Debunking Baby Myths

What a baby's first smile really means, and other little-known factoids about your tot.

By Joshua Sparrow, MD



  1. Newborns can’t see. Of course they can! Babies love to look at faces. In fact, newborns show more interest in looking at pictures of two triangles and a circle arranged like two eyes and a mouth than at the same shapes jumbled up in any other pattern. (Perhaps the “can’t see” myth came about because newborns can only focus up close. Farther away is a blur.)
  2. Newborns can’t hear. Babies begin listening from inside the womb a few months before they’re born. A mother’s voice resonates straight through to her baby, but the baby’s father’s voice can be heard through her belly, too.
  3. Babies don’t remember anything before birth. It’s not clear what or how much babies recall, but we know this: If you read the same nursery rhyme over and over during the last months of pregnancy, your newborn will recognize it and distinguish it from ones she’s never heard.
  4. A baby’s first smiles are just reactions to gas. Now that’s funny. Although we can’t be sure about motivation, babies are born with reflexes that cause them to imitate the faces they see. So when you smile, your baby reflects that expression back to you, without even knowing why you’re smiling or what a smile means. Soon he discovers what smiling is all about and will do it on purpose.
  5. When a newborn suddenly flails and jerks both his arms and his legs, he’s having a seizure. Usually not. These are “startles.” Startles occur when a baby has been abruptly disturbed, by a loud noise, for example, but they may also occur for no apparent reason. Startles may worry you, but they serve a purpose. When a baby is upset by a sudden disruption, the startle reflex sets off a chain of other reflexes, leading the baby to bring his hand to his cheek and then to his mouth. When he then sucks on his hand or fingers, he’s able to comfort himself and recover from the upset. Babies are wired to respond to life’s first discomforts in ways that teach them to soothe themselves.
  6. Too much holding and handling will spoil your baby.  Lots of affection won’t spoil your baby — it strengthens the bond between the two of you and his sense of security. It’s up to you and your family to find the balance between your baby’s need for closeness and the other demands of providing for him. When he starts showing signs that he’s ready, allow him to learn to calm and entertain himself.  

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