What It Feels Like to Be a Baby
As she picks him up, he's flooded with her scent and a dim memory of his other world -- the place where his body floated and he first recognized the scent that's hers alone. But now, two weeks after birth, he's in a vast, dry place called home. She brings him close to nurse and he roots with his mouth, guided in part by the smell of colostrum and the smell from the scent glands on her nipples. Her scent links him to everything he craves: food, warmth, touch. He latches on and the sweetness of the liquid is vaguely reminiscent of the smell and taste of amniotic fluid -- both are affected by his mother's diet. Already, sweet is his favorite taste.
After nursing, he presses his tongue in and out of his lips, inadvertently learning about the shape of his mouth and the coolness of the air. Touch is how he learns about the world, and it is one of his most well-developed senses, far more sensitive than his vision. But being touched is just as important -- when his mother holds him in her arms, she is stimulating the production of his growth and digestive hormones.
As she snuggles with him, his mother instinctively raises the pitch of her voice and says "Hell-o," then lowers her pitch to say "my ba-by boy." This is just one clue of many that will eventually teach him that strings of sounds are made up of individual words, that "hello" is not part of "my." Now, the words come to him like music.
His eyelids flutter drowsily. Lowering him onto a blanket, she swaddles his arms against his chest, the way he rested in the womb. He hears a made-up tune she first sang to him in utero: "You're my baby, my baby, my baby baby boy." He opens his eyes for a moment, recognizing the sounds. He'll never consciously recall it, but it's a sensory memory that stays with him. His eyelids flutter again and he's asleep. His brain is not yet capable of organizing and making sense of all the things he sees, hears, feels, and does, and won't keep the details of this day in long-term storage. The morning drifts away in what's known as infantile amnesia.
Something wet and warm presses against his skin, activating nerves that send a signal to his brain that, at first, he ignores as he sleeps -- not unusual because when babies are in a deep phase of sleep all sensory stimulation is muffled. The message that his diaper is wet continues for 20 minutes until he moves into a lighter phase of sleep. Now the message penetrates and he experiences the wet diaper for the soggy irritant it is.
He cries a high-pitched call for help. As he cries, cortisol, known as the stress hormone, and other hormones, like adrenaline, spread through his body, slightly increasing his temperature and heart rate. His mother lifts him from his crib and encircles him in her warm, familiar arms, and his cries immediately lessen.
As she changes his diaper, he's calmed, but only briefly. Now the muscles of his stomach contract in a pang of hunger and he starts to cry again. Once more he nurses, until his belly is full.
From his mother's arms, he looks at the bright red of a nearby lamp shade. His color vision is weak, and only rich, bold colors like this one register. Also interesting to him is the sharp contrast of black and white in the mobile to the side of his crib. As his mother taps the mobile, the shapes begin to move and he studies them. He hasn't yet learned to focus, so objects are still blurry. And he doesn't have depth perception, so the black-and-white cubes look flat.
She holds him in front of her and he looks in her direction, but not squarely into her eyes. With vision of roughly 20/300 -- about 15 times worse than normal adult vision -- he sees her as though looking through the thick, curvy glass of a vintage Coke bottle. Even up close, she's slightly blurry: His eye muscles aren't able to provide consistent focus. Intuitively, she holds him about a foot away, where his vision is clearest. Even then, what he sees in the blur are movement and contrast, the way her mouth moves to say "Hello" and the way her teeth flash from between her darker lips.
Perhaps it's for the best that he has limited vision. Perhaps it keeps him from being overwhelmed by seeing every detail of faces, hands,
tables, and lamps for the very first time. His eyesight seems to provide just the right amount of stimulation for his developing visual cortex, which takes the images he sees and tries to make sense of them. In the meantime, he is able to see (fairly well) what's most important in his world: his parents' faces, his mother's nipple.
Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams also writes for Health and the Chicago Tribune.