Baby development

The first three months

We chart the journey from fragile newborn to bouncing baby

By Wendy Haaf
The first three months

Just think about all of the transitions a newborn makes in the first few months of life. After starting life as an underwater creature with food and oxygen piped directly into his body (thanks, Mom!), your baby has to adapt to life on land and learn to eat and breathe on his own. He also has to cement his relationship with you and your partner — the people he needs not only to survive, but to learn and grow.

And yet, many of the systems that help us make our way in the world aren’t yet fully operational at birth because parts of the brain, nervous system and eyes, for example, are still under construction. In fact, the exciting changes you’ll see in your little one over the next 12 weeks don’t hold a candle to the incredible progress that’s going on behind the scenes, inside your baby’s brain and body. Here’s a peek at what will happen both onstage and off between birth and three months.
Newborn to one month

If your baby is born at term, her body will be curled in on itself, much like it was in your uterus, notes Doreen Bartlett, associate professor of physical therapy at the University of Western Ontario in London. That’s because being squashed into such close quarters has shortened and tightened the ligaments and tendons around the joints, so they can no longer stretch out easily. (In contrast, a preemie’s body lies flat against a surface like a bed.) Normal movement and gravity will eventually lengthen those tissues and loosen the joints.

“Newborn babies have very low muscle tone — they tend to be quite floppy, a bit like a rag doll,” explains Jeremy Friedman, head of paediatric medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, and co-author of Canada’s Baby Care Book: A Complete Guide from Birth to 12 Months Old. This also means your baby’s neck muscles can’t yet control or even hold up her head, which is much larger in proportion to her body than yours. (Consequently, you’ll need to support her head when you pick her up and hold her, to prevent her brain from bumping around too hard inside the skull.) And if you lay your newborn on her tummy, she can’t lift her head off the bed or floor.

However, if a mattress or blanket is blocking the flow of air to her nose, she’ll automatically turn her face to one side. This is just one example of several primitive reflexes — a sort of survival software that controls most of your baby’s movements until the wiring in her brain and nervous system becomes more sophisticated. Some others:

• Brush your baby’s cheek with your finger to trigger the rooting reflex. Her face will turn towards your touch, seemingly in search of a nipple.

• An object placed in the baby’s mouth triggers the sucking reflex.

• Your baby will turn her head in the direction of a sound.

• A sudden noise or movement may cause a baby to startle, jerking her arms and legs out, then bending them inward as if catching a big ball. “Parents are often startled by the startle reflex,” says Friedman.

• Your newborn’s tiny fist will tightly clench your finger when you touch the palm of her hand.

Sometimes, perhaps due to minor glitches in these “programs,” a newborn may make odd jerky or jittery movements that parents might mistake for tics or mild convulsions. “The vast majority of these are normal,” reassures Friedman. If the twitching stops when you hold the affected body part, it’s probably nothing to worry about.

Some of your baby’s senses are well developed at birth. Newborns react to foul odours in much the same way we do, for instance. And while their sense of taste is a little wonky from sipping salt water (amniotic fluid), they’re born with a sweet tooth for flavours similar to that of breastmilk.

Your newborn can also hear — in fact, he has been eavesdropping on the world for about three months, notes Christine Tsang, assistant professor of psychology with Huron University College at Western in London, Ont. However, his hearing is less acute than yours. “Newborns don’t hear low frequencies well, and they aren’t very sensitive to quiet sounds like whispering,” explains Tsang. Essentially, your baby is a little hard of hearing, so you don’t have to tiptoe around the house for fear of waking him! He can also hear high-pitched sounds, like baby talk, better than lower, deeper sounds.

Vision is the least mature sense. A new baby’s eyesight is very blurry; in fact, it’s about 40 times less sharp than that of a normal adult, according to Daphne Maurer, a professor of psychology, neuroscience and behaviour at McMaster University in Hamilton, who studies visual development. Nor do a newborn’s eyes work together. “Our best guess is that they’re seeing double,” Maurer says. Consequently, explains Friedman, “crossed eyes are very common in the first two months of life.”

Your little one’s eyes focus most clearly at a distance of 20 to 25 centimetres (the span between his face and yours when you’re breastfeeding) and what he sees best are sharp contrasts such as black-and-white stripes and the outline of your hair. His colour vision still has some developing to do too — while he can tell red from green, he can’t differentiate between blue and grey, or red and yellow. He also can’t yet see “the big picture” — when he looks at something, he doesn’t take in the whole thing, but focuses on details like, say, a spot on your hairline. However, he can follow an object, by moving his eyes in short, jerky spurts.

Your newborn arrives in the world primed to pay close attention to people, and to you in particular. Despite her blurry vision, she’s attracted to faces, and will stare at them in fascination when she’s quiet and alert. “It’s suggested that most of the things babies learn, they learn in this calm, alert state,” notes Henry Ukpeh, a University of British Columbia clinical associate professor of paediatrics and Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) spokesperson.

And one of the things your baby is learning about is you. She’s already begun to commit parts of your image to memory. “By a few days of age, babies will look longer at a photograph of Mom than a photo of a stranger,” notes Maurer. However, that preference disappears when the hair is covered, so you may want to defer any major changes to your do!

Your baby also recognizes you in other ways. Within a few days of birth, she’ll recognize, and prefer, your natural scent to that of a stranger. Research also suggests your little one recognizes, and prefers, sounds she heard in utero — particularly your voice.

Talking and singing to your baby helps foster the connection between the two of you, and may help soothe her when she’s fussy. (Snuggling and gentle rocking or bouncing are also great ways to comfort newborns.) Not sure what to say? Diane O’Brien, a public health nurse and parent educator at the Middlesex-London Health Unit in London, Ont., suggests telling your little one what you’re doing (“We’re going to change your diaper”) or even sharing your frustrations (“I’m having a helluva day!”) in a cheerful singsong voice.

While your baby obviously won’t understand your words, she will pick up on your tone, observes London, Ont., paediatrician Fabian Gorodzinsky, who is also a spokesperson for the CPS. Let’s say you and your partner are arguing — the tension in your voices can be contagious. “It’s better if you’re not holding the baby when you’re having a fight,” Gorodzinsky suggests.

And believe it or not, your baby also begins trying to communicate with you at a very early age. “As early as two days, and certainly by one month, children use their cries to communicate,” Ukpeh says, using slightly different inflections for “I’m hungry,” “I’m uncomfortable” and “I want to be held.” Of course, it may take you a little while to learn this language!

One to two months

By the six- to eight-week mark, the tightness in your baby’s hips, knees and elbows has eased, so his arms and legs can relax into a much longer, flatter position when you lay him on his back. With this milestone under his belt, your baby is ready to start making more deliberate, purposeful movements. Another, less visible body part — your baby’s larynx or voice box — has undergone changes, and these developments enable him to make cooing noises (aaaahhhh, for instance) by six to eight weeks.

By now, your baby’s neck, shoulder and trunk muscles have begun to grow a little stronger. If you place him on his stomach, he can pull his chin up a little further and hold it up a little longer, than he could just a few weeks ago.

By six weeks, your little one is ready to spend some time in this position every day, ideally with you or your partner joining him. “It’s important that babies have playtime on their tummies,” stresses Susan Bannister, an assistant professor of paediatrics at the University of Western Ontario and Children’s Hospital in London, Ont. Tummy time helps prevent the flat head babies can get from spending a lot of time lying on their backs, and builds strength in the neck, shoulder and trunk muscles.

As the muscles become stronger and more mature, the nervous system also grows more advanced, and some primitive reflexes begin to fade. For example, “the grasp reflex wanes after about six weeks,” Friedman notes.

By two months, her eyes are beginning to work in tandem. She is also starting to pay attention to your facial features rather than focusing on the outline of your face, and can fix on and follow moving objects with her eyes vertically as well as horizontally. Around six to eight weeks, she also begins to discern whether a moving object is travelling toward her or away from her. And now that your little one’s head isn’t wobbling and her peripheral vision has expanded, she’s able to take in more of her surroundings.

But all that looking can sometimes take its toll. “Newborns are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation,” Maurer notes, and since your one-month-old doesn’t yet know how to look away when he gets tired of looking at a particular object, that can wear him out just as much as too much hustle and bustle or noise. (Consequently, babies this age may become crabby by late afternoon — something that can often be remedied by some quiet time.)

While that lesson may take a bit longer to learn, your baby has already developed some important social skills. He’s becoming more socially responsive and may get excited and start to breathe faster when you pick him up. And by six to eight weeks, your baby will have mastered the social smile, rewarding you with a gummy grin of pleasure when you talk to him or smile at him. “There are smiles earlier than that, but the smile where the baby smiles with both the mouth and the eyes, where someone starts talking to the baby and the baby beams — that starts around two months,” Maurer says.

Six to eight weeks is also when your baby will begin experimenting with his voice, oohing and ahing. While this cooing is accidental at first, he’ll catch on quickly and start trying to make these noises on purpose. By two months, he’s learning how conversations work: I talk, then it’s your turn.

All in all, this is when your baby starts paying you back for taking care of him by making you feel warm and fuzzy. “Parenthood gets more rewarding when the baby is smiling and cooing,” O’Brien observes.

Two to three months

In this month, your baby’s neck and shoulder muscles will continue to grow stronger, and her head control will continue to improve. By this age, babies can read facial expressions.

Your baby makes another big mental leap at this age — he can now regularly anticipate what will happen next in certain situations. Three months is also when “a baby who is lying on her back can hold her head in midline,” observes Bartlett. (Before that, the head falls to one side or the other.) These two milestones help lay the groundwork for a third: learning to use both hands at the same time. Soon you’ll see your baby start reaching toward objects. At first those swipes (there go your glasses!) may be clumsy, but they’ll quickly become more deliberate and coordinated.

At this stage, your baby is also in training for rolling over and crawling by working arm and leg muscles: for instance, by kicking vigorously while lying on her tummy or back.

By three months, your baby is becoming better able to see in detail; he has begun to develop three-dimensional vision, and can follow you around the room with his gaze. His colour perception has also improved — in another month, it will be similar to an adult’s.

Your little one is also turning into a real social butterfly. She loves to make sounds and practise her conversational abilities by cooing, then waiting for you to respond.

This is also the age when babies start to file away faces in a much more adult-like way: Instead of memorizing every detail of a new face, they look for differences between it and a kind of mental stencil that’s an average of all the faces they’ve seen before. It’s also the age when babies start to recognize familiar adults (other than Mom, that is), and begin learning to read facial expressions.

Your baby makes another big mental leap at this age, by learning to anticipate what happens next in certain familiar situations. For instance, your hungry three-month-old might stop fussing the minute you tuck her into the crook of your arm because she knows that means she’ll soon be nursing.

“This is when parents will tell you that the baby starts to seem different — more responsive, more alert,” Maurer adds. In short, the lights seem to go on. Act I has drawn to a close, setting the stage for all of the other thrilling and dramatic developments that will take place over the next year or so!

This article was originally published on Apr 14, 2008

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