Our jobs as parents are not only to nurture our children but also to teach them the skills that they’ll need to grow and mature as individuals. As a “newborn” parent, this seems like a far off concept when you’re holding a warm little body on your chest. You have in your arms a little person who is wholly dependent on you for their existence. Every need must be met including helping them to regulate their awake and sleep time by providing them with help to get off to sleep. Feeding is a need that is met on demand and often can be unpredictable in its patterns or schedule. Movements of tiny newborns are mediated by reflexes more than volition or intentional movement. But after those first precious and wonder-filled few months, infants move through an important stage where their newborn reflexes begin to integrate, meaning they are no longer obligatory and they gain more control over their movements. Their sleeping patterns also mature around this age, too. There is a lot neurologically happening in and around the 4 month mark.
One newborn reflex that begins to fade away (integrate) at this age is the ATNR reflex. This is the reflex that is commonly referred to as the “fencing” reflex as babies look as if they are about to joust. When their head is turned to the side, the limbs (arms and legs) on the side that they are looking go into extension or straightened out. The limbs behind their head flex up. This means that your newborn has difficulty getting their own hand into their mouth or up to their face on purpose much of the time.
This is important as the skill of getting both hands to their face or into their mouth is a self calming skill.
As your baby approaches 4 months (and even before), you can encourage this skill by doing the following:
Play games that encourage your baby to bring his/her hands to midline (in front of his/her body, together and to his/her face and mouth) such as Pat-a-Cake, practicing blowing kisses with hand over hand help, putting a toy near his/her chest for him/her to reach for. When socializing with your baby when he/she is lying on your lap, gently bring his/her hands together and rub them and bring them up to his/her face and cheeks and gently rub them skin to skin.
All of these games will help your baby gain awareness of the touch and proprioceptive inputs associated with volitionally moving their hands toward midline and touching their hands together and to their face. These are the first steps in learning how to do this independently.