The frustrating Fourth Trimester

Susan Brink, a journalist and grandmother of six, has authored a new book called The Fourth Trimester: Understanding, Protecting, and Nurturing an Infant Through the First Three Months. After hearing about her research, I asked her, “What is the deal with newborns? Why are they so fussy and floppy? And how is it possible to love someone who has never even smiled at you?”

Though she dodged my question, what she said was pretty interesting:

Yes, you were expecting a wide-eyed, chubby cheeked baby, and instead you have been presented with a toothless and wrinkled newborn that looks more like your great-grandparent than the little cherub you imagined for nine long months. With all due respect to newborns, science tells us they arrive somewhat half-baked. The first three months of life is a time of transition from the womb to the world, a fourth trimester of development.

Here are some surprising facts about newborn life that may help you to understand why this not-quite-ready-for-prime-time infant can be so difficult.

  1. About 75% of brain development takes place after birth. Newborn humans are the least neurologically developed animals on earth, arriving with 25% of their brains developed, compared to, say, apes, who arrive with half their brains developed.
  2. Some 100 billion neurons, or brain cells, are formed in the baby’s brain during pregnancy, but it’s only after birth that the brain connections, or synapses, begin to form. The infant brains begin the work of pruning away the brain cells not needed and establishing connections among those that will be needed. So when you coo, cuddle and comfort a baby, the brain connections responding to loving behavior will endure. Abusive behavior, like screaming, neglecting or striking a baby, cause brain connections that respond to stress to take hold. The brain pathways that are repeatedly used, even as early as the fourth trimester, are protected.
  3. Every interaction you have with your newborn helps to build those brain connections. Smiling, cooing, feeding, singing, soothing are quite literally helping to form the person your baby will be.
  4. Adult brains are hard-wired to be attracted to the very traits that infants possess: waiflike eyes, chubby cheeks, rosy mouths. Looking at those characteristics, scientists have found, trigger activity in the reward centers of our brains and result in a nurturing response. Those hard-wired reactions are strong and deep enough to help us overcome non-stop wailing and our own sleep deprivation and provide the care the infant needs.

“Hang in there,” writes Susan. “Your baby is well equipped to develop with your loving attention. Soon enough, you’ll be rewarded with the first smile””a smile that shows you that love is flowing in both directions.”

Thank you Susan. To find out more about Susan’s research, find her book on Amazon.

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