father and son reading
A Letter To Caretakers Of Newborns

Mary Dugan, MA, OTR/L

With the impending births of two babies in my extended family, I’ve been thinking a lot about a baby’s typical, “crash-landing” onto the planet of humankind. How will the newborns view us as caretakers? How will the babies react to the busy world suddenly surrounding them? What might such a baby share with us?

"In my world, everyone's a pony and they all eat rainbows and poop butterflies!" -- Dr. Seuss

Welcome to my sensory-rich world! You have ushered me into a wild wonderland of sights, sounds, textures, feelings, tastes, smells and movements that only my turbo-charged brain could navigate and begin to understand. You see, my newborn brain seeks stimulation to grow. All new learning will come through my senses. When I make sense of my senses, I’ll begin building a foundation for future reading and writing skills.

Although only 25% the size of your brain, my young brain is rapidly developing from the bottom up. The lower centers in my spinal cord and brain stem make me want to reflexively kick, hold tightly onto your finger, follow faces and objects with my eyes, search for food and eat. When I am quiet and alert, I especially like to look at your face, hear your voice, smell your hair and clothing and feel your loving arms around me. This is a good time for brief periods of play.

Here are some play ideas that I might enjoy (from The Parent’s Guide to Play): N.B. Please never leave me unsupervised with any of the toys/objects used in the following activities. I’m not old enough to understand how to use them by myself.

  • I have a strong preference for the human face. Research suggests that animated facial expressions make me feel secure and loved!
  • Try gazing into my eyes, gently calling my name. Change your facial expressions (i.e. raise your eyebrows, open your mouth widely with a smile, stick out you tongue). Then, just look at me and quietly and call me by name.
  • Hold up a mirror so that I can see my own reflection. I enjoy looking at me too! Many commercially made, baby mirrors are available, such as the Sassy Crib and Floor Mirror, that can also help me see me!
  • I can track objects with my eyes from a distance of 10-12 inches from my face. This encourages my eyes to work together. Although my color vision isn’t fully developed yet, I like to look at bold patterns (black and white) and bright colors (reds and oranges).
  • Slowly move a large, brightly colored pom-pom, toy or scarf from side to side, about 10-12 inches from my face. Adjust the speed of movement to the rate at which my eyes can follow the object.
  • Soft sounds and tones can be soothing to me.
  • Sing a soft lullaby. Tell me, over and over, how much you love me!
  • Touch is one of my primary tools for exploring my world.
  • After a diaper change, you may rub different textures (never rough) on my limbs, hands and feet (i.e. swatches of velvet/corduroy, soft wool or denim, fur-lined glove, silk tie, etc.). Talk and laugh about the objects- make it fun! Observe my reaction to each new tactile experience. Here is an opportunity to start reading my body language and gather information about my developing sensory needs, likes and dislikes.
  • As a newborn, I’m not really sure where my body ends and where everything else begins. I may enjoy you helping me to move. Then, I can feel where my body parts are and feel them move in new ways.
  • You may gently and slowly move my legs in little, bicycling motions, while smiling at me, singing to me or talking to me. I may join in and wiggle my legs with you!
  • Play times are fun! However, for the most part, I will need rest and sleep. Newborns, like me, can sleep about sixteen hours a day. When I’m tired, I may stare, turn my head, or look away when you try to talk to me or engage me with your eyes or a toy. If too many family members want to hold me and pass me around the room, I can get over-stimulated. I may turn pale or red, breathe quickly, grimace, arch my back, clench my fists or make jerky movements with my arms and legs.
  • Please watch for my distress signals. At these times, I may prefer dimmer lights, soft music and/or a soothing voice. You may try swaddling me, gently rocking me, quiet holding or swaying so that I may get rest and sleep. This kind of gentle stimulation also helps my brain cells grow. My caretakers, be good detectives! I can’t talk to you to let you know what I need yet. Get to know me by my different cries, movements and reactions to play and my environment. I may react differently to sensory stimuli than little Sammy, next door, and Jayda, down the street. There may be times that I want to play, times when I want to eat or sleep or times when I just want to self-soothe or be comforted.

As you get better at tuning into my signals, you’ll come to know my physical, emotional and sensory needs. Keep an attentive eye as I continue to grow. We will have lots of fun as we plot our course through a colorful world of ponies and butterflies!

Caretakers, always consult with your health care provider if you have any questions regarding your baby’s growth and development. Every baby develops at his or her own pace and responds to sensory stimulation according to his or her own, unique needs.

Other Resources

Visit your local libraries for the many references written about infant development. Here are a few I found at my local library:

Altman, T. R. (Ed.). (2006). The wonder years. New York: Bantam Books.

Masi, W.S., & Leiderman, R.C. (Eds.). (2006). The parent’s guide to play. Buffalo, New York: Firefly Books.

Shelov, S. (Ed.). (2010). Your baby’s first year, 3rd Ed. New York: Bantam Books.