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Knowing the newborn

In this article, Dr. Elizabeth Forster highlights the dramatic nature of birth and introduces the importance of parental bonding with the newborn.
A photograph of a heavily pregnant mother shows the image of her unborn child in the womb.
© Shutterstock

To understand the newborn, we need to consider the experience in the womb and their sometimes dramatic entry into the world.

Surrounded by amniotic fluid and cushioned against the external environment, the baby has grown in a protected and temperature controlled environment. Did you know the fetus can hear as early as 16 weeks? Cradled in the womb, the mother’s voice and her bodily sounds can be heard. Vision also develops before birth. The fetus has been shown to react to lights flashed onto the mother’s abdomen (Chamberlain, 2014). Even prior to birth, we now know babies are sensitive, aware, social and communicative; possessing the ability to learn and dream (Chamberlain, 2014).

From the womb to the world

Childbirth is not always a smooth and natural process for mother and baby. Fetal distress, health problems and birthing complications may necessitate interventions to assist with safe delivery. For example, Cesarean delivery and the use of forceps or vacuum extraction may be required. Such interventions may result in injury and trauma to the newborn and can be highly distressing for both mother and baby.

Can you imagine what the newborn baby must experience, moving from their warm and protected environment in the womb, to a brand new world? Suddenly, they are separated from their mother, unable to maintain their own temperature and subjected to external light and noises. A variety of cardiovascular and respiratory changes are also occurring for the newborn at birth. For example, changes to circulation and the shift to breathing independently. The baby is no longer reliant upon the mother for these important functions.

Let’s remember in the immediate period following birth, the newborn is also exposed to other potentially distressing experiences – such as being weighed and having an injection of Vitamin K (commonly given to all newborns).

The benefits of skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth

One of the ways to reduce the distress of birth is through skin to skin contact with the mother. This also assists with the newborn’s ability to maintain a healthy body temperature (known as ‘thermoregulation’) as well as supporting stable cardiac and respiratory function (Association for Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN), 2016).

Even skin to skin contact with fathers has been shown to reduce the baby’s crying and promote calmness (AWHONN, 2016). Assuming the newborn is physically stable, skin to skin contact should occur without interruptions for at least the first hour following birth. It’s also recommended this contact be continued for the first 2-3 hours of life, again if both mother and baby are in a medically stable position to do so (AWHONN, 2016).

Your task

Chamberlain (2014, p. 253) suggests newborns are ‘fully sentient (able to feel things), gifted communicators, keenly alert and capable of surprising feats of learning and memory’.

What are your thoughts? If you have worked with newborns, have you noticed signs of these wonderful abilities? If you are a parent, think back to your own baby’s birth and recall your first interactions.

Select the comments link below and post your response.


Association for women’s health, obstetric and neonatal nurses. (2016). Immediate and Sustained Skin-to-Skin Contact for the Healthy Term Newborn After Birth. AWHONN Practice Brief Number 5, Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing, 45 (6), 842-844.

Chamberlain, D.B. (2014). The sentient prenate: What every parent should know. Journal of Prenatal & Perinatal Psychology & Health, 28(4), 253-274.

© Griffith University
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