The Truth About Babies

What they can see and feel, plus how much they need to eat, sleep and more.

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Teensy, miniature, fragile. The pure smallness of my first baby is what I remember being most unprepared for. I was shocked by how tiny he was, even at 8 pounds, 11 ounces. (The "-3 month" baby garments I'd brought to the hospital were useless.) For most first-time parents, that tiny new baby is a fascinating mystery, from the way he stares into your face to the softness of his skin. And while each infant is different, there are some universals, which can help you unravel why your baby does the things he does.

They lose and gain weight.

Your baby will likely lose between 5 percent and 10 percent of his weight in the first week, even if he's eating around the clock. The weight loss is due to loss of fluid and meconium. By the second week of life, however, most babies have regained the lost weight or even surpassed their birth weight.

They don't need daily baths.

A newborn only needs a complete bath two or three times a week; any more than that can dry out sensitive new skin. He does, however, need a daily cleansing of the diaper area with a mild baby soap and plenty of clean water (not wipes).

Until the umbilical cord stump falls off (sometime during the first two weeks), sponge baths are fine. And speaking of the bellybutton-to-be, it should be kept clean until it's completely healed.

Baby-soft skin may take a while.

Some parents may be concerned about the tiny white spots, called milia, that often appear on a newborn baby's face. More than half of all babies are born with them on the nose or cheeks, but this harmless condition usually disappears in the first weeks of life.

Other common skin conditions include cradle cap, a crusty scalp condition that usually can be alleviated by using a mild baby shampoo or, if necessary, a medicated lotion; peeling, dry skin on the hands and feet (try fragrance-free baby lotion); and, of course, diaper rash.

Besides the usual ointments, one way to discourage irritation on little bottoms is to forgo packaged wipes, which contain chemicals that can worsen a rash. The best way to clean a tender tushie? Plain old water on cotton balls or a washcloth that's been double-rinsed to remove detergent.

It's okay to cry.

Crying is normal and healthy most of the time and helps babies communicate hunger, pain or the need for a new diaper. But what of those times when an infant simply breaks out in cries for no apparent reason? It may be that he needs to be held and touched.

"Barring all the usual causes, it is something I call baby boredom," says Christine Wood., M.D., a pediatrician in Encinitas, Calif. "Once you pick them up and walk around, they're fine for a few minutes, but the minute you stop, they start again. They seem to be looking for another type of stimulation."

Many babies tend to cry in the evening. While doctors don't know exactly what causes this pattern, proven soothing techniques include rocking, nursing, singing, swaddling, laying baby on his tummy over your knees, or even riding with him in the car.

They'll squeak, rattle and hiccup.

Even without speaking, a baby can make his presence known with his sneezes, hiccups, gurgles and rattly breathing. All these noises, no matter how strange, are completely normal. "The gurgling and rattles tend to peak at age 2 to 3 months," says pediatrician William Sears, M.D., author of The Baby Book (Little Brown & Co., 1993) and The Family Nutrition Book (Little Brown & Co., 1999).

One culprit, he says, is all the extra saliva babies begin to produce in preparation for teething, which can lead to noisy bubble-making in an infant's mouth and throat. Doctors don't know why hiccups, which aren't harmful, often occur. Sneezing and snorting usually are attributed to dust irritating tiny nasal passages that haven't yet grown the hairs to help filter out such particles.

They'll sleep a lot, but not at night.

While newborns experience obvious active periods, they mostly sleep. "During the first weeks of life, babies will sleep 18 to 22 hours a day," says William A. Engle, professor of pediatrics at the Indiana School of Medicine in Indianapolis. The trick is in trying to make sure that the longer chunks of sleep occur at night. Not knowing that I could encourage my newborn son to stay awake a little longer during daylight hours, I was one of those parents who often found him wide awake and playful at 3 a.m., since he had taken deep "power naps" right after dinner.

It is possible to gently tamper with the sleep cycle by keeping baby awake (with play or baths, for example) for longer periods during early evening. Establishing separate day and night environments in the household (keeping lights low, avoiding play and minimizing stimulation in the evening) may also help baby sleep longer at night.

But even with a little prodding toward nighttime hours, parents of infants should understand that more than a few sleep-deprived nights lie in store. "They should expect two to three months of night wakings for feedings, diaper changes and development of self-comforting abilities," says Engle. Some parents find that keeping their babies in bed with them helps everyone sleep better.

They can see what they need to see: you.

Scientists have determined that newborns can focus their eyes on objects that are only about 18 inches or less away. Conveniently, that works out to roughly the length from the crook of your arm to your face, a baby's favorite object to study.

Faces, especially familiar ones, fascinate infants for the first several weeks as they fine-tune their vision. They are able to recognize caregivers by face (if close enough) and voice. Tests have shown that even babies a few weeks old will turn their heads toward a parent instead of a stranger.

Studies have shown that while they are able to see some colors, newborns respond best to black and white (after about four months, bright colors) and that visual stimulation is vital as the eye-brain connection improves. Mobiles, toys and even ceiling fans will keep a newborn fascinated as he exercises his eyes and forms needed connections in the brain.

They will eat. And eat. And eat.

"A newborn's stomach is about the size of a walnut," says Carol Huotari, manager of the Center for Breastfeeding Information at La Leche League International. This is partly why newborns nurse around the clock. Another factor in the nearly constant feeding pattern of a newborn is that breast milk is easily digested; it is emptied from an infant's stomach quickly, often in less than 30 minutes.

Babies who formula-feed, on the other hand, may have slower emptying of their stomachs than breastfed babies. Still, they need to, and should, eat often. "In general, newborn babies will eat every two to four hours during the first weeks of life," says pediatrics professor Engle. "We recommend feeding on demand rather than a schedule and eating until apparently full."

Demand equals crying, and by responding quickly, you can avoid having the baby work himself into a full-blown fuss, which can make feeding difficult. And how can you tell if he's full? Most infants will stop sucking or turn away from the nipple or bottle. Another way to tell if your baby is getting enough to eat is to keep track of dirty diapers. Breastfed infants, says pediatrician Wood, may have as many as eight to 10 stools a day (formula-fed babies may have fewer).

They need your touch.

Babies thrive on touch, so hold yours as often as you can. "Touch and all kinds of interaction — [infants] need all the stimulation that comes naturally to parents," says Wood. In addition to babies' other senses, touch may be particularly critical, as evidenced by the fact that it is present at birth.

"We believe the sequence [in which newborns develop their senses] is touch and sense of placement, then taste, smell, hearing and vision," says Ann Critz, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. To get in as much touch time as possible, carry your baby with you in a sling or front carrier as you do chores, take naps together, and get in some extra strokes during feedings.

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