Some parents see their newborn as a crying, sleeping, eating and pooping machine. It’s true that babies are very efficient at those tasks, but they’re born with amazing abilities that parents may never notice and it just gets better as they grow. If you’ve ever wondered what’s going on inside your baby’s brain, allow me to shed some light.
At the time of birth babies are not blind as some people think. They can actually see, but only at a very close distance and for good reason. At about one foot away objects are in sharp focus and that just happens to be about the distance from the breast to the mother’s face. When a baby is feeding, he or she can stare at mommy for reassurance and bonding. A short time after birth the baby prefers her mother’s face to any other and some studies suggest that this preference is present even in a newborn, which is amazing since the baby has never seen the parent before.
On the other hand, baby’s hearing develops early during development and by the time they are born, babies prefer a woman’s voice, probably because they have heard their mother every day while in the womb. The womb is a noisy place with a heart constantly beating, lungs breathing and food digesting, it’s a wonder babies get any sleep at all. What a baby hears is somewhat muffled, like being under water, but within a few days after delivery a baby recognizes the sound of their own mother’s voice and can distinguish it even after only hearing one syllable.
Babies are born with the potential to speak any language and can recognize sounds in other languages that are not used in their native tongue. Miraculously, a newborn baby already knows which sounds are used to communicate. For example, a baby will never imitate the sound of a refrigerator or an alarm clock. No matter what language they will eventually speak, all babies begin early language with sounds like mama, papa, baba and dada. In every language I’ve tested, these sounds are the words for the female parent and the male parent. I’ve been testing this theory for years and I haven’t found an exception yet. If you know of one, e-mail me.
Babies, even newborns, have a remarkable ability to imitate the adults in their environment. If you don’t believe me find a baby, get their attention and slowly stick out your tongue at them. You will find that the baby will copy you and stick out his or her tongue. Even babies with pacifiers will wait until the pacifier is removed and then stick out their tongue.
One of the most interesting things for parents is to see their newborn "walk." Walking is hard-wired in our brains right from birth, but babies don’t have the strength, coordination or balance to stand up on their own. Still, if you know what you’re doing, your baby will give you a glimpse of this most anticipated milestone. To see the "automatic stepping reflex" suspend your 1- or 2-month-old baby under the arms and allow the baby’s feet to touch a surface. Tilt the baby slightly to the left and he will extend the left leg to support his weight and bend the right. Now tilt to the right and he will extend the right leg to support his weight and bend the left. By tilting your baby slowly from one side to the other the baby will appear to "walk" across the floor. But you have to catch this very early in life because the reflex goes away and you won’t see walking again until around age 1.
Newborns aren’t the "blank slate" we used to think. They are born with natural abilities that help them start to make sense of the world as soon as they get here. Babies are complex and fascinating little people who are genetically pre-wired to make friends with any adult who cares for them. After being around a baby for awhile it’s easy see how.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at email@example.com.