HABITUATION EX­PLAINED

Learn what life is like for your baby out­side the womb so you can help her adapt. By Sis­ter Burgie Ire­land

Living and Loving - - CONTENTS -

Have you ever won­dered what makes ba­bies so in­cred­i­bly re­silient and de­ter­mined to sur­vive – even when the odds are against them? From the mo­ment of birth, your new­born needs to sud­denly breathe on her own in a world that’s so dif­fer­ent to the womb where she was snug and warm and didn’t have to breath, eat or even poop.

Your baby has no con­trol over the en­vi­ron­ment she is born into, but her main ob­jec­tive is to sur­vive. First on her check­list is breath­ing, which she man­ages to do quite well with a loud, ro­bust cry in re­sponse to noise, lights and cold air on her warm and wet body in the de­liv­ery room. This state of panic shouldn’t last too long, be­cause it puts pres­sure on her tiny heart, which may be pump­ing at the rate of 120 beats per minute. As soon as she is re­united with you, skin-to-skin be­tween your breasts where she can lis­ten to your heart­beat, savour your unique smell and hear your voice clearly for the first time, she calms down and ad­justs to life out­side the womb. Your baby has just had her first les­son on habituation and ori­en­ta­tion.

Habituation

Dur­ing the first three days of life, ba­bies go through what Amer­i­can pae­di­a­tri­cian and au­thor Dr Brazel­ton called be­havioural dis­or­gan­i­sa­tion. This means ba­bies have to ori­en­tate them­selves to the new, hap­haz­ard en­vi­ron­ment that’s alien to the cosy com­fort zone of the womb.

Your baby quickly learns to self-soothe. To do that, she needs to learn to block out un­nec­es­sary stim­u­la­tion and fo­cus on sleep.

This is called habituation. “Ba­bies have to work very hard to stay asleep,” was one of Dr Brazel­ton’s favourite ex­pres­sions. Through­out the day and night, your baby goes in and out of sleep-awake cy­cles de­spite con­stant in­ter­rup­tions. By the third day, she has be­gun to mas­ter the skill of ig­nor­ing lights, sounds and other an­noy­ing dis­tur­bances by self-sooth­ing. If you watch your new­born care­fully, you’ll no­tice how she qui­etly whim­pers, twitches her face and ap­pears to smile, yawns or slowly moves her arms and legs. Then she set­tles back to sleep again.

In­ex­pe­ri­enced moms can make the mis­take of think­ing her baby is wak­ing up and not re­alise she is self­sooth­ing – es­pe­cially if she makes suck­ing move­ments. Pick­ing your baby up and try­ing to feed or rock her back to sleep will only an­noy her and

un­der­mine her self-sooth­ing in­stincts. If it’s not time for a feed and your baby is dis­turbed, gen­tly re­as­sure her with a calm, gen­tle voice, and she will soon go back to sleep in her crib.

Sud­den loud noises and abrupt jolt­ing dis­turb the rhythm your baby is try­ing to ad­just to and throw her into a state of alert shock or stress. Cry­ing in­creases the heart rate and breath­ing, and be­cause a cry­ing baby takes longer to in­hale, oxy­gen lev­els in her blood can de­crease.

The dis­traught baby may gag, tremor or twitch. Luck­ily, ba­bies with­out com­pli­ca­tions quickly re­cover and set­tle down to the sound of a com­fort­ing, con­sol­ing, mo­not­o­nous voice or gen­tle sway­ing.

This type of stress on a pre­ma­ture baby (whose cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem is not ready to deal with over­stim­u­la­tion), or a baby with com­pro­mised breath­ing, birth in­juries or de­vel­op­men­tal anom­alies, can be very dis­tress­ing, and it will take longer for them to re­cover.

Ori­en­ta­tion

This in­volves your baby learn­ing through smell, sound, sight, taste and touch. Called sen­sory stim­u­la­tion, ori­en­ta­tion is an es­sen­tial learn­ing skill your baby will need for life. Ori­en­ta­tion es­tab­lishes mother or carer bond­ing with the baby, which hap­pens dur­ing feed­ing, bathing, swad­dling and other in­ter­ac­tions. Dur­ing this time, your baby fo­cuses on your face, lis­tens to your voice, en­joys your com­fort­ing touch and the taste of your warm, sweet milk.

Your baby is also learn­ing so­cial skills. In other words, she re­sponds to cud­dling, smil­ing and play­ing. By watch­ing your baby care­fully and learn­ing to in­ter­pret her body lan­guage, you can an­tic­i­pate your baby’s tem­per­a­ment – does she en­joy be­ing held and cud­dled, or does she stiffen and turn away?

When to worry

Ba­bies who don’t learn to ha­bit­u­ate and ori­en­tate may well have an un­di­ag­nosed, un­der­ly­ing prob­lem. We know to­day that the sooner a prob­lem is recog­nised and treated, the bet­ter the out­come. Ig­nor­ing sub­tle symp­toms won’t make them go away. Ba­bies who con­tinue to be dis­turbed by nor­mal house­hold noises and those who don’t re­spond to sen­sory stim­u­la­tion should be seen by a pae­di­a­tri­cian.

Moth­ers al­ways know best.

Your in­stincts tell you when there is some­thing wrong. If a doc­tor plays-down your con­cern, you should get an­other opin­ion and per­se­vere un­til some­one is pre­pared to take you se­ri­ously.

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