The first forty-eight hours after birth are usually particularly intense, emotional and demanding for the whole family. Just as you as a new mum are going through a period of recovery from the birth, adjustment to your new reality and getting to know each other as a family, so is your new baby: Moving from the secure cocoon of the womb to the cool air of day is quite a change. Luckily your baby has you to make him feel comforted and secure as he begins to take in his new surroundings.
Immediately after birth
As your baby is born the change in temperature will prompt him to draw his first breath. Often babies start to cry as they start to breathe to open their lungs up fully, but some babies breathe quietly without crying, and a few will need a little help to establish breathing. As your baby starts to breathe, his body releases hormones stimulating his heart to take oxygen-rich blood from the lungs, rather than your placenta. Within a few minutes he’ll be breathing more comfortably and will open his eyes to take in his new surroundings.
If all is well with your baby you should be able to hold him within moments of the birth. If he’s placed on your chest he’ll be able to hear the reassuring thump of your heartbeat and skin-to-skin contact as well as being warmed by your body. He may look up at you and seem to listen to your voice if you talk to him quietly. Some time in the first few minutes the umbilical cord will be cut and clamped and your baby will have his first health checks, the Apgar test, usually at one and five minutes after birth. He’ll also be weighed quite soon after birth. Your baby may be interested in nursing very soon after being born, and if placed on your naked chest he may wriggle his way to your breast for a feed. The midwife will be able to help you and your baby with positioning and latching on if needed.
What your newborn looks like
It goes without saying that your baby will be the most beautiful baby in the world, but when he first emerges from the womb he’s likely to look a little less than cherubic. His skin will be wrinkly from the amniotic fluid and probably smeared here and there with vernix, the fatty substance that has protected and moisturised his skin in the womb. His head may be slightly mis-shapen from the pressure of pushing through the birth canal and he’ll be a bluish colour, turning pink as breathing becomes established. The hands and feet usually take a little longer than the rest of the body to turn pink as circulation really gets going. Some babies are born with a light covering of lanugo, the fine hairs that helped to insulate the body in the womb.
What your newborn can do
You may find that your natural instinct is to lean down to your newborn baby as you talk to him, cuddle him and look at him. There’s a good reason for this, as your baby’s vision at birth is rather blurry and he’ll only be able to see whatever is within about 30cm of his face. Right away he’ll be able to identify the taste of your breastmilk, and would be able to tell it apart from another mother’s milk. He’ll also be able to recognise and take comfort the sound of your voice.
Your baby will be able to move her arms, legs and head although most of these movements are involuntary and jerky for now. Crucially, your baby will be able to communicate and will let you know when he has needs to be met by crying. In the first 48 hours he’ll most often cry because he’s hungry or wants comfort.
Sleeping and adjusting
For the first one or two hours after birth a newborn is usually quite alert, so it’s a great time for getting to know each other and enjoying plenty of contact. This is also a good time to get started with feeding and your baby may even want to feed within a few minutes of being born (see above). After his first feed your baby may be tired from the effort of sucking and want to settle down for a sleep. And sleeping is what he will probably be doing for much of the next forty-eight hours, although he will probably also wake frequently to look for comfort or food.
It’s common for babies in the womb to have a pattern of being more awake and active during the night-time – as they are usually lulled to sleep by your daytime activities – and so it’s not unusual for babies to be more active and alert at night time for some time after birth. This can be very draining on you as new parents, particularly on mum, and more so if you’re breastfeeding.
The transition from womb to world is quite a demanding one and while some babies will take it all very calmly, others will need lots of comforting and reassuring, particularly if the birth was difficult. Some babies will want to stay very close to either mum or dad, preferring to be held, and if you’re awake and alert then you can hold him close and let him sleep on your chest. Your baby might find it comforting to be gently rocked in your arms, to nurse frequently, to be sung or talked to, to be massaged gently and, particularly, to be carried. Don’t worry at this stage about adopting habits that will later be hard to break, in these first few days making your baby feel loved and secure is more important than anything.