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What it feels like to be a baby

  • Story Highlights
  • Touch is how newborns learn about their world
  • At 2-3 months, babies have vision of roughly 20/125 to 20/120
  • At 6 months, the brain's begins to connect actions with specific feelings
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By Jane Meredith Adams
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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.

At 6 months, a baby begins to truly long for Mom preferring her to all others.

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. Three new-baby surprises

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. Your newborn explained

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.

2 to 3 months: Beginning to engage

He's 2 months old, sitting in a bouncy seat, watching his mother sponge the kitchen counters, enjoying himself. This strange world that he was born into is starting to make more sense. She opens the refrigerator and he turns his head toward the kiss of the door's suction; he's now able to identify what he's hearing and has enough coordination to turn his body toward the sound. She pours herself a glass of orange juice and he notes the color. His vision is now 20/125 to 20/120.

Banging his hands up and down, he lets loose a shriek of joy. Development in his brain's circuitry now allows him to coo and squeak. Yesterday, when his grandmother spoke to him in Chinese, he detected subtle nuances in the sounds far better than his non-Chinese-speaking mother. By 6 months, he will start to ignore the nuances of this language he hears less frequently as he develops his skill for the one he needs to pay attention to most: English.

"What will you wear today?" his mother asks.


Drool drips onto his chin, but he doesn't feel it; his excitement at making sounds overrides the fact that his salivary glands are pumping out more fluid than he knows how to swallow. He doesn't even know that swallowing will prevent the drooling.

"Eeeeeeeee. That sounds good," she says, pulling back her lips.

Watching her, he begins to understand that that's how his lips look when he makes that sound.

"Eeeeeeeee," he repeats, mimicking her face.

When his mother turns on the radio and then answers the phone, he continues to follow her voice. His hearing is sophisticated enough to pluck out his mother's voice from the music on the radio; recognizing his mother's voice is a skill a baby is born with. But if there are too many background noises that are similar in tone, they blur together, making it harder for him to hear the differences. Ten essential baby milestones

To occupy him while she's on the phone, his mother rolls a ball by his bouncy seat. In his first weeks of life, his eyes would occasionally wander, but now they move in tandem more smoothly. His eyes follow the ball until it disappears behind the bookcase. It doesn't come back out. Gone. Out of sight, out of mind.

4 to 5 months: Grab that ring

Lying on the floor beneath his baby gym, he looks up at the yellow plastic ring and for the first time sees the inner surface of the ring's curve. Because his eyes move together now with more consistency, he has new depth perception. Swinging his arm up, he wraps his fingers around the hard plastic. Victory! He shrieks with excitement. All his weeks of practice have strengthened the neural pathways that direct his muscles to grab successfully.

He's also been practicing babbling. Now he's able to repeat many of the vowel sounds he hears when his mom talks to him, as well as mimic the way her mouth moves.

In the afternoon, his mom places him on his stomach on the floor. Pressing his arms into the carpet, he hoists up his head, neck, and trunk in a mini-push-up. In one quick turn, he rolls from his tummy to his back, a complex achievement of muscle and the stirrings of a new desire to move.

6 months: Starting to move

He coos, hoping his mom will look at him. He smiles, hoping to beguile her. She walks by and he cranes his neck to keep her in sight as long as possible. While he long ago "bonded" with her, he's just starting to truly long for her, preferring her above all others. His emotional life has taken a leap. Deep structures in his brain called the limbic system are now better able to connect his actions with specific feelings. He's not cooing for the fun of it, he's cooing because she makes him happy.

She rolls a ball across the room. The game is more interesting to him now that his vision is at least 20/80 to 20/100. The ball disappears behind the bookcase, but now he looks to the other end, confident it will reappear. His brain can retain the visual image of the ball even when it's not in sight, and he understands that it still exists and is still moving. Building a strong baby bond

His mother leaves the room to make a cup of tea and he watches her until he can't see her anymore. As with the ball, he knows that she continues to exist, even though he can't see her. But that's no comfort -- he wants her.

He balls his fists, brings them to his mouth, and cries out in frustration. Blood rushes to his face. He has no understanding of time, doesn't know how long she'll be gone or why she left. All he knows is that she's gone.

He bends his right leg, trying to will his body into crawling, moving toward her. It feels like he could, but he doesn't really know how. He works and works at it. He's not ready yet but will be soon.

She returns, scoops him up, and his cries subside as he squirms with happiness. All is well. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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Copyright 2009 The Parenting Group. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Contributing editor Jane Meredith Adams also writes for Health and the Chicago Tribune.

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