OK -- I admit it. When each one of my three babies was born, I jokingly called them "little blobs." After all, they didn't do much. (Unless you count eating, pooping and sleeping 20 hours a day.) What I didn't realize then was that my little blobs were busy absorbing sights, sounds and more through their five senses -- and learning at a furious rate. "Every little bit of a newborn baby is like a sponge," says Natalie Robinson Garfield, author of "The Sense Connection" and a specialist in infant and toddler development. "The baby connects to you through each one of the senses as they try to figure out how the world works. And you, the parents, are their guides."
Some senses (such as smell and taste) are at their most powerful at birth, and hearing fully matures at 1 month, while sight develops gradually over the first year. We asked the experts to explain how each one works -- and how parents can lend a helping hand as baby adjusts to life outside the womb.
Believe it or not, the sense of smell is one of the earliest to emerge in the fetus, says Alan Greene, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of Raising Baby Green. "By the end of the first trimester baby can smell foods that Mom is eating," he says. "It's the predominant sense, very early on, because smells cross the amniotic fluid." And by the end of the first week of life, an infant's nose is so finely tuned that he can tell the difference between the scent of his mother's breast milk and that of another mom, Greene adds. "Newborns orient themselves by smell more than any other sense," he says. "A baby placed on Mom's belly right after birth will work his way up to the breast for the first nursing, navigating by sense of smell."
How to help: You can use your baby's super-tuned sense of smell to help soothe him, says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., an infant and toddler psychologist at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City. "Many parents swear by a nightgown or other piece of clothing that smells like Mom," she says. "Pleasant odors like lavender can also be very soothing."
Did you know? Unborn babies are clearly aware of bad smells early on, says Greene -- a baby in the womb will actually cringe when she smells cigarette smoke.
Hug Me, Kiss Me, Love Me
It seems counterintuitive, but the sense of touch is also important to babies before they're born. "It's the primary way they explore their world in utero," says Greene. "Babies push and pull, touch their own faces and explore the lining of the womb." During the first few months of life, babies rely on grown-ups for tactile stimulation and comfort, he adds. "Early on, it's very passive on their part, because they can't move too much." By four months, that changes; your baby can reach out and begin actively touching whatever's nearby -- blankets, toys, your face.
How to help: Babies' skin is ultra-sensitive, says Garfield, so use a gentle touch when handling a newborn or massaging an older baby. "Imagine that your baby's skin starts five inches from where it really does," she says. "They can actually feel the vibrations from your body before you touch them." Skin-to-skin contact feels especially comforting to your baby, particularly if you lay her on your chest; such "kangaroo care" can actually help regulate their breathing and body temperature. Wearing your baby in a soft carrier, where she is in an upright position and her face is not covered by any fabric, is a great way to support her and keep her close all day -- the swaying, rocking and other rhythmic motions help her feel secure. When you put her down, a tight swaddle recreates the snug feeling of the womb and may help babies settle into sleep.
Did you know? At about eight months, a baby can touch and identify a familiar object without seeing it, says Greene. "They explore with their hands and create a mental image of the object -- a block or pacifier, for instance. Their tactile sense actually creates an understanding of what the object is."