Skip to content

Newborn baby behaviour, what to expect

Of all of the species, human newborns are amongst the most vulnerable. Much of their behaviour is driven by impulses which are centred around their survival needs. Staying warm and close to the people who are best placed to ensure these needs are met is one of the reasons why newborns behave as they do.

Much of a newborn baby’s behaviour is based around building a close emotional attachment, communicating their needs and exploring the world around them.

It’s all about the relationship!

Babies develop milestones in a head-to-toe direction and it’s no accident of nature that some of their first developmental stages are to establish eye contact and smile. Until babies are around six weeks of age, it can be hard for parents to feel as if they’re getting anything back from their baby and as if all the communication is a one-way street. But slowly smiles begin to form, the baby starts to make vocal sounds and coo and their cues or signals become more defined.

Typical newborn behaviour

  • Crying – this can be due to hunger, tiredness, a need for closeness, perhaps a tummy (or other) pain, or for a whole range of reasons.
  • Grunting, stretching and making little noises. Newborn babies can be surprisingly loud, even when they’re sleeping. They can also pass a lot of loud wind through their bottom.
  • Flinging arms out in a ‘startle reflex’. Wrapping or swaddling newborns help to contain their startle reflex and often helps them to soothe.
  • Other reflexes such as the ‘rooting reflex’ and ‘sucking reflex’ – where they search for the nipple, attach and then suck. They also have a ‘stepping reflex’ where they will take little steps if they’re supported in a standing position.
  • Feeding frequently – it’s unfair to expect a newborn baby to follow a predictable feeding pattern. At least for the first six weeks of life, babies need to feed frequently for comfort as much as nutrition. If you’re breastfeeding, expect your baby to demand to be fed as frequently as 2-3 hourly, perhaps more if they’re unsettled.
  • Lots of weeing and pooing – newborns need to have at least 6 – 8 nappy changes/24 hours, generally more. Their gut is still adjusting to feeding, digesting and eliminating and their bladder and bowel cannot hold much volume. You’ll become very used to changing their nappies even if, at first, this was a new thing for you.
  • Trying out their new skills, including lifting their little head. It will help to offer your baby (supervised) tummy time each day when they’re awake – this will help them to build upper body strength. Rather than one long session/day, give them some practice opportunities on the floor on a mat between their feeds.
  • Unpredictable behaviour with their sleep. Newborns can sleep for a couple of hours at a time or be awake for hours. However, they generally sleep in short periods of 2-3 hours between each feed time. Some newborns sleep for a little longer.

Top 5 tips to manage newborn baby behaviour

  1. Understand your baby’s crying is the main way they’ll communicate with you. As they get older, they’ll learn other ways to let you know more clearly what they need.
  2. It’s very important to look after you. Ask for help and accept all reasonable offers of support. If you’re not coping or neglecting yourself, your baby won’t get what they need.
  3. Expect your baby to be crying, fussy and unsettled for an average of three hours each day. As long as your baby is healthy and thriving and feeding well, it’s reasonable to assume their behaviour is normal. If, however, you’re worried about your baby, always have them checked by a healthcare professional.
  4. It can help to use a sling or baby carrier to keep a newborn close, though always check the TICKS checklist for sling/carrier safety. Many babies also respond well to being bathed, having a massage, going for a walk in the pram or just being held and rocked gently.
  5. Swaddle your baby in a cotton or muslin wrap. Avoid overdressing them under the wrap, especially if the weather is hot. As your baby learns to roll from around 3 months, loosen the wrap and consider using a safe infant sleeping bag.

Written for Multi-Mam by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, May 2022.