The importance of meeting your newborn’s sensory needs

Did you know that babies have another innate hunger, in addition to their biological need for milk? It’s the hunger for sensory stimulation. Although not directly life-threatening if this need isn’t met, it’s still vital for development, and babies will cry and complain when they’re hungry for a healthy sensory diet, according to Dr Pamela Douglas (author of The Discontented Little Baby Book, and founder of Possums & Co).

Sensory play builds connections in the brain’s pathways, and helps to establish and develop regulation.

As parents, we’re often told not to overstimulate a baby in the early months because it will lead to fussiness and sleep issues. For unsettled babies, the common (and mostly unhelpful) advice is for parents to keep their baby at home, and to focus on sleep and routine.

However, this lack of sensory input usually results in a grumpy baby, which can make life challenging for parents. Being stuck within the same four walls with an unhappy bub is no fun for anyone!

How much sensory stimulation does your baby need?

You don’t actually have to worry about understimulating or overstimulating your baby if you’re following their lead. Observe your baby, and you will start to recognise their cues for tiredness, hunger, when they need a break, and when they’re ready to engage. Read more about how to recognise and respond to newborn cues.

Your baby will regulate the amount of stimulation they need, which will vary every day, so feel free to experiment, and see what they enjoy.

What types of sensory stimulation does your baby need?

Providing sensory nourishment does not mean that you need to be entertaining them all day or setting up elaborate Pinterest-worthy sensory play activities. It’s quite the opposite.

Initially, your baby will receive plenty of sensory stimulation at the breast or bottle. The warmth from your body, the new sensation of drinking milk after receiving nutrients via the umbilical cord in the womb, the sound of your voice, and the smells and noises in the room. Practice Kangaroo Care as often as you like.

There’s no need to be concerned that you might be holding or carrying your baby too much (you can’t spoil them, and you’re not making a rod for your back!), so pop them in a carrier and go about your day, or hold them while they nap. One important study shows that babies who have about 10 hours a day of contact (whether awake or asleep) with their responsive caregiver in a 24 hour period cry half as much as babies who have about 6 hours of contact in a routine-based context.

Spend time outdoors, and do things that meet your own social and mental health needs. Have you ever found that your baby stops crying almost as soon as you walk outside, while you feel like you’ve finally come up for air? Fresh air, vitamin D, exercise, and socialising can all have a profound impact on both you and your little one.

So, take your baby out in the carrier, pram, or car, and do something you enjoy. Meet a friend for a coffee, have a picnic in a park with your baby lying on a rug looking up at the trees. Your baby will enjoy coming along for the ride and experiencing a multitude of sensory experiences.

Here are some more quick and nourishing daily sensory experiences for your newborn:

  • Give your baby a lovely sensory bath just for fun
  • Take your baby’s socks off, and let them experience the grass in the garden, or put their toes in a bowl of warm water
  • Go about your chores at home, taking your baby with you. Lie them on the floor beside you while you stack the dishwasher or put a load of laundry on
  • Sing to your baby, read to them, play different genres of music
  • Let them watch bubbles float and pop
  • If you’re feeling creative, you could make some easy sensory bottles or bags
  • Give your baby a gentle massage

So, ditch the outdated rules about overstimulation and its impact on sleep. Babies don’t need to learn to sleep (read about the self-settling myth), get out and do what makes you happy, prioritise self-care which doesn’t have to be complicated, tag team with your partner or other trusted caregiver to give yourself a break, and follow your baby’s cues.

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