Newborn and Infant Behavior–Demystified

There is a tendency to refer to the first three months of a new infant’s life as the 4th trimester.  A newborn baby takes a significant amount of time to adjust to the vastly different environment she has found herself in.  Rather than being in a cozy, warm tight space where all of her needs were met immediately, she is in a place where she has to voice her needs to get them met.  In addition, the environment around her is changing all the time—temperature, noise level, setting, all of these things are constantly in transition—compared to what she knew in the womb.  Luckily, baby comes prepared to meet these new challenges with some of her inborn patterns of behavior. Parents can help ease her into an awareness of her new world by carefully reading baby’s cues and responding to her in a caring and consistent manner.

The Hopkins Early Childhood Staff recently discussed the newest research about newborn and infant well-being .  This information was available due to a course called Parent Infant Pathways. This course is offered to professionals through the University of Minnesota.  The staff at Hopkins felt like parents of newborns would greatly benefit from understanding more about what infants are capable of, and what family members can do to help their baby flourish.


Newborn babies do a lot of sleeping.  Although it may look like there is just simple sleep happening, by the time baby is born there are actually some pretty well defined patterns going on with sleep.

  • By the time baby is born, she has already established a sleep pattern that is independent of her mother’s sleep routine. Because this pattern was established within the womb, baby’s sleep pattern is not cued by day / night cycles. During the first weeks of life, parents simply follow the schedule of sleep baby has already brought with her. Note that your infant will need between 6-12 feedings throughout a 24 hour period, so she will need to eat every 2-3 hours—whether it is day or night.
  • At three weeks of age a shift occurs in the sleep pattern.  Baby is more likely to stay awake for longer periods of time after feeding. During this awake time she is more curious about the world around her, and looks for more stimulation.  Parents can help baby make the transition from awake to sleep by looking for cues that baby is tiring, and then providing the baby with an opportunity to sleep by moving to a quiet darkened room with less stimulation.

Sleep / Awake Stages for Newborns and Infants

  1. Deep Sleep: Baby is very still and breathing is very regular. Baby’s face is still and there are no eye movements.  It is hard to awaken baby during this stage.
  2. Light Sleep: Baby’s eyes are fluttering under eyelids.  Baby has a little movement in her body. She may smile or make sounds or grimace.  Her breathing pattern is often irregular. A parent’s voice may call her out of sleep.  Highest proportion of sleep for infants is light sleep.
  3. Drowsy: Baby’s body is more active.  Eyes may open and close. Baby may have facial movements. If baby is in a drowsy state, she may fall back asleep. If parent interacts baby may wake up.
  4. Quiet Alert: Baby’s eyes are wide open.  Her face is animated and she has focused attention to parent’s face and voice. This is an ideal time for parent to be social with baby.
  5. Active (alert / fussy): Baby’s eyes are open but not focused on particular object or person. Baby’s body and face is active. She is very reactive to hunger, fatigue, stimulation and noise during this stage. Parent comfort may bring baby back to quiet alert stage. Baby may be in this stage due to hunger or because she is seeking attention and comfort.
  6. Crying: This is the clearest way baby can voice her distress. This means she is unable to cope with some sort of discomfort.  Sucking on thumb or fingers may help to calm baby. Baby can be soothed by comfort from parent.

An infant’s immature nervous system results in difficulty moving from one sleep stage to another.  Baby may make noise, shiver, move arms or legs or cry out when transitioning during sleep. Parents can help baby by listening and watching while baby is making these sleep-time transitions.  Baby will likely move back to sleep and shift to her next stage without help.  However, if baby becomes distressed during this transition, a parent needs to consistently care for the needs of baby.  Rocking, cuddling and providing secure support during these early months helps baby feel comforted during distress.


Infants give signals that they are interested in playing with you.  They also give signals when they need a break.  Being able to read baby’s cues is the first step of parent-child communication


  • Baby’s eyes widen and brighten and focus attention on a parent or object
  • Baby may be able to follow parent’s face if it is moved slowly to one side
  • Baby will respond to sound by turning towards it


  • Baby looks away, looks worried or closes her eyes
  • Parent can shift activity to see if baby becomes interested in something else, or provide baby with a break in interaction


  • Fluctuations in baby’s body color (pale, flushed, or mottled) Breathing becomes irregular, hiccupping possible. Increase in startles (body shivers or tremors)
  • Changes in the way baby holds her body (becomes floppy or stiff or rigid)
  • Parent should provide comforting care and eliminate or lessen the source of stress for baby

A better understanding of baby’s patterns of behavior help all family members provide comfort and communicate more effectively with the delightful, enigmatic little person who has joined your world.

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