30am-4pm, Mon-Fri for information about child safety including child car restraints and making your home and yard safe
Department for Education and Child Development site with ideas and activities for making the most of everyday learning
For more Parent Easy Guides including ‘Being a parent’, ‘Being a Mum’, ’Being a Dad’, ‘Single parenting’, ‘Sleep 0-6 years’ and ‘Milestones 0-4 years’
Raising Children Network
For information on raising children and baby development
The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).
This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.