Baby Development Processes

A newborn baby is a helpless creature who only seems to eat and sleep.

Yet this does not mean the child does not gain new impressions. A baby of a week old hears, smells and feels, and is becoming conscious of these senses. Every ‘sense of disturbance’ is expressed through crying.

Hunger makes a baby cry, but also a wet nappy, or simply the need for contact with mother or father, the need for comforting body warmth.

When a child has been crying for a while and stops crying as soon as it is taken out of the cradle and comforted, it probably was in need of such a body contact. ‘Conceding’ to such a need of contact is not ‘spoiling’ as it was thought of in the past. Research has demonstrated that it is simply impossible to spoil a child of a few months old. On the contrary: because someone reacts to the child’s cry, it feels more protected and confident, and in the course of time will become less tearful and ‘troublesome’ than the other way around. Only after the child has reached a certain level of development after the first year, will it begin to use crying as a means to gain attention.

Especially in the area of creating a relationship with other people (social), as well as in the areas of linguistic development and observation (intellectual), a great amount of positive reaction during the first year is profitable for the child’s further development. This is because the baby, as a social creature, naturally aims at provoking certain behaviour or actions. If there is no reaction, such behaviour will gradually lessen; if there is a positive reaction the baby will repeat the behaviour and continue to develop. In other words: the more the baby is stimulated in seeing, hearing, feeling and so on, the better it will iearn to learn’. For a child this is not yet ‘learning’, but merely playing.

The baby – Physical development

After months of waiting, the baby leaves the tranquillity and protection of the womb and starts life in the outside world. The parents anxiously scrutinize their new arrival. Is it a boy or a girl? Has it got all its fingers and toes? And is it healthy? Physical measurements are taken to check the baby’s condition. These measurements and various physical signs are important in assessing progress.

Birthweight and growth

A baby’s birthweight is influenced by a number of factors. Heredity is one: small parents tend to have small babies. The baby’s sex is another: girls are often slightly lighter than boys. And of course the duration of pregnancy will also determine the weight of the newborn. The average birthweight is about 3.4kg, but many babies weigh rather more or less than this -birthweights of 2.7kg and 4.1 kg are by no means unusual. Nearly every baby loses some weight, on average about 200g, during the first few days of life. This is partly because of the loss of meconium from the bowel and partly because a new baby loses more fluid than it ingests by feeding. In addition, a breastfed baby will initially drink low-volume colostrum. Not ‘mature’ milk. Colostrum contains about 2 per cent proteins among which various antibodies help to protect the baby from infection. It provides a precisely balanced mixture of nutrients, minerals and fluid for this stage of life.

Having regained his birthweight, the baby begins to grow at a rate of about 25g a day, which is between 150 and 200g a week. At three months the weight is about 5.5kg, a gain of a bit more than 2kg. At six months the weight is about 7.5kg. As the child gets older the growth rate slows down. The weight gain is now about 15g a day, or about 10()g a week. At the end of the first year the weight of 10kg is reached. The increase in length is also greatest in the first months. On average a newborn baby measures about 51cm; at six months this has increased to 66cm. At the end of the first year the child is about 75cm long. These statistics are useful guidelines, particularly for first-time parents. But it should be kept in mind that babies can vary widely from the ‘norm’, without being abnormal in any way. However, babies should be checked regularly, to ensure they are growing properly. The quick growth of the brain during the first years of life is reflected in the increasing diameter of the head. At birth the circumference is 35cm and after three months there has already been an increase of 6cm. By the time the baby is one year old another increase of 6cm has occurred. Measuring the head circumference is an important guideline for checking whether everything is developing normally. It is also useful in testing whether the baby has developed hydrocephalus.

Reflexes and co-ordination

The new baby has a repertoire of automatic reflex behaviours. Sucking is one of them and vital for survival. Other reflexes, such as his strong grasp of anything placed in his hand and flinging out his arms and legs when startled, are less obviously useful. The grasp and startle reflexes gradually disappear as more voluntary movements develop. As the baby grows, he begins to gain control of his head and then his body and limbs. By about six weeks, when held upright he can hold his head steady most of the time. His body, arms and legs will uncurl so that he may now be happy to spend some time lying on his back. This makes a big difference to his perception of the world. In this position there is more for him to look at; and he will start to take an interest in the working of his limbs, which are now free to move. At first he will find his hands by touch alone but, by about three months, he will enjoy looking at them too. Most babies of this age are fascinated by their hands. The baby may also want to reach out and touch other objects such as the toys hanging over his cot. This is an important stage of development, helping him to learn how to co-ordinate his eyes and hands. A three- or four-month-old baby will not only want to touch things; he will also want to hold them. By six months, most babies can take hold of something like a soft toy or brick. However, because a baby still uses his whole hand – rather like a scoop – he cannot as yet pick up small things such as raisins or biscuit crumbs. Only towards the end of his first year he learns to use finger and thumb together with a pincer grip. As a baby becomes more adept with his hands, he has to let go of one toy in order to explore another. This skill takes longer to master, but by the age of one year most babies have discovered the knack of uncurling their fingers to release objects. Babies also have to learn to make their hands work together. Clapping and banging two bricks against each other are popular games with eight- to ten-month-olds. During his first year, a baby finds out how to use the rest of his body. Once he is on his back he can kick his legs. On his front, with his head under control, he tests the strenghth of his arms, pushing himself up off the floor. In time, he learns to roll. By six months, most babies can roll right over. The rate at which babies develop varies enormously. Some can sit without support at five months. Others take several months longer. A baby who has been able to sit for some time may take a while to begin crawling, whereas the ‘late’ sitter may be mobile much sooner. Some babies learn to walk before their first birthday; others may still be on all fours at 18 months. On average, a baby will be able to sit unsupported -and confidently – at eight or nine months. He may also begin to crawl at this age. Crawling techniques vary considerably: some babies find shuffling along on their bottoms just as useful; others begin by going backwards instead of forwards. To stand unsupported, a baby must be able both to bear his weight on his legs and to balance. By about ten months, he can take his own weight but does not yet have the balance to stand unaided. He practises and gains confidence by pulling himself up on the furniture, and soon discovers he can get round the room by holding on to first one piece of furniture and then another. This is known ‘cruising’. Once a baby is confidently moving round in this way he may try letting go of one support and taking a lurching step towards the next. He is then not far off from walking independently.

Sensory development

Babies a few months old and even newborn babies have finely tuned senses. Research has given new insights into the way young babies experience their world; a baby’s sight, hearing, and sense of taste and smell are highly developed very early on. A newborn baby has excellent close-range vision – up to about 20cm from his face. Newborns are shortsighted, so more distant objects appear blurred. An alert newborn baby will gaze into his mother’s face if she holds him close to her, and can even copy some of her facial expressions. He will follow a moving object with his eyes if it is within his focal range. Shortsightedness gradually disappears and by one year of age babies have normal adult vision. Babies have acute hearing. They dislike sudden, loud noises and appear soothed by regular rhythmic sounds. Newborn babies can distinguish between different tastes. They prefer sweet tastes to bitter, acid or sour tastes which upset them. Babies have such an acute sense of smell that within a few days they can recognize their own mothers by means of this sense alone.

Sleep

A newborn baby usually sleeps for much of the time, waking only for feeds. He has no conception of day or night. In some babies a pattern is gradually established: within a few months the longest period of continuous sleep is at night. As a baby gets older, he stays awake for longer during the day. There are no fixed rules about sleep: some babies seem to need more than others. The ‘average’ baby between six months and a year old sleeps for about 13 hours a day; some sleep for as few as nine hours or as many as 18. As they get older some babies develop sleeping problems: they may cry when put to bed, or wake in the night. The commonest causes for such behaviour include a dislike of being separated from the mother.

Loneliness, boredom and a fear of being alone. Sometimes these difficulties can be related to some temporary upset, or they may be the result of cold or noise. A regular evening ritual, with a warm bath, a story and a soft toy to cuddle, can do much to calm a baby’s bedtime fears.

Teething

A baby cuts his first tooth – a bottom incisor – at around six months of age. The second bottom incisor follows, then the top two incisors by about nine or ten months. Cutting these first teeth is seldom painful, although the baby will probably dribble more and want to chew on hard objects. Some babies produce their first molar before their first birthday. Because these teeth are larger than incisors, they may cause discomfort, making the baby miserable or irritable. If a baby seems in real pain, however, his teeth are probably not to blame. Something else may be amiss and a doctor should be consulted.