Your newborn’s developing senses

It’s amazing how much your baby is aware of from birth, and how his senses develop in the early weeks and months

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Vision

It’s one of those marvellous miracles of life that your newborn focuses best on things that are about the same distance from his face as yours is while he is feeding! In his early days he won’t be able to focus clearly on anything much closer than around 25cm, or further away than 30cm. At first he’ll only be able to focus on individual facial features, one at a time.

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What to look for:

‘You might notice your baby focusing on your hairline or the edge of your face, because that’s where there is a strong visual contrast,’ says John Wyatt, Professor of neonatal paediatrics at University College, London. Watch out, too, for a change at around eight weeks, when your baby will be able to see your face as a whole for the first time. ‘He may start to smile in response to faces at around the same time, or begin to mimic facial gestures – like sticking out his tongue or making the mouth into an “O”,’ comments Professor Wyatt.

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You can help to stimulate your baby’s eyesight by showing him simple line drawings – such as two eyes, a nose and a mouth made up of dots and dashes – and patterns in strongly contrasting colours (black and white objects usually capture a newborn’s attention).

Hearing

Your baby is attuned to recognise your voice over all others from the moment of his birth. This is because he has grown accustomed to your voice while in the womb. He might find your partner’s voice soothing, too – or a friend or relative you’ve spent a lot of time with during pregnancy.

What to look for

It’s been proven that some newborns can remember distinctive sounds from their time in the womb, even from as early as the first week of life, so see if your baby recognises a favourite TV theme tune or a piece of music you enjoyed in pregnancy. ‘The most common sign of recognition is that he will stop spontaneous movements and become still and focused for short periods,’ explains Professor Wyatt.

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You can soothe your baby by replicating the sounds he may have heard in womb. These are known as ‘white noise’, and sound similar to the whir of a tumble dryer. ‘Babies respond best to voices that are gentle, high-pitched and inflected – that is, swoop up and down in tone,’ says Professor Wyatt. ‘This is the instinctive way in which mums around the world talk to their babies: anthropologists call it “instinctive motherese”. Singing is also effective. After six to eight weeks, babies often start to make cooing noises in response to speech-like sounds.

Taste and smell

Babies prefer sweet flavours over any others – making breast milk, which is sweet, very appealing. ‘They also recognise their own mother’s milk, which tastes the same as the amniotic fluid that they have been swallowing for months,’ says Professor Wyatt.

What to look for:

Your baby’s penchant for sweetness is likely to continue during the weaning process, when you may at first find it easier to get your baby to accept fruit purées than the savoury varieties.

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When you do start to wean (from six months) try introducing savoury foods by combining them with sweet ones – such as carrot and apple, or pear and parsnip. Because carrots and parsnips are naturally sweet, you’ll be able to gradually increase the amount of these vegetables in your purées and reduce the amount of fruit. Then you can serve the fruit purées separately, as a pudding.

Touch

Having come from a warm, enveloping place in the womb, your newborn will be looking for comfort through soothing touching. He’ll need plenty of close cuddles and gentle kisses, and will appreciate soft, seam-free fabrics and a cosy, fleecy blanket.

What to look for:

Your baby might sometimes be crying through discomfort rather than hunger, thirst or loneliness, but it might not be obvious what’s wrong.

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Try to choose clothing made from natural, breathable fabrics; protect his head from knocks when you lift him in and out of his cot; keep his nails trimmed so that he can’t scratch himself and make sure you keep him at the right temperature. ‘If your baby is distressed and restless, wrapping him up tightly in a blanket is often soothing – it will remind him of being in the womb,’ adds Professor Wyatt.

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