Newborn babies are precious, dependent little creatures. They have limited control over their bodies when they first enter the world. However, they are born with a set of skills that help them survive and thrive. Some of these behaviors and reflexes fade a few months after birth. Some last into adulthood.
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Sometimes it’s hard to know what “normal” newborn behavior looks like. Babies display many of the same behaviors but develop at different rates. It’s important to know the behaviors to expect from your baby so you can tell if there may be a problem to discuss with your baby’s doctor.
- Sleeping. Newborn babies’ stomachs are too small to stay full for long, so they need to be fed frequently. They may sleep anywhere from 20 minutes to 4 hours at a time between feedings until they are around 3 months old. Many babies begin to sleep 6-8 hours during the night at that age.
- Crying. Newborns cry to tell you when they need something or that something is wrong. Be patient and calm with your newborn. Have someone else stay with your baby if you need a break. Never, ever shake your baby. Over time, you may be able to tell what your baby needs by the way he or she is crying. Call your doctor if you have any questions about your baby’s crying. This could include if you feel that you have tried everything and your baby is still crying; if your baby is crying more often or at different times than usual; or if his or her crying sounds different than it normally does.
- Making noises. Newborn babies make noises just like adults. They will hiccup, sneeze, yawn, burp, and gurgle. These are all normal noises.
- Breathing. Sometimes, newborn babies will not breathe regularly. It is normal for them to stop breathing for just a few seconds and then start again. If your baby stops breathing for longer than 10 seconds or starts to turn blue, seek emergency care immediately.
- Seeing. It’s hard for newborns to focus at first, so their eyes may be crossed. They have better control of their eye muscles by 2 to 3 months of age.
- Hearing. Newborns can recognize familiar sounds and voices. Talk, sing, and read to your baby often. He or she will start to turn toward the sound of your voice.
Your baby’s body has built-in responses to certain stimuli from the moment they are born. Within the first few minutes after your baby is born, nurses and doctors will check many of these reflexes. They will also monitor them at newborn check-up appointments. Newborn reflexes include:
- Rooting reflex. This is a basic survival instinct. Babies know how to find and latch on to a nipple to feed. If you stroke the side of your baby’s cheek with your finger or breast, he or she will turn their head, open their mouth, and begin to make sucking movements. This reflex usually disappears around four months.
- Moro (“startle”) reflex. Your baby will be placed in a seated stance (with his or her head supported). When the baby’s head is allowed to drop backward, the baby should appear to be startled. Their arms will reach out with palms up and thumbs out. When the baby is “caught,” he or she will bring their arms back to their body. Loud, unexpected noises may cause this reflex. The baby may cry when especially startled. This reflex usually disappears around two months.
- Step reflex. A baby is held upright with his or her feet gently touching a flat surface. The baby will appear to try to take steps. This reflex usually disappears around two months.
- Grasp reflex. When your baby’s palm is stroked, he or she will grab your finger and hold on tight. Their toes will curl up as well, if you stroke the bottom of their foot. This reflex begins to disappear around the third month.
- Asymmetrical tonic neck (“fencing”) reflex. Babies take on a “fencer” position when lying on their backs. Their head turns to the side, and the opposite arm reaches away from the baby’s body with the hand slightly opened. This reflex usually disappears between four and five months.
- Babinski reflex. The doctor or nurse will stoke the underside of your baby’s foot, from the top of the sole toward the heel. His or her toes will fan out. Their big toe will move upward. This reflex remains through adulthood. Adults’ toes and feet will curl inward.
- Galant (truncal incurvation) reflex. Your baby will be held facedown in a doctor or nurse’s hand while they use the other hand to stroke your baby’s skin along one side of their spine. The baby’s spine should curve and their head and feet will move in the direction of the side that is being stroked.
Things to consider
Your baby’s doctor will monitor his or her reflexes and behaviors at their regular newborn check-up appointments. You should watch them at home as well. You may want to keep a chart of your baby’s behaviors until you can better understand them. This will help you communicate any potential problems with your doctor.
Vision and hearing problems can cause developmental delays. Talk to your doctor if you feel your baby’s eyes are not starting to focus in their first 2 months of life. Also notify your doctor if your baby doesn’t seem to react or startle at loud noises.
Watch for your baby’s reflexes. A reflex that has gone away and suddenly returns could be a sign of a problem. Also let your doctor know if your baby seems to lose a reflex sooner than should be expected. Trust your instincts and always ask your doctor questions and talk to him or her if you suspect there may be a problem with your baby’s development.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Do you have tips to help my baby stop crying?
- Is my baby sleeping and eating enough?
- My baby’s eyes seem to still cross sometimes. How long is that normal?
- How can I check to make sure my baby is responding to noises?
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This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.