Characteristics of Newborns

June 26, 2017

Weight and Length

Average weight: 6–9 pounds
Average length: 18–21 inches
Your baby may lose up to 5–10% of its birth weight during the first few days of life. This is normal, and the weight is usually regained within two weeks.

Head and Body
The baby’s head is large in proportion to the rest of its body. Because the baby’s neck muscles are usually weak, it is important to support the head for about the first three months.

Fontanels (Soft Spots)
The bones of the newborn are relatively soft and connected by fibrous tissue. The lines where the bones connect are called sutures. In two places, the bones are actually separated, and these places are called fontanels or “soft spots.”

Posterior Fontanel
This is the smaller fontanel. It is in the back of the head and will close in two to three months.

Anterior Fontanel
This is the larger fontanel. It is in the front and top of the head. It is diamond-shaped and will close by 18 months of age.

Molding is the process whereby the shape of the baby’s head changes during birth to adapt to the mother’s birth canal. The head shape will return to normal within a week or so without treatment.

Caput Succedaneum
Caput succedaneum is the swelling that develops over the area of the baby’s head that presents against the slowly dilating cervix. The fluid will be absorbed on its own in about 36 hours.

Eye color at birth is usually slate blue. Permanent eye color is assumed from three months to one year of age. The baby has good light perception and will blink at and follow bright objects. The eyes may not move smoothly and in unison because eye muscles are not well developed at birth, and the baby may appear to be cross-eyed.

Hearing becomes more acute within a few days after birth, and loud noises may startle the baby.

Skin color is bluish-purple at birth, but it becomes bright pink after the baby begins breathing and crying. There may be some lingering bluish color in hands and feet due to the baby’s immature circulatory system. The skin may be dry and scaly, and it is not unusual for it to peel during the first week or two. A white cheesy covering on the skin, referred to as vernix caseosa may be present at birth. This covering protected the baby’s skin against the drying properties of amniotic fluid in the uterus.

Jaundice develops in about half of all newborns during the first week of life. Jaundice is usually the most pronounced between the third and fifth days of life. The yellow skin color is caused by an excess of bilirubin, which is a yellow pigment formed as red blood cells break down.

The breakdown and reproduction of red blood cells is a normal, continuous bodily process. It is the function of the liver to remove the bilirubin as it is formed so that jaundice does not occur. Jaundice occurs when there is excessive bilirubin, or its removal is impaired.

Jaundice that is temporary in nature often happens because the newborn is born with a high red blood cell count that causes an excess of bilirubin. During the first week of life, the newborn’s liver is immature and cannot remove the bilirubin efficiently. Excess bilirubin can also result when there is an incompatibility between the mother and the newborn’s blood types. High levels of bilirubin may also be associated with infections and premature babies.

For newborns with high bilirubin levels, it is not uncommon to require phototherapy (special light exposure). If your baby does require phototherapy, it may mean that she/he has to stay in the hospital a few days longer than you do or possibly be readmitted after you go home.

Parents may feel sad, worried, or confused if their baby requires phototherapy and a longer hospitalization. However, staying as close to your infant as possible and seeking explanations and information from the medical staff can help allay your fears and anxieties.

Lanugo is soft, downy hair found on premature babies and on some term babies. This hair will disappear within the first weeks of life.

Milia, which look like white, raised pimples, may be found on the baby’s face. These are caused by plugged sebaceous glands and will disappear without treatment.

Umbilical Cord
The umbilical cord gradually dries and drops off within 10–14 days.

Genitals, including the breasts, are often swollen in both sexes due to the transfer of maternal hormones while in utero. These hormones also may cause a vaginal discharge of white mucous streaked with pink blood.

Heart Rate and Breathing
The normal heart rate for a baby at rest is 90–110 beats/minute.

The normal heart rate for a baby during activity or crying is 160–180 beats/minute.

Normal breathing is fast (about 30–60 breaths/minute), irregular, and abdominal in nature.

Tension builds as a result of the baby’s specific needs, and crying becomes the ultimate expression of these needs. When crying, your baby may be hungry, uncomfortable, lonely, or over-stimulated.

Often babies cry at inconvenient times (at night, during dinner), causing parents to feel angry or frustrated. Sometimes parents feel that their baby is punishing them, but be assured that your baby is not. The baby is only crying out her or his needs. It is helpful if parents can support and encourage each other by talking or even laughing about it. If your baby cries excessively, discuss it with your pediatrician.

Newborns are born with many reflexes that control their movements and protect them.

Moro Reflex
When startled by a loud noise, the baby will thrust out her/his arms and sometimes legs.

Tonic-Neck Reflex
When the baby’s head is turned to one side, the arm and leg on the same side will extend, while the arm and leg on the opposite side will flex. This is called the fencing position.

Palmar or Grasp Reflex
When you place your fingers in your baby’s palms, the baby will grasp your fingers tightly.

Stepping Reflex
When the baby is held under the arms in an upright, standing position, she/he will make walking motions.

Rooting Reflex
When the baby’s cheek is touched, the baby will turn her/his head toward the stimulus and begin to suck.

Sucking and Swallowing Reflexes
Anything that touches or stimulates the baby’s lips will result in sucking movements. Sucking is usually a strong reflex at birth and is accompanied by a swallowing reflex.

Gag Reflex
This reflex helps prevent choking.

Yawning Reflex
Yawning helps the baby receive extra oxygen when needed.


  • Bonding with parents at birth
  • Lots of LOVE through touching, talking, singing
  • Food
  • Sleep
  • Comfort—both physical and emotional
  • Sucking
  • Play

Babies are born with their own distinct personalities. Learn to know each baby as an individual. Love your baby dearly, and she/he will thrive.

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