Creating a safe space for baby’s first days
Françoise Harrison, Paediatric Occupational Therapist
Most new prospective moms and dads are terribly excited about the prospect of the arrival of their new baby. They excitedly prepare the baby’s crib, room, clothing, toys and other baby necessities. They plan and prepare for the birth. While a birthing plan is most important, few parents actually take the time to think about their postnatal plan.
One of the most important things that needs to happen in the hours and days after birth is for babies and mothers to enjoy skin-to-skin time. Time spent in this way helps moms to relax, to tune into their babies and to bond with them.
Babies in turn experience security and safety through this physical contact, and are given the opportunity to continue the all-important bonding process. If the birth was difficult, or mom and baby was separated after the birth for whatever reason, skin-to-skin care is of particular importance.
Babies thrive on skin-to-skin contact! Besides keeping their temperature stable, and regulating heart rate and breathing rate, skin-to-skin care provides emotional security for babies and helps develop their sensory regulation. These quiet times, sometimes affectionately called a “babymoon” (as in “a honeymoon with your baby”) give moms and dads the opportunity to attune to their babies and to learn to read their cues. Babies begin to trust that their needs will be met, and that they are not alone.
Babies who are offered enough opportunity for skin-to skin care cope far better with changes in their environment. These babies are more resilient and they adjust more easily to changes in their routines and to changes in their world. Contrary to the opinion which assumes that babies who are constantly held and carried will grow up dependent and demanding, the opposite holds true. These babies learn to trust in their mothers, fathers and close caregivers, and this fundamental trust in other significant humans, builds the secure foundation upon which all other relationships grow.
Our self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence have their roots in our earliest attachment relationships. New parents need to be supported in this very important task. When we say that “it takes a whole village to raise a child”, the “village”, should be supporting mothers to do what they do best, in raising their babies.
Visitors are always so keen to “hold the baby”. Being passed from person to person, dysregulates young babies, and they can easily become fussy and distressed. Babies are familiar with their mother’s touch, her smell and how they move about in her arms. Being offered into the arms of too many people, with the kind intention of giving mom a rest, is sometimes in fact not so helpful! Limit visitors, and guide friends and family in supporting you and your new baby.
Newborn babies need to learn to adjust to so many new things. They have spent months growing in a watery world, with mom’s heartbeat for constant company. Their food source is continuous, and they have never felt hunger. They feel cushioned and contained as they stretch and push against the walls of the womb, learning to exercise their little muscles and joints. They hear their mother’s voice, and all the familiar sounds in her world, and they begin to move their little bodies to the rhythms and intonations of their mother tongue! They begin to recognise the voices of other people whom their mother spends her time with, as well as the music which she enjoys listening to and singing.
Singing, like slow, deep breathing, stills and relaxes us. When women sing to their babies in utero, their babies hear and recognise the songs, and they feel the relaxation and ease in their mother’s bodies, as well as in her shared physiology.
Helping babies to continue to feel contained can be most reassuring. Some babies enjoy being swaddled, but containment in arms and in nesting rings can also be most reassuring. Newborn babies startle easily, and the Moro or startle reflex is often seen. Containing your baby using both your hands, or in a receiver wrap as you lift them up and move them about, especially when bathing, dressing and changing nappies, can be very organising for young babies. Babies soothe and comfort more easily when they can feel their little hands close to their mouths, and possibly suck on them too. Wrapping their hands up, or putting mittens on cold hands might seem like a good idea, but it is in fact not what babies like!
Young babies are very good at protecting their sleep. While we would avoid having babies, in a loud and disorganised space, babies can protect their sleep in everyday situations with typical family sounds going on around them. Don’t shield your baby from typical household sounds as this might contribute to sleep issues later. You can however shield them from watching TV and other digital screens for the first two years.
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It is important for new moms to know that breastfeeding is a learnt task, both for the baby, and for the mom. Babies suck instinctively, but not all babies get it right when they latch onto the breast. Ensuring a good latch and fine tuning the many of the aspects involved in breastfeeding under the care of a professional lactation consultant, can assist enormously in this learning process!
Remember that feeding is hard work, and moms and babies need a quiet respectful space for feeding. Bottle fed babies need a lot more attention when being fed than most people usually realise. Bottle feeding isn’t simply a matter of popping a bottle in baby’s mouth and letting them get on with it! The pace at which milk flows through the bottle teat cannot easily be regulated by the baby. Bottle fed babies need to be closely monitored and their sucking and feeding need to be paced to avoid overwhelming them!
Just as new babies need to be fed every three hours, mums who are breastfeeding should ensure that they eat a healthy, balanced meal or snack every three hours during the day. It makes it so much easier to do this if meals are planned ahead, and there is always a ready supply of nutritious food.
Night time feeds are really important for your baby. Don’t be in hurry to reduce night time feeds! They are really important when you are still building up your milk supply. It is a wishful myth that young babies should sleep through the night!
It is never too soon to start good routines. These routines might include things like going for a stroll at a similar time each day, having a lovely long massage before after bathtime, being read to – yes, you can read to your tiny baby! Initially, feeding will take place at least every three hours in brand new babies, and then in time, baby will let you know when she is hungry. Feeding on demand generally makes better sense than adopting a schedule, and demand fed babies are generally more contented. Some parents find comfort and security in following a baby-app. Whilst these can be helpful, be sure to cue in to your baby, rather than to follow the app. Read your babies’ cues and trust your instincts!