One of the first challenges new parents face is trying to figure out what their newborn is telling them. How do I tell if my baby is hungry? Why do they keep crying and crying? Why is my baby suddenly sneezing, jolting awake, or bobbing their little head around?
While much of your childbirth education classes will center on pregnancy, childbirth, and the immediate postpartum period, introducing new parents to newborn care and baby communication is important too.
Many parents feel woefully underprepared for dealing with the demands of their newborn baby. Addressing common questions about newborn communication before parents meet their little ones will set them up for success. Parents need to know what is normal, what isn’t, and where to get help for common newborn concerns.
Methods for Teaching Newborn Communication
Before we discuss what to teach new parents, let’s address how you can teach these concepts.
Brainstorm with Open-Ended Questions
Although the idea of caring for their babies might seem light years away, you can always start by asking students to share what their questions and concerns are about newborns. They can write their questions anonymously on pieces of paper, share questions with the class that you record down for them on a white board, or share questions in small groups.
Show parents videos of newborns and common newborn behaviors—pictures and videos are worth a thousand words. Live demonstration is helpful, although less predictable than pictures or video. If possible, arrange to have a new parent come to class with their newborn to demonstrate some of these baby behaviors.
Provide new parents with resource lists for future use—this way, when their baby is crying in the middle of the night, parents will have reputable sources for information and support. If you are teaching childbirth education, consider providing parents with a complementary copy of Newborn Care as a supplement to their education.
What Parents Need to Know About Newborn Communication
There are four main areas that you’ll want to cover when it comes to teaching parents about newborn communication: newborn reflexes, newborn feeding cues, newborn sleep cues, and newborn crying. Let’s take a closer look at each of these.
Understanding Newborn Reflexes
Newborns are born with a set of reflexes, which are involuntary reactions and movements. Many of these go away within a few weeks or months. Even though they are reflexes, some of them are a newborn’s way of communicating with their parents, including showing signs of hunger. New parents may be perplexed or worried about some of these reflexes if they do not understand them, so normalizing them is helpful.
Common newborn reflexes include:
- Rooting reflex, which prompts a baby to turn their head toward something that something touches their cheek near the mouth; it also helps them to find the breast or bottle during feeding.
- Sucking reflex, which causes a baby to begin suckling if a nipple or finger is placed against the roof of their mouth.
- Moro reflex, or startle reflex, which causes a newborn to jerk suddenly if they hear a loud sound or experience a sudden movement.
- Palmar grasp, which causes a baby to grasp an object that touches their palm.
- Stepping reflex, which is thought to help a baby do the “breast crawl” after birth and latch onto the breast.
- Tonic (fencing) reflex, which causes your baby to turn their head to one side and their arm in that direction, and bend the other arm at the elbow.
Recognizing Newborn Hunger Cues
The Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents practice “responsive feeding,” which is when parents feed their baby based on their cues, rather than following a strict feeding schedule. Responsive feeding teaches babies to eat when they are hungry and stop when they’re full. It also teaches parents to become more in tune with their baby’s needs and communication styles.
To this end, it’s very helpful for parents to get a sense of what their baby’s feeding cues are. Usually, babies give subtle clues when they first become hungry, and it’s best to feed them as soon as they show these signs. Crying is a late feeding cue.
Baby feeding cues might look like one or more of these behaviors:
- Making suckling motions with the mouth.
- Sucking on fingers or fists.
- Rooting, or moving head from side to side.
- Waking up, becoming alert, active and restless.
- Light fussiness.
Identifying Newborn Sleep Cues
Parents of newborns are often exhausted. They want to know when their baby will start sleeping longer stretches and when they can establish some kind of sleep schedule. Parents should know that newborn sleep is different from sleep in older babies. Night and day are the same to newborns, who tend to sleep on and off in a disorganized pattern.
By about three months, babies start to develop a circadian rhythm, where they sleep more at night and less during the day, though sleeping through the night will likely come much later. At this point, parents can begin to recognize their baby’s sleep cues, and start to put their baby down for sleep once they see signs of tiredness. As with feeding, it’s best to soothe a baby to sleep before they get too worked up and crying, so recognizing early sleep signs is helpful.
Typical infant sleep cues include:
- Rubbing eyes.
- Light fussing.
- Flickering eyelids.
- Turning away and not wanting to engage.
Teaching Parents About Infant Crying
Crying is a baby’s way of communicating that something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are hungry, that their diaper needs changing, or that they are too hot or too cold. Babies cry when they are overstimulated or simply because they are … well, being a baby. Sometimes parents can’t figure out why their baby is crying, and that can be very frustrating.
It's essential that parents understand that baby crying is normal, and that it’s also normal to feel frustrated, especially if they have a baby who cries a lot or is colicky. Parents must be taught that it’s never okay to shake a baby when they cry, or hurt a baby in any way.
Giving your students a “cheat sheet” for what to do when a baby cries will be helpful down the road, such as the “Soothing Checklist” page in Newborn Care.
This may include rocking, walking, shushing, feeding, etc. It may also include putting their baby down safely and briefly while they take a moment to calm down and regroup. If a newborn cries excessively, parents should reach out to their baby’s health care provider to rule out medical issues. Parents of colicky babies should be encouraged to ask for help from friends and family so that they can have much-needed breaks.
The Bottom Line
Teaching newborn behavior may not be on the top of your list of teaching goals. But setting your students up with knowledge and resources about life with their baby is vital. Even if your students run into challenges as they learn to care for their baby, knowing what to expect and where to go for further help will be hugely beneficial for them.
Wendy Wisner, Freelance Writer and Lactation Consultant (IBCLC)
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