Funny-looking and socially inept or multi-skilled masterminds ahead of their time? Sarah Tennant puts forward a case for the marvellous newborn.
“An ugly baby is a very nasty object — and the prettiest is frightful when undressed. Until about four months; in short as long as they have their big body and little limbs and that terrible frog-like action.”
Thus quoth that famously un-maternal mother of nine, Queen Victoria. And she’s not alone in her detestation of brand-new babies. People who have been exposed only to the clean, plump, lily-white babies on Huggies packets frequently balk at the sight of the vernixy, bloody, squashy-faced purplish creatures newborns are. Back in the day, nurses made sure the unsightly object was washed and camouflaged with ruffles before anyone got to see it. Now that we have Facebook and research on the benefits of vernix, people get to see the real thing — and they’re not impressed. The hideousness of newborns is comedy fodder, greeted with horror by single relatives and disdain by posters on child-free message boards (“cats are SO much cuter!”).
Even when they’re clean and cute, newborns get a bad rap. The late-pregnancy “sleep while you can!” comments imply neonates do nothing but scream, which is hardly fair — many newborns are as sleepy and low-maintenance as they’re going to get for the next few years. And new babies are persistently described as boring. They sleep all the time... they don’t talk... they just lie there. One friend of mine, an otherwise doting aunt, never bothers to visit her nieces until they’re several months old, “when they can interact”!
As it happens, I love newborns. I love the way they cling onto the breast like little forest creatures, looking up with vaguely resentful expressions in their dark eyes. I love the way they’re compact enough to lie lengthwise on your lap, legs furled up, while you fold them into tidy burritos. I love the way their expressions rapidly change from Grandpa to koala to space-alien to drunkard, all within 10 seconds of sleep.
In short, newborns are awesome. Plus, for creatures who absently poke their own fingers into their eyeballs, they have some surprising skills.
At birth, babies have been squished upside-down into uncomfortably tight wombs for several weeks. Then they undergo hours of crushing and pummelling, culminating in a corkscrew-turn head-first descent so tight it squeezes fluid from their lungs. After a sudden, disorienting lesson in Breathing 101, they’re ready for a nap... or, on second thoughts, a bit of a crawl and some push-ups.
Yep. Newborns crawl. Specifically, the breast-crawl; a phenomenon first noted in 1987, but it can be replicated for any mother patient enough to wait.
In a typical breast-crawl, the baby is placed tummy-to-tummy on the mother’s skin immediately after birth. For a while nothing happens. Then the baby’s stepping reflex kicks in, helping propel the baby forward. Slowly, through a combination of “steps” and push-ups, the newborn army-crawls across her mother’s tummy towards the breasts. Her blurry vision detects the contrast of nipple against skin; her olfactory sense picks up the pheremone-like smell secreted by the areolae. Painstakingly, she lurches herself at the nipple — often missing or overshooting the mark, as my daughter repeatedly did until I felt sorry for her and helped out — until she successfully latches on for her first feed.
The concept of a crawling newborn is so bizarre that one would be forgiven for having another baby just to witness it. If you’re slightly less committed to science, search for “breast-crawl” on YouTube. It’s worth it.
Newborns can also swim... sort of. The dive or bradycardic reflex means that a submerged baby will hold her breath and open her eyes. (She’ll also do this if you blow in her face.) The swimming or amphibian reflex means she will kick her arms and legs. I hasten to add, this is a “she might be okay for four seconds if she falls in the pond” trick, not a “throw the baby in the pool and see what happens” trick. Still, it’s impressive.
So much for brawn; newborns also have brains. Specifically, they’re great at language.
The advantage newborns have here is months of practice. In the womb, babies hear a fair bit of speech, albeit distorted by the layers of fat and muscle. Lower pitches are easier to hear in utero than higher ones so vowels, pitched lower than consonants, are what babies mostly hear. The documentary, Life in the Womb,calls it, “The melody of speech without the percussion of consonants” — fluid, rhythmic and musical.
By birth, newborns are attuned enough to the rhythms of their native tongue that they can distinguish between their mother’s language and a foreign language. What’s more, they imitate it. A study of French and German newborns (conducted by Kathleen Wermke, 2009) found that the babies’ cries had different inflections. French babies raised their pitch at the end of each “sentence”, while the German babies cried with a falling inflection. These patterns are consistent with French and German manners of speech.
Amazingly, they can also distinguish between real language and fake “language analogues” — nonsense words — and prefer the former. Of course, “real language” doesn’t preclude baby talk. While it sounds silly to use, baby talk (or “infant-directed speech”) is practised in nearly all cultures and involves exaggerated emotions, emphasised cadence and slower, higher-pitched speech. It’s brilliant training for learning to decipher language, and babies seem to realise it’s better than listening to a rapid-paced monotone.
A European study of 14 newborns (led by István Winkler in 2009) demonstrated that babies even have a sense of rhythm. The researchers played the newborns drum music which established a rhythmic beat and then occasionally messed it up by, say, missing a down beat. Electrodes measuring the babies’ brain activity indicated they noticed when a beat was missing. A small thing perhaps, but chimps and bonobos can’t do it. Beat induction, as it’s called, is uniquely human. It’s theorised that babies might learn about rhythm from their mothers’ heart beat, and predicting beats is a valuable skill for learning language.
They can smile
There’s a tremendous amount of debate on this one. The traditional wisdom is that before four to six weeks, any smile a baby gives is due to wind. This is, for the record, a load of wind. The more up-to-date explanation is that neonatal smiles are reflexive, meaningless facial movements.
Researchers point out that newborns mostly “smile” during sleep, not while interacting with caregivers.
But an Italian study of 40 newborns (conducted at the University of Rome in 2011) takes issue with this claim. The babies were organised into four groups receiving different levels of “tactile communication”, read snuggles. The babies who got the most cuddles produced more smiles both when awake and asleep. Researchers also noticed a difference in the quality of the smiles when awake, suggesting that, “For newborns the smiling behavior during interactive waking could have a social meaning, as it does for two month olds.”
Newborns aren’t famous for their social acuity. They leak too much. But all things considered, they’re quite socially aware.
For instance, babies prefer to look at people who maintain eye contact, rather than those with shifty eyes. Presumably, they sense that a person who won’t look you in the face is up to no good (and/or is uncomfortable around babies and wants to give them back.) Newborns also prefer to look at happy expressions.
Babies also expect interaction. In the well-known Still Face test, a caregiver begins by interacting normally with the baby — smiles, wide eyes, googoo noises — and then abruptly adopts a blank, neutral, Keanu Reeves expression. Invariably the baby gets upset.
Despite having pretty terrible vision, newborns learn to recognise their mother’s face within a few hours of birth, and would rather look at a picture of her than of a stranger. One study showed that babies could even remember the faces of people they’d met only once, providing those people maintained eye contact and interacted with them.
Interestingly, babies also demonstrate a preference for pictures of attractive people. Having had limited exposure to Maybelline and “Who Wore It Best?” in the womb, it’s hard to blame this on The Man. Instead, scientists guess it’s because babies are born expecting faces to look a certain way. Attractive people, in general, look more “average” than average; that is, they look symmetrical and regular-featured. No huge noses, no under-sized chins, no missing teeth.
The idea is that babies respond to attractive people because they match the baby’s mental template of how a face should look (as opposed to “I guess that’s kind of a person, but is it supposed to have ears like that?”).
I’m not sure I buy that explanation, but I did put on make-up before going to see my newborn niece for the first time. (For the record, she still cried at me.)
If this makes newborns seem a tad shallow, fear not. They also have empathy. Studies have shown newborns react with distress to the sound of other newborns crying, as opposed to their own recorded cries (which they recognise) or the cries of older babies. In fact, this empathic reaction even occurs while newborns sleep.
I say again: Newborns are awesome. And if you don’t think so, keep it to yourself — at least around the newborns. We haven’t yet discovered the true extent of their powers.
Sarah Tennant lives on an apple orchard outside Hamilton with her two children, Rowan, five, and Miles, one. Rowan failed the breast-crawl and Miles was a frankly unfortunate-looking newborn, but their mum loves them anyway.