When you’re a first-time parent, the little things your baby does seem magical … and sometimes bizarre … and occasionally unbearable. Luckily, the path has been paved; odds are, the things you’re experiencing have been observed and survived by countless others. Still, it helps to know what to expect, to share notes and hear, “Yes, this is normal!” Babies typically adhere to a universal chronology. The “sameness” doesn’t make your baby less special—she is still one of a kind—but you can observe her unique qualities within the developmental framework common to babyhood.
Feeding the need
At birth, baby leaves an environment where nourishment was provided round-the-clock and must immediately learn to feed in a new way—by sucking (breast or bottle) when the opportunity is offered. In the parent’s mind, each feeding session has a clear beginning and end; baby will figure this out but not on day one. While the umbilical cord delivered nutrients even when baby slept, she must now stay awake to complete a feeding (a challenging task for many newborns, and a source of frustration for their nursing moms!). It is normal for a new baby to demand a feeding every 90 minutes, or every two hours if you’re lucky, and that’s measuring from start to start. Formula takes longer to digest than breast milk, so bottle-fed babies can go a little longer between feedings, but they still need to eat every two hours or so. Basically, feeding is a full-time job in the early weeks.
You might find that baby seems irritable or gassy after nursing when you’ve had certain foods, such as broccoli or chocolate. Pay attention to these reactions. Even if it’s not an allergy, baby will be more comfortable if you pass on these foods for a while.
When baby starts to eye your meals with a hungry look, it’s time to start solids (usually between 4 and 6 months). Baby will love some foods, especially sweet things, and reject others. Persist with those mushy, good-for-you greens—baby may warm up to them after a few encounters. If baby seems especially gassy or develops unusual symptoms, there may be a food intolerance or allergy in the mix. Nix the food responsible until you’ve spoken with your pediatrician about it.
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Hitting the snooze
Baby’s sleep schedule can seem so erratic at times. What’s normal, and what’s not? In the womb, baby was lulled to sleep by your movements during the day. At night, she likely awoke as you settled down. Unfortunately, this pattern typically continues after birth. To reverse baby’s nocturnal ways, make an effort to keep her awake after feedings during the day. Try to engage her attention and make eye contact. Allow sunlight to stream through the windows. Then at night, keep the lights off. Feed baby when she cries, but put her right back down to sleep without talking to her like you would during the day. After a few weeks, or even days, baby should be more on schedule with the rest of the household, although night feedings are still to be expected.
Helen F. Neville, RN, author of Is This a Phase? Child Development and Parent Strategies from Birth to 6 Years, reports that more than 50 percent of parents are finally enjoying a full night’s sleep when baby reaches 6 to 7 months. At 8 months, baby may start waking at night again, as she becomes simultaneously more mobile and more prone to separation anxiety. Expect this phase to last about a month, and then, with any luck, you’ll be back to sleeping through the night.
Of course, nighttime sleep is one issue; napping is another. Because babies require up to 18 hours of sleep out of every 24 in the beginning, and 11 to 15 hours of sleep by age 1, consistent naps are necessary. Some babies can sleep anywhere while others crave white noise in a dark environment. Babies will go through phases where they nap more or less, depending upon growth spurts, teething or other factors. Your baby’s particular energy level may dictate how easily she falls asleep and how long she stays asleep.
By the time baby is born, you two have already formed a sincere attachment. She knows your smell, your voice and very soon your touch. Her eyesight is lousy at first, but she’ll see you—and everything else—more clearly and in full color in a few months. Meanwhile, your attempts at communicating with baby could feel one-sided. Hopefully, you’re forming a warm attachment despite baby’s lack of participation; otherwise, you might be feeling the baby blues (totally common) or even postpartum depression, which requires medical attention.
You will start to get a feel for baby’s temperament as you spend time observing her habits, and especially if you have the chance to compare her to other babies. Is she high energy? Super sensitive? Easygoing? Extra cautious? Some traits are part of a passing phase—for instance, stranger anxiety peaks between 10 and 15 months but improves during the toddler years—while others are here to stay. Neville points to energy level and emotional intensity as traits that are typically long lasting, even future defining! She compares personality to a layer cake: The bottom layer is inborn temperament, but life circumstances and experiences pile on additional layers to form the person baby will become.
For now, hang in there with the high- pitched “motherese,” the smiles and coos, because many babies begin to return smiles around five weeks after birth. (Somehow, all the sleepless nights seem worth it when that smile finally appears!) Do remember that a baby’s attention span is brief. Neville says to expect two to three minutes of good interaction with baby, trading sounds and smiles, until she becomes overstimulated and needs to look away. By 7 months, she’s worked up a tolerance to about five minutes of social time. To put it plainly, don’t start worrying about ADD if you lose baby’s attention easily. Like so many other behaviors, this too is a phase.
Baby will begin to communicate through mimicking sounds by about 6 months, and truly “babbling” by 8 months. If your baby isn’t going “bababa” or “mamama” at 8 months, she might simply be a late talker, but let your doctor know just in case. Baby can also communicate with sign language if you choose to teach her—introduce a few basic signs around the time she learns to clap or wave. At this point, your little one will be capable of repeating signs once she becomes familiar with them. First words can come before the first birthday, but if not, no worries. She’ll have plenty to say in time!
Moving right along
In the early days, baby will appear bow-legged and curl into a ball, especially when placed on her tummy. Take pictures now, because it only takes a few weeks for baby’s physique to develop right out of the brand-new baby phase. Baby will throw her arms out when she’s startled—just a reflex, nothing out of the ordinary. And even in the beginning, baby should be able to grasp an object (such as your finger) placed in her palm—again, not intentional, merely a reflex. Babe won’t have much control over her limbs, and their flailing might upset her, so rely on swaddling to keep her snug and secure at naptime.
Baby’s mind and body are developing rapidly. By 3 months, baby will begin to hold her head up on her own (the neck was pretty loosey-goosey until now), and she’ll bring her hands together. You should notice her gaining strength in her arms and legs. At 5 months, baby is rolling from front to back and reaching for toys. From 6 months on, she’s putting toys in her mouth. She’s sitting by 7 months, crawling starting from about 7 months or later and standing by 10. If your baby is a late crawler or one who skips the crawling phase and goes straight to walking, it’s not necessarily a cause for concern. Talk it over with your pediatrician. And remember, just because someone else’s baby is crawling at 7 months and walking at 10 months doesn’t mean yours needs to be, too. A high-energy baby will likely crawl and walk early, but she was energetic even before birth, and she’s likely to stay that way for life. Other babies will take their time, refining fine motor skills rather than rushing to hit gross motor milestones. While you can encourage your baby’s development with tummy time, practice and play, baby’s temperament is what it is. Just love her, and ignore the timeline!