The First Weeks: What Can You Do?

One important activity that happens around the clock (not much at night we hope) is feeding your baby. Find a warm comfortable spot and sit in a chair with good back and arm support. If you are bottle feeding be sure to hold baby on one arm for one feed, or part of a feed, then on the other, just as you would if you were breast feeding. This is important so baby gets a different view of you and the world and becomes accustomed to different positions. Smile and talk softly to baby while you feed them. You will find they watch your face from a very early age. This is their first experience of concentrated “looking” and is very important.

There are other things you can do which will help your baby’s development during the first weeks of her life. They are all activities that are a normal part of looking after your baby and all play a part in the bonding and learning process.

First, though, I had better talk a little about handling your baby. Babies who have Down syndrome are often what people call “floppy”. This means that the muscles do not feel as firm (lower tone) as they are in a baby who does not have Down syndrome. You may feel apprehensive when picking your baby up or changing them. Don’t worry unduly about this. Just be sure to support the baby’s head well, and do not pull them up by their hands. This puts strain through the wrists, elbows and shoulders and also leaves the head unsupported. Always raise baby by supporting around the back of the neck and shoulders. There is an exercise that does involve pulling the baby up by the arms but don’t do that until you have talked to your therapist. A gentle bouncing as you hold your baby will increase the muscle tone (well supported of course and not after a feed!).

Now to the activities –

Cuddle your baby in different positions resting on one arm, then the other as for feeding. Hold them up so they can look over your shoulder. This is a great position as they can lift their head up off your shoulder and this helps strengthen muscles and improve head control. Soon the wobbly head will steady.

When you are changing your baby’s nappy, take your time. Put your face close to baby’s face (30cm or so) and smile and chat. Sing if that’s your strong point. Sing anyway – babies don’t seem to mind if you sing flat! You will find your baby watches you and in a few weeks will start turning their head to follow if you move slowly from one side to another.

Bath and dressing time should be fun. You should have a ball. If both parents can be there that’s terrific, but if not, you can still enjoy it. It is also a great learning and bonding time.

Try and arrange to have plenty of time. The vacuuming will wait (unfortunately). Have the room cosy and warm. On the floor near the heater is a great bath place (a plastic sheet is handy).

When your baby is in the bath, move their legs and arms up and down and sideways in the water. Let them feel the water being swished, splashed and swirled. This gives them lovely new sensations. They learn there is more to life than drinking milk, and that their body extends past their head. Baby is starting to learn about other parts of their body and this is essential if they are to learn to roll, crawl, walk, climb and do all the things other kids do.

When you are towelling baby after the bath talk to them about their body. Use simple words – don’t give an anatomy lesson yet – eg: just say Tony’s arm, Sarah’s foot, legs, toes etc as you dry each part. Warm your hands and massage. You can use baby oil or a bit of talcum. Using firm (not light tickly) strokes, run the towel down the front of the body from top to toe. Do this a few times, then turn them over and do their back. Not only do babies love this, but it is teaching them that they have length and width. Do her arms and legs too, from the shoulders or hips to the tips of the fingers and toes, however don’t expect baby to like it if your hands are cold!

As you dress and undress baby, talk to them too. They will watch and listen – learning all the time. When you put your baby down on the floor to play, lay them on her tummy not their back. A few babies object to this at first, but if there is no medical reason why the baby cannot lie on their front, keep persevering (check with your doctor). If you start early, baby will soon accept this position.

The reason it’s so important for a baby to lie on their front is that they need to learn to lift their head to gain head control. In this position baby has to work hard to lift their head to look around and this strengthens the back muscles. Put a bright toy or mobile near your baby so they are  rewarded by seeing it when they do raise their head.

Other family members, especially children, are great for this as they can get down on the floor and make faces or rattle toys to encourage baby to lift their head. You can help too by raising their head for them, so they know that there is a different view of the world with their head up.

As soon as you can after baby is born, contact your nearest Therapy Centre. They can put you in touch with a physiotherapist, teacher and others who can show you other things you can do to help your baby as they grow older.

The activities I have listed here are just for the first few weeks. Most will continue, but as your baby develops, you will need to be shown what to do next. Every baby is different, and progresses at a different rate, so it is important to have a program just for you and your baby.