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How Do Newborns Learn?

Play is the chief way that infants learn how to move, communicate, socialize, and understand their surroundings. And during the first month of life, your baby will learn by interacting with you.

The first thing your baby will learn is to associate the feel of your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face with getting his or her needs for comfort and food met. You can encourage your newborn to learn by stimulating your newborn's senses in positive ways — with smiles, smoothing sounds, and gentle caresses.

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Even at this young age, newborns are ready to learn about the world around them. A newborn loves to look at faces, especially mom's. Likewise, in the first days and weeks of life, newborns can recognize their mother's voice. Your infant will respond to your voice (or other interesting sounds) by looking alert and becoming less active. The baby may try to find out where the sound is coming from by looking around and turning his or her head.

When you smile and talk to your infant, your face and the sound of your voice will become a familiar source of calm and comfort, and your little one will learn to associate you with getting nourishment, warmth, and soothing touch.

The "Rooting Reflex"

Babies are born with reflexes or programmed responses to certain stimuli, such as touch. These reflexes help ensure survival. But they also provide an opportunity for a baby to interact with the world. For example, the rooting reflex is elicited by gently stroking a newborn's cheek. The infant's response is to turn head and mouth to that side, ready to eat.

By the time they're 3 weeks old, babies will turn toward the breast or bottle not just out of a reflex, but because they've learned that it's a source of food.

Asleep, Active, or Alert?

During the first month of life, your newborn will spend much of the day sleeping or seeming drowsy. Over the next several weeks to months, your baby will mature and be awake or alert for longer periods of time.

It's important to recognize when your baby is alert and ready to learn and play and when your little one would rather be left alone:

  • A baby who is quiet and alert will be attentive and responsive and interested in surroundings.
  • A baby who is awake but active (squirming, flapping arms, or kicking legs) or fussing will be less able to focus on you. The baby may seem agitated or start to cry when you try to get his or her attention. These are signs that your baby may be getting overstimulated.

Over the coming weeks and months, you'll learn to recognize when your infant is ready to learn or overstimulated.

Encouraging Your Newborn to Learn

As you care for your newborn, he or she is learning to recognize your touch, the sound of your voice, and the sight of your face.

In the first few weeks you may want to introduce some simple, age-appropriate toys that appeal to the senses of sight, hearing, and touch, such as:

  • rattles
  • textured toys
  • musical toys
  • unbreakable crib mirrors

Try toys and mobiles with contrasting colors and patterns. Strong contrasts (such as red, white, and black), curves, and symmetry stimulate an infant's developing vision. As vision improves and babies gain more control over their movements, they'll interact more and more with their environment.

Some Other Ideas

Here are some other ideas for encouraging your newborn to learn and play:

  • Put on soothing music and hold your baby, gently swaying to the tune.
  • Pick a soothing song or lullaby and softly sing it often to your baby. The familiarity of the sound and words will have a soothing effect, particularly during fussy times.
  • Smile, stick out your tongue, and make other expressions for your infant to study, learn, and imitate.
  • Use a favorite toy for your newborn to focus on and follow, or shake a rattle for your infant to find.
  • Let your baby spend some awake time on his or her tummy to help strengthen the neck and shoulders. Always supervise your infant during "tummy time" and be ready to help if he or she gets tired or frustrated in this position. Never put an infant to sleep on his or her stomach — babies should sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
  • Talk to your baby.

Keep in mind that babies develop at different rates, and there is a wide range of normal development. If you have any concerns about your newborn's ability to see or hear, or your baby doesn't seem to be developing well in other ways, talk with your doctor.

Movement and coordination

Babies are born with certain reflexes. They respond naturally to stimuli like light or touch in certain ways — if you put your finger in your newborn's hand, for example, the baby probably will automatically take hold of it. If you lightly touch around the baby's mouth, he or she will likely make a sucking motion.

A Newborn's Reflexes

Babies usually display rooting, sucking, startle, grasp, and tonic neck reflexes soon after birth. These movements are a normal part of their development, and they gradually disappear as babies mature, usually by the time they are 3 to 6 months old.

The rooting and sucking reflexes help a a newborn get nourishment. Rooting prompts an infant to automatically turn in the direction of a food source, whether that's a breast or a bottle. You may be able to evoke this response if you gently stroke your newborn's cheek near the mouth with your hand. Your infant will turn in that direction, mouth open, ready to suck. When an object, such as a breast or a bottle nipple, is placed in the baby's mouth, the baby will reflexively begin to suck.

A baby is also born with a startle response called the Moro reflex. An infant who is startled (for example, by a loud noise) or abruptly moved may respond by throwing out his or her arms and legs and curling them in again.

Your baby also may show a grasp reflex by taking hold of your finger when you place it in his or her palm. If you touch the sole of your newborn's foot, it will flex and the toes will curl.

A baby will also likely show the tonic neck reflex, or fencer's pose. This is when a newborn's head is turned to one side and the infant automatically straightens the arm on that side of the body while bending the opposite arm.

Encouraging Your Baby's Movements

As your baby grows and gains more control over movements, these reflexes will become less noticeable, less jerky, and more purposeful.

Give your infant enough space to stretch and move the arms and legs, as these movements can help strengthen and tone muscles.

It's also important to give your newborn a chance to turn and lift the head. When you do this, make sure to support the head and neck while holding your baby.

Also, never leave your little one unattended, especially on high surfaces such as a changing table or bed. Even newborns can unexpectedly roll or scoot over to the edge.

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Your baby's doctor will check these reflexes as part of your baby's routine physical examinations, making sure they're present and the same on both sides, and taking note of when they disappear.

Be sure to discuss any concerns about your baby's movements with your doctor.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: January 2015

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