Healthy living

Child development 0–3 months

Coming into the world is a very big and scary adventure for babies. At first they don’t know that you are there to comfort, feed and care for them. They can feel comfortable or uncomfortable, but they don't know that this is because they are full, safe, afraid, or hungry. 

They quickly learn to recognise the voice and smell (possibly breast milk) of the person who feeds them and holds them most often but they do not know this is their mother.

However, even from birth, they start to communicate with you and give you little signals when they are tired or hungry or awake and alert. They are learning all the time, and the job of parents is to help them to know that the world is a welcoming place for them to be in, where their needs will be met and they will learn to feel safe and loved.

Remember that for a new baby everything is new and scary at first, even a nappy change.

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

Social and emotional development

  • Your newborn baby cannot understand what is happening to her.
  • She does not know she is a person.
  • She does not know who helps when she cries.
  • She may feel happy when she feeds, but she does not know what 'happy' is.
  • She cries when she is hungry or needs to sleep, but does not know that she is being cared for.

The first and perhaps most important thing to understand about your newborn baby is that she does not have any understanding of being a separate person inside her own skin, and certainly not a person in relationship with other people.

Newborn babies do not cry ‘for attention’ or to ‘get at’ their parents

A new baby in the first 3 months cannot decide to cry. Your newborn baby cries because of something that is happening inside him. He doesn't understand what is happening and he doesn't understand that you might be able to help him feel better.

He likes the feelings he has when he feeds successfully or hears your soothing voice or is cuddled, and he doens't like feeling hungry or frightened – but he doesn't actually know that the feeling is caused by a full tummy or hunger.

Because babies feel but are not yet able to think, he will pick up your feelings and will be calm when you are calm, and unhappy if you are unhappy.

If you feel upset it will be impossible to hide it from your baby – he will think it’s his feeling and respond as if it was! So when you are tired and frazzled, he might be hard to settle.

Each baby is different, and each grows and develops in the way that is right for this baby

Every baby is very different. You have heard that before but it is really true. Each baby has a different personality. They may be easygoing and placid, or shy and worried, or easily upset, and you will get to know this over the early months.

The human face is the first and most important shape your baby learns

Your baby is interested in you – especially in your voice and your face. Looking into someone's eyes is a necessity for 'falling in love' and forming a close and warm relationship. Show her your face and talk to her soothingly right from the start. Don't feel rejected if she sometimes turns away; tiny babies often get tired when they interact and need a rest.

The sounds of human voices are also very important to her, even though she does not understand them.

Babies need to feel safe, that someone is looking after them

He often begins to smile at a familiar face by around 4 to 6 weeks, and will look at you carefully from around the same time.

Physical development

  • Although your baby is ready to exist and grow outside of her mother's womb, most parts of her body are still immature.
  • All new babies are very busy with their body. All brand new and never been used before – it takes the first 3 months to get her digestive system cranked up and running smoothly. You can tell by her face that she is preoccupied a lot of the time with whatever is going on inside herself.
  • Since she does not understand anything about what is happening around her, she can become upset if she is given too much to see or do.
  • She can easily feel overwhelmed by sounds, colours, shapes and touch in the world outside the womb. Sometimes it's just too much! Loud noises will frighten most babies in their first months but your baby can be soothed by crooning and the sound of gentle voices and sometimes even music she heard before she was born.

Crying

  • Many babies under 3 months old cry a lot, especially in the late afternoon or evening. This crying, often called colic, seems in part due to being overwhelmed by all that is happening inside their body as well as outside (their environment).

Note: ‘Jiggling’ your baby is not a good way to help him settle and can be very scary or even painful for your baby, even if he stops crying.

It is important to never shake a baby.

Hearing and seeing

  • Your newborn baby can hear, and he has been hearing noises from well before he was born.
  • Your newborn baby has immature eye muscles, and while he can see, he can only clearly see things that are close by.
  • Your newborn baby does not understand what he sees. In the first 3 months he is attracted by faces, bright light, primary colours, stripes, dots and patterns.
  • The human face is the first 'object' he recognises by learning that the shapes of eyes, nose and mouth form a face. Over the first 3 months he begins to recognise particular faces and other things (like his teddy bear) in their world. Hanging pictures of faces and simple toys above his cot will give him practice at looking and learning.
  • Your baby moves his body while he is awake, but he does not yet know how to make each part of his body move, or even that all the bits belong to him.

Using their bodies

  • New babies move their bodies while they are awake, but they do not yet know how to make each part of their body move, or even that all the bits belong to them.
  • Infants in the first 8 weeks have no control over their movements and all their physical activity is involuntary or reflex. Sucking, grasping (holding something tight in their hand), and startling (jumping when there is a loud noise or they are suddenly moved) are all reflexes.
  • In their third month they will begin to watch their hands and feet wave in the air and also begin to wave their fist towards your face or some other desired object. They are beginning to get the idea that they have a body that moves, feels, has skin all round it and that they have some influence over what it does!
  • They start to work out how to lift their heads when lying on the tummy, and kick their legs by about 8 weeks.

Speech and language

  • Your baby shows how she feels by what her face, voice and body does.
  • For your newborn baby, crying is the main way she has to let you know something is wrong, and soon she may start having different cries for different things – hunger pain, wet, cold, fear and loneliness.
  • You will begin to recognise these different cries in the first few weeks. She has no understanding about time so all their needs are immediate and urgent.
  • It is important to respond to your tiny baby as quickly as you can so she begins to understand that you will be there for her when she calls out for you. This develops the feeling of security, which is very important.
  • By 7 or 8 weeks your baby will begin to discover her voice and make cooing noises and vowel sounds.
  • Even by about 8 weeks she will listen to what you say, then make noises back as they ‘talk’ to you.

Activities for young babies

  • Make a face mobile and hang it, facing him, above his cot.
  • Stroke different parts of his body to see how he likes to be touched.
  • Speak to him gently and use his name.
  • Play him music.
  • Sing to him.
  • Hold him a lot.
  • Let him look at your face as you talk to him.
  • Copy his little gestures.
  • Rock him gently.
  • Lots of feeding and hopefully sleeping.

Sleep

Most babies will still need to be waking for a feed once or twice during the night. Some sleep through the night, but this is unusual.

Some babies will resettle when you touch and soothe them, but mostly young babies need the feed.

Summary

Social emotional

During these months your baby:

  • watches parent’s face when being talked to, at around 6 weeks (range 4 to 8 weeks)
  • smiles by 5 to 7 weeks
  • is gurgling and laughing aloud (around 3 months).

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if:

  • you feel unable to meet your baby's needs most of the time
  • you see your baby in a negative way (as difficult), or are disappointed with your child
  • you do not feel able to respond to the baby
  • your baby does not usually calm at least momentarily most of the time when picked up
  • your baby has a high pitched cry
  • your baby has no social smile by 8 weeks.

Motor skills, vision and hearing

During these months your baby:

  • freely moves her arms, fingers and legs
  • turns to same side to suckle (from birth) when her cheek is touched
  • follows a moving light with her eyes for a couple of seconds by 1 month
  • lifts her head when prone (on tummy), average 6 weeks (4 to 8 weeks)
  • has eyes that are lined up most of the time by 6 weeks
  • kicks her legs vigorously by 2 months
  • watches a moving face by 2 to 3 months.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your baby:

  • is unusually 'floppy' or stiff
  • has an arm and leg on one side stiffer, floppier, stronger or weaker than on the other
  • is moving one side more than the other 
  • has unusually 'good' head control (neck and back muscles stiff)
  • always holds his fingers in tight fist
  • is not watching faces by 2 to 3 months
  • is not startled by noise
  • is not chuckling and smiling at 3 months.

Daily activities

During these months your baby:

  • usually feeds well after a couple of weeks
  • often has no clear day and night pattern of wakeful and sleep times.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your baby:

  • is still having difficulties with feeding after a couple of weeks
  • is crying for long times each day
  • is hard to settle
  • seems quite different to other babies (too tense, too calm).

Speech and language

During these months your baby:

  • is startled by loud sounds by 1 month
  • begins listening to voices and making sounds when talked to by 7 to 8 weeks
  • makes sounds other than crying by 2 months.

Talk with your doctor or child health nurse if your baby:

  • is not watching your face when being spoken to by 2 to 3 months
  • seems not to react to sounds.

Children are different and may develop at different rates

If your child does not do all the things in this topic, it may be because your child is working on some different area of his learning and development at present.

However, children usually follow the same pattern of development, and it is good to have reassurance that your child is developing normally in their own unique way. If your child is very different from other children, if you are worried about your child's development or if it seems to go backwards, you should talk with a health professional about your concerns.  If there is a problem, getting help and ideas early will help.

Remember that what matters is to support them on moving forward from where they are now.

This information should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular concern, you should talk to a health professional.

More information

Local community, school or child health nurse

  • See inside your baby's purple All About Me book.
  • Look in the phone directory under child health centres.
  • Visit your nearest child health centre.

Local family doctor

Ngala Helpline

  • 8.00am – 8.00pm 7 days a week
  • Phone: 9368 9368
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 111 546 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Ngala website (external site)

Raising Children Network

Kidsafe WA

  • 8.30am – 5.00pm (Monday to Friday)
  • Phone: 9340 8509
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 802 244 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Kidsafe WA website (external site)

Red Nose

  • 9.00am – 5.00pm (Monday to Friday)
  • Phone: 9474 3544
  • Outside metro area – Free call 1800 199 466 (free from land line only)
  • Visit the Red Nose (external site)

© Women’s and Children’s Health Network, reproduced with permission. The South Australian Government does not accept responsibility for the accuracy of this reproduction.


Acknowledgements
Child and Adolescent Community Health

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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