Born with a Can-Do Attitude
Even though your baby can't care for herself, what she is capable of at birth may surprise you. She's born with 70 innate reflexes designed to help her thrive, some of which are truly remarkable. "Reflexes like the tonic neck reflex -- in which your baby turns his head to one side, straightens one arm, and holds the other out -- are critical to labor and delivery, helping your baby squirm around during the birth process, stimulating the uterus to keep contracting," says Dr. Brazelton. In essence, he's helping your labor progress.
Other reflexes are less subtle to a new parent. If left on his mother's abdomen in a dim, quiet room after birth, a healthy newborn "will rest for about 30 minutes and will gaze at his mother's face on and off," reports Marshall Klaus, MD, who wrote the first textbook on neonatology and has coauthored a number of popular books for new parents, including Your Amazing Newborn (Perseus). Then he'll begin smacking his lips and moving toward the breast completely unaided, using a powerful stepping reflex and bobbing his head up and down to gather momentum. Once at the breast, a newborn will open his mouth wide and place his lips on the areola, latching on all by himself for his first feeding. From that point on, these inborn responses will affect your newborn's every move. The rooting reflex, for example, helps your baby seek nourishment. However, seemingly random, reflexive movements may be more intentional than we first thought. "When in a quiet, alert state, and in communication with a caregiver, some babies will reach out to try and touch something," says Dr. Klaus.
Normal newborns at birth apparently have the underlying potential to reach for things, he explains, but their strong neck muscles are linked to their arms, so that a slight neck movement moves the arms as well. This connection protects the baby's head from suddenly dropping forward or backward.
Can Babies Think?
It depends upon how you define thought; of course, a newborn can't share ideas. But some researchers believe that babies do put concepts together (albeit on a primitive level), evidenced by the fact that they remember and recognize their mother's voice from birth, and express and respond to emotions before and immediately after birth. One could argue that memory and emotion are inextricably linked to thought. "A baby's brain grows very differently depending on what sorts of experiences the baby has both in utero and after birth," says Wendy Anne McCarty, PhD, the founding chair and faculty of the Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology Program at the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute, in California. "During gestation, birth, and early infant stages, we learn intensely and are exquisitely sensitive to our environment and relationships. From the beginning of life, we're building memories." Other experts say that a baby's brain is too undeveloped to do more than orchestrate vital body functions. One fact remains clear: Newborns learn every day and apply that knowledge to their growing repertoire of skills. So can a newborn really think? Watch your baby, and judge for yourself!