The most common question asked by dads once their new pride and joy arrives home from the labour ward is ‘now what?’ Newborns don’t come with a manual, so what exactly do you DO with your baby? Colwyn Trevarthen, a professor of child psychology says: “Newborns simply like human company. They like to be touched, talked to and moved around. Babies are particularly receptive to light and vision. New fathers should give their babies lots of eye contact and facial expression.”
Just be YOU!
Believe it or not, your company is the best form of entertainment for your baby. In the first month or so of life, your baby learns mainly through interacting with you. They learn to associate the feel of your touch, your voice, the sight of your face and the sensation of getting all their needs met. Simply holding your baby whilst looking into their beautiful eyes is a great hit when it comes to keeping them happy, entertained and bonding with you.
Talking to them too! You might feel a bit silly at first, but it’s a great way for you to get to know each other. If you are uncertain what to talk about, just get a book and read it to them, or take them around the house or for a walk outside and tell them what they can see.
The importance of faces
Faces are full of baby’s favourite things: motion and sound, so your baby will gaze at faces (and especially mouth and eyes as the main points of focus) longer than at anything else. Babies’ vision at birth is not fully developed, so they can only focus on objects that are 8-10 inches (or 20-25 cm) away from their face – pretty much the distance between your face and theirs when you’re holding them in your arms!
So make sure you position yourself close to your baby when talking to them. Looking at your face is great for their intellectual development – your baby will study your features, look into your eyes and try and mimic your facial expressions, so be silly and really ‘play’ with your face. Smile, stick your tongue out, raise your eyebrows… just have fun making silly faces! It will pay off when your baby will look at you and crack a smile or laugh (even though you have to wait a few weeks for that!).
Don’t forget to try calmer activities too!
Not all interaction with your little one needs to be ‘fun’ and it is important to be aware that babies can get overstimulated which can make them irritable and grumpy! So as well as making funny noises or faces at your baby, also use calmer ways of connecting with them through simply smiling, using soothing sounds or gentle touch and try and create a nice, calm atmosphere.
Remember that sensory stimulation can reach a point where it becomes overwhelming for your baby, and to start with, they will only be able to cope with a short amount of any activities which involve them listening, looking or interacting. So if they cry, fuss, arch their back, yawn, or simply turn their gaze or head away, think about how they might be communicating to you that they have had enough.
If Baby Cries…
A common mistake that some dads make is to give up if the baby gets upset and starts crying – and hand the baby back to mum.
Unless your baby specifically needs/wants a feed from mum, this is a chance for your baby to learn to trust you for comfort – to learn your smell, the sound of your voice and the feeling of being held by you.
You might feel that mum is just better at calming your baby, but you are likely to also be able to do it with a bit of practice too! Just remember to now keep everything calm, quiet and soothing, walking and holding your baby, or using a hold like Tiger in the Tree can work wonders.
Babies bond mainly through smell and touch, so a great way to interact and bond with your baby is through physical contact. It improves your baby’s sensory awareness and emotional development, as well as the production of ‘good’ hormones and their trust and bond with you.
You can do this through a number of ways:
Skin-to-skin cuddles. Take your top off and strip baby down to their nappy (or less if you are feeling brave!) and have a cuddle together. If you are worried about getting cold, just have a cotton blanket covering you both.
Bathing. Why not enjoy a bath with your baby? Just make sure the temperature is right for them, but this is a great alternative way to enjoy some skin-to-skin time together.
Baby Massage. You don’t need to be an expert in massage to have a go at this, just gently stroking their skin has massive benefits.
Singing and music
If you are the musical type, why not sing to your baby? Even if do not have the voice of Michael Buble, your baby will love hearing you sing! Repetition is reassuring for babies, and they will love the rhythm of songs and nursery rhymes, but even if you don’t know any of these, just sing your favourite song to them – it’s not about the words, it’s about YOU.
If the idea of singing leaves you completely cold, you can still use music. Put some on and sway to it with baby in your arms. They will enjoy both the movement and being close to you.
We all enjoy a change of perspective from time to time, and your baby is no different. One way of having some play time with your baby is to place them on their tummy, which also has the added benefits of helping them to strengthen their upper body and neck muscles.
Try tummy time when baby is awake and alert (never for sleeping, and not if they are cranky!) Try little and often (a couple of minutes at the time) letting your baby guide you. Try and stay close, as they are likely to be calmer if they know you are still there with them, so try and lay down on your tummy too, face to face with your baby and talk to them! If they really don’t seem to like it, give them a cuddle and try again tomorrow.
Keep your baby close
You can still get on with the usual activities of your day, just keeping your baby close to you, so they can hear you and see you. You might have them in their moses basket or in a baby bouncer, depending on their age and what equipment you have. Either way, this gives them different things around the house to look at and listen to, and even though they can’t see very well, they are fascinated by lights, shadows and things moving.
Another option is that you can carry your baby in a sling, wrap or carrier (known as ‘babywearing’) and keep them with you as you carry on with some light activities or go for a walk – they will enjoy feeling involved, experiencing the sensation of movement as well as closeness to you whilst they enjoy your familiar smell.
If you do want to get some toys to use with your baby, do just bear in mind that it will be a while before your newborn can actually hold a toy for themselves. The best toys to look for to use in the early days, include:
- Black and white patterns and toys (you can even get app’s on your phone for them), which stimulate your baby’s developing vision;
- Board or fabric books with strong lines and colours, which will attract baby’s attention;
- Play gyms, where your baby can lie on a mat and look at (and later on reach out and touch) different features
- Plastic mirror toys, so that the baby can see their own reflection in them and be amused by their own facial expressions, squirms and movements. They won’t know it’s them that they’re looking at but they will enjoy it nonetheless
- For later on, think about rattles, textured toys and musical toys.
The reality of it is that your baby is only a newborn for such a small period of time and it’s great to take a moment and realise that for our babies and children, we are all they need!