Getting to know your newborn
Newborn babies don’t come with an instruction manual and you’re bound to have lots of questions about their behaviour and appearance to begin with.
During the first several weeks, you’ll notice that much of the time your baby will tend to keep his or her fists clenched, elbows bent, hips and knees flexed, and arms and legs held close to the front of his or her body. This position is similar to the foetal position during the last months of pregnancy. Infants who are born prematurely may display several differences in their posture, appearance, activity, and behaviour compared with full-term new-borns.
Because an infant’s head is usually the first part through the birth canal, it can be affected by the delivery process. A new-born’s skull is made of several separate bones (which will eventually fuse together) to allow the large head to be squeezed through the narrow birth canal without injury to mother or baby.
The heads of infants born by vaginal delivery often show some degree of moulding, which is when the skull bones shift and overlap, making the top of the head look elongated, stretched out, or even pointed at birth. This sometimes bizarre appearance will go away over the next several days as the skull bones move into a more rounded configuration. The heads of babies born by caesarean section or breech (buttocks or feet first) delivery usually don’t show moulding.
Because of the separation of your new-born’s skull bones, you’ll be able to feel two fontanels, or soft spots, on the top of the head.
On the top of your baby’s head near the front is a diamond-shaped patch where the skull bones haven’t fused together yet. There is another smaller soft spot towards the back of your baby’s head. These are called the fontanelles.
It will probably be a year or more before the bones close over. There’s no need to worry about touching or washing the fontanelles because they are covered by a tough protective membrane
Don’t be alarmed if you see the fontanels bulge out when your infant cries or strains, or if they seem to move up and down in time with the baby’s heartbeat. This is perfectly normal. The fontanels will eventually disappear as the skull bones close together — usually in about 12 to 18 months for the front fontanel and in about 6 months for the one in back.
In addition to looking elongated, a new-born’s head may have a lump or two as a result of the trauma of delivery. Caput succedaneum is a circular swelling and bruising of the scalp usually seen on top of the head toward the back, which is the part of the scalp most often leading the way through the birth canal. This will fade over a few days.
A cephalohematoma is a collection of blood that has seeped under the outer covering membrane of one of the skull bones. This is usually caused during birth by the pressure of the head against the mother’s pelvic bones. The lump is confined to one side of the top of the baby’s head and, in contrast to caput succedaneum, may take a week or two to disappear. The breakdown of the blood collected in a cephalohematoma may cause these infants to become somewhat more jaundiced than others during the first week of life.
It’s important to remember that both caput succedaneum and cephalohematoma occur due to trauma outside of the skull — neither indicates that there has been any injury to the infant’s brain.
A new-born’s face may look quite puffy due to fluid accumulation and the rough trip through the birth canal. The infant’s facial appearance often changes significantly during the first few days as the baby gets rid of the extra fluid and the trauma of delivery eases. That’s why the photos you take of your baby later on at home usually look a lot different than those “new arrival” nursery shots.
In some cases, a new-born’s facial features can be quite distorted as a result of positioning in the uterus and the squeeze through the birth canal. Not to worry — that folded ear, flattened nose, or crooked jaw usually comes back into place over time.
A few minutes after birth, most infants open their eyes and start to look around at their environment. New-borns can see, but they probably don’t focus well at first, which is why their eyes may seem out of line or crossed at times during the first 2 to 3 months. Because of the puffiness of their eyelids, some infants may not be able to open their eyes wide right away. New babies can see, although their vision may not be completely focused. Their eyesight develops gradually over the first few months.
By the time your baby is two weeks old, you’ll probably notice their eyes following your face or a colourful object held about 20cm (eight inches) away. If they don’t seem to be doing this, mention it to your health visitor or GP.
Your new-born’s eyes may roll away from each other occasionally. This is called a squint and is quite normal in a new-born. It should resolve by three months. If it doesn’t, talk to your health visitor or GP.
When holding your new-born, you can encourage eye opening by taking advantage of your baby’s “doll’s eye” reflex, which is a tendency to open the eyes more when held in an upright position.
Parents are sometimes startled to see that the white part of one or both of their new-born’s eyes appears blood-red. Called subconjunctival hemorrhage, this occurs when blood leaks under the covering of the eyeball due to the trauma of delivery. It’s a harmless condition similar to a skin bruise that goes away after several days, and it generally doesn’t indicate that there has been any damage to the infant’s eyes.
Parents are often curious to know what colour eyes their infant will have. If a baby’s eyes are brown at birth, they will remain so. Most white infants are born with bluish-grey eyes, but the pigmentation of the iris (the coloured part of the eye) may progressively darken, usually not reaching its permanent colour until about 3 to 6 months of age.
A new-born’s ears, as well as other features, may be distorted by the position they were in while inside the uterus. Because the baby hasn’t yet developed the thick cartilage that gives firm shape to an older child’s ears, it isn’t unusual for new-borns to come out with temporarily folded or otherwise misshapen ears. Small tags of skin or pits (shallow holes) in the skin on the side of the face just in front of the ear are also common. Usually, these skin tags can be easily removed (talk to your doctor).
Because new-borns tend to breathe through their noses and their nasal passages are narrow, small amounts of nasal fluid or mucus can cause them to breathe noisily or sound congested even when they don’t have a cold or other problem. Talk with your doctor about the use of saltwater nose drops and a bulb syringe to help clear the nasal passages if necessary.
Sneezing is also common in new-borns. This is a normal reflex and isn’t due to an infection, allergies, or other problems.
When your new-born opens his or her mouth to yawn or cry, you may notice some small white spots on the roof of the mouth, usually near the centre. These small collections of cells are called Epstein’s pearls and, along with fluid-filled cysts sometimes present on the gums, will disappear during the first few weeks.
Yes … it’s there. Normally the neck looks short in new-borns because it tends to get lost in the chubby cheeks and folds of skin.
Because an infant’s chest wall is thin, you may easily feel or observe your baby’s upper chest move with each heartbeat. This is normal and isn’t a cause for concern.
Also, both male and female new-borns can have breast enlargement. This is due to the female hormone oestrogen passed to the foetus from the mother during pregnancy. You may feel firm, disc-shaped lumps of tissue beneath the nipples and, occasionally, a small amount of milky fluid (called “witch’s milk” in folklore) may be released from the nipples. The breast enlargement almost always disappears during the first few weeks. Despite what some parents believe, you shouldn’t squeeze the breast tissue — it will not make the breasts shrink any faster than they will on their own.
Arms and Legs
Following birth, full-term new-borns tend to assume a posture similar to what their position in the cramped uterus had been: arms and legs flexed and held close to their bodies. The hands are usually tightly closed, and it may be difficult for you to open them up because touching or placing an object in the palms triggers a strong grasp reflex.
Infants’ fingernails can be long enough at birth to scratch their skin as they bring their hands to their faces. If this is the case, you can carefully trim your baby’s nails with a pair of small scissors.
Sometimes parents are concerned about the curved appearance of their new-born’s feet and legs. But if you recall the usual position of the foetus in the womb during the final months of pregnancy — hips flexed and knees bent with the legs and feet crossed tightly up against the abdomen — it’s no surprise that a new-born’s legs and feet tend to curve inward.
You can usually move your new-born’s legs and feet into a “walking” position; and this will happen naturally as a baby begins to bear weight, walk, and grow through the first 2 to 3 years of life.
It’s normal for a baby’s abdomen (belly) to appear somewhat full and rounded. When your baby cries or strains, you may also note that the skin over the central area of the abdomen may protrude between the strips of muscle tissue making up the abdominal wall on either side. This almost always disappears during the next several months as a baby grows.
Many parents are concerned about the appearance and care of their infant’s umbilical cord. The cord contains three blood vessels (two arteries and a vein) encased in a jelly-like substance. Following delivery, the cord is clamped or tied off before it is cut to separate the infant from the placenta. The umbilical stump is then simply allowed to wither and drop off, which usually happens in about 10 days to 3 weeks.
The withering cord will go through color changes, from yellow to brown or black — this is normal. You should consult your baby’s doctor if the navel area becomes red or if a foul odor or discharge develops.
Umbilical (navel) hernias are common in newborns, particularly in infants of African heritage. A hole in the wall of the abdomen at the site of the umbilical cord/future navel allows the baby’s intestine to protrude through when he or she cries or strains, causing the overlying skin to bulge outward. These hernias are generally harmless and aren’t painful to the infant. Most close on their own during the first few years, but a simple surgical procedure can fix the hernia if it doesn’t close by itself.
Breasts and Genitalia
The genitalia (sexual organs) of both male and female infants may appear relatively large and swollen at birth. Why? It’s due to several factors, including exposure to hormones produced by both the mother and the foetus, bruising and swelling of the genital tissues related to birth trauma, and the natural course of development of the genitalia.
In girls, the outer lips of the vagina (labia majora) may appear puffy at birth. The skin of the labia may be either smooth or somewhat wrinkled. Sometimes, a small piece of pink tissue may protrude between the labia — this is a hymenal tag and it’s of no significance; it will eventually recede into the labia as the genitals grow.
Quite often, a new-born baby’s breasts are a little swollen and ooze some milk, whether the baby is a boy or a girl. Baby girls also sometimes bleed a bit or have a white, cloudy discharge from the vagina. All this is caused by hormones passing from you to your baby before birth. There’s no need to be concerned.
The testicles of new-born boys may be difficult to feel in the swollen scrotum. Muscles attached to the testicles pull them up into the groin briskly when the genital area is touched or exposed to a cool environment. Infant boys also normally experience frequent penile erections, often just before they urinate.
Hydrocele — In boys, the scrotum (the sack containing the testicles) often looks swollen. This is usually due to a hydrocele, a collection of fluid in the scrotum of infant boys that usually disappears during the first 3 to 6 months. You should call your doctor about swelling or bulging in your son’s scrotum or groin that lasts beyond 3 to 6 months or that seems to come and go. This may indicate an inguinal hernia, which usually requires surgical treatment
More than 95% of new-borns pee within the first 24 hours. If your baby is delivered in a hospital, nursery personnel will want to know if this happens while your infant is with you. If a new-born doesn’t urinate for what seems like a while at first, it may be that he or she urinated immediately after birth while still in the delivery room. With all the activity going on, that first urination may not have been noticed.
New-borns are covered with various fluids at delivery, including amniotic fluid and often some blood (the mother’s, not the baby’s). Nurses or other personnel attending the birth will promptly begin drying the infant to avoid a drop in the baby’s body temperature that will occur if moisture on the skin evaporates rapidly.
New-borns are also coated with a thick, pasty, white material called vernix caseosa (made up of the fetus’ shed skin cells and skin gland secretions), Vernix (the white sticky substance that covers your baby’s skin in the womb) should always be left to absorb naturally. This is a natural moisturiser and protects against infection in the first few days, though most of it will be washed off during the baby’s first bath.
At birth, the top layer of your baby’s skin is very thin and easily damaged. Over the first month or longer in premature babies, your baby’s skin matures and develops its own natural protective barrier.
The colour patterns of a new-born’s skin may be startling to some parents. Mottling of the skin, a lacy pattern of small reddish and pale areas, is common because of the normal instability of the blood circulation at the skin’s surface. For similar reasons, acrocyanosis, or blueness of the skin of the hands and feet and the area surrounding the lips, is often present, especially if the infant is in a cool environment.
When bearing down to cry or having a bowel movement, an infant’s skin temporarily may appear beet-red or bluish-purple. Red marks, scratches, bruises, and petechiae (tiny specks of blood that have leaked from small blood vessels in the skin) are all common on the face and other body parts. They’re caused by the trauma of squeezing through the birth canal or by the pressure from obstetrical forceps used during the delivery. These will heal and disappear during the first week or two of life.
Fine, soft hair, called lanugo, may be on a new-born’s face, shoulders, and back. Most of this hair is usually shed in the uterus before the baby is delivered; for this reason, lanugo is more often seen on babies born prematurely. In any case, this hair will disappear in a few weeks.
The top layer of a new-born’s skin will flake off during the first week or two. This is normal and doesn’t require any special skin care. Peeling skin may be present at birth in some infants, particularly those who are born past their due date.
Not all babies come with a birthmark. However, pink or red areas, sometimes called salmon patches, are common and generally disappear within the first year. Most frequently found on the back of the neck or on the bridge of the nose, eyelids, or brow (hence the fanciful nicknames “stork bite” and “angel kiss”), they can occur anywhere on the skin, especially in light-skinned infants.
Mongolian spots, flat patches of slate-blue or blue-green colour that resemble ink stains on the back, buttocks, or elsewhere on the skin, are found in more than half of black, Native American, and Asian infants and less often in white babies. These spots are of no significance and almost always fade or disappear within a few years.
Strawberry or capillary hemangiomas are raised red marks caused by collections of widened blood vessels in the skin. These may appear pale at birth, then become red and enlarge during the first months of life. Then, they usually shrink and disappear without treatment within the first 6 years.
Port-wine stains, which are large, flat, reddish-purple birthmarks, won’t disappear on their own. As a child gets older, cosmetic appearance concerns may require the attention of a dermatologist.
Cafe-au-lait spots, so called because of their “coffee with milk” light-brown color, are present on the skin of some infants. These may deepen in color (or may first appear) as the child grows older. They’re usually of no concern unless they’re large or there are six or more spots on the body, which may indicate the presence of certain medical conditions.
Common brown or black moles, known as pigmented nevi, also can be present at birth or appear (or get darker) as a child gets older. Larger moles or those with an unusual appearance should be brought to a doctor’s attention because some may require removal.
Several harmless skin rashes and conditions may be present at birth or appear during the first few weeks. Tiny, flat, yellow or white spots on the nose and chin, called milia, are caused by the collection of secretions in skin glands and will disappear within the first few weeks.
Miliaria — small, raised, red bumps that often have a white or yellow “head” — is sometimes called infant acne because of its appearance. Although miliaria often occurs on the face and can appear on large areas of the body, it’s a harmless condition that will go away within the first several weeks with normal skin care.
Despite the frightening sound of its medical name, erythema toxicum is a harmless new-born rash consisting of red blotches with pale or yellowish bumps at the centre, which can resemble hives. This rash usually blossoms during the first day or two after birth and disappears within a week.
Pustular melanosis, a rash present at birth, is characterized by dark brown bumps or blisters scattered over the neck, back, arms, legs, and palms, which disappear without treatment.
Also, it isn’t unusual to see infants born with sucking blisters on the fingers, hands, or arms because the foetus can suck while still in the uterus.
New-born jaundice, a yellowish discoloration of the skin and white parts of the eyes, is a common condition that normally doesn’t appear until the second or third day after birth and disappears within 1 to 2 weeks. Jaundice is caused by the accumulation of bilirubin (a waste product produced by the normal breakdown of red blood cells) in the blood, skin, and other tissues due to the temporary inability of the new-born’s immature liver to clear this substance from the body effectively.
Although some jaundice is normal, if an infant becomes jaundiced earlier than expected or the bilirubin level is higher than normal, the doctor will follow the baby very closely.
What your new-born baby can do
Babies are born knowing how to suck. During the first few days they learn to co-ordinate their sucking with their breathing during feeding. New-born babies also automatically turn towards a nipple or teat if it’s brushed against their cheek, and they’ll open their mouths if their upper lip is stroked.
Your new-born can grasp your finger with their hands and toes. They’ll also make stepping movements if they’re held upright on a flat surface. All of these reflexes, except sucking, disappear within a few months.
New-born babies can use all their senses. They look at people and objects, especially if they’re near, and particularly at people’s faces. You may notice your baby trying to mimic your facial expressions. They enjoy gentle touch and the sound of a soothing voice, and they react to bright light and noise. They also recognise their parents’ unique smell and voices quite soon after birth.
Getting to Know Your Little One
The first days and weeks of a new-born’s life are a time of great wonder and delight for most new parents. However, being responsible for this tiny creature can be scary, particularly if you’re not familiar with how a new-born looks and behaves.
If you feel anxious or uncertain about any part of caring for your baby, don’t hesitate to call your doctor, other health care professionals, or family or friends who have had experience caring for a new-born.