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Normal Newborn Reflexes and Behavior

Normal reflexes and behaviors for a baby
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Each newborn that comes into the world is unique and special in their own way. Babies often develop at different rates. This can often make it hard for parents to know what “normal” newborn behavior may look like. It’s important to know the difference between normal and NOT normal behaviors so parents can tell if there may be a problem to discuss with their pediatrician.

Typical Behaviors of a Newborn Baby

Babies are born with a set of reflexes that help them survive and thrive. Many of these behaviors fade in the first few months of life.

Normal Primitive Reflexes From Immature Nervous System

  • Startle reflex (moro or embrace reflex) – Brief stiffening of the body, straightening of arms and opening of hands. Follows noise or abrupt movements. Frequent at birth. Slowly resolves by 4 months of age.
  • Tonic-neck reflex (fencer’s reflex) – When the head is turned to 1 side, the arm and leg on that side straighten. The opposite arm and leg flex. Goes away by 4 months of age.
  • Chin trembling.
  • Lower lip quivering.
  • Jitters or trembling (see Topic 2).

Normal Jitters or Trembling When Crying

  • Jitters or trembling of the arms and legs during crying is normal in newborns. It should stop by 1 to 2 months of age.
  • If your baby is jittery when not crying, it could be abnormal. Give her something to suck on as normal trembling should stop with sucking.
  • Seizures are rare. During seizures, newborns are more than jittery. They have muscle jerking and blinking of the eyes. Babies can also make sucking movements of the mouth. They don’t cry during seizures.

Call your doctor if the jitters get worse or occur when your baby is calm.

Normal Sleep Movements

Sleep is not quiet. Expect some of the following to happen.

  • Sudden jerks or twitches of the arms, hands or legs. If they only occur during sleep, they are most likely normal.
  • Sudden jerking or twitching will usually last a few seconds but can recur and will normally occur soon after falling asleep.
  • This is normal at all ages, not just in newborns.
  • Suspect a seizure if jerking occurs when awake or lasts more than 10 seconds.

Normal Breathing Sounds and Noises

  • Throat noises are caused by air passing through normal saliva or refluxed milk. These gurgling noises are likely to build up during sleep. Slowly, the newborn learns to swallow more often.
  • Nasal noises are usually caused by dried mucus in the nose. Your baby most likely doesn’t have a cold. A blocked or stuffy nose can interfere with feeding. This is because your baby can’t breathe when the mouth is closed with feeding. Therefore, babies need help opening the nasal passages.
  • Nasal saline can help clean out the nose. If this is not available, bottled water can be used. Use 1 drop at a time and do 1 side at a time. Repeat this several times. This will loosen up the dried mucus. Then, it can be sneezed out or swallowed. If needed, use a suction bulb. Avoid Q-tips which can injure the lining of the nose. Saline nose drops or spray can be bought in any drugstore. No prescription is needed.
  • Avoid tobacco smoke which can cause nasal congestion or sneezing. Avoid dust or any strong odors for the same reason.

Call your doctor if nasal washes don’t work or breathing becomes labored.

Normal Irregular Breathing Patterns

Transient breathing pauses of less than 10 seconds are also called periodic breathing. Often, the pause is followed by some faster breathing to “catch up.” These breathing pauses are normal if the baby is comfortable during them. A normal rate should be less than 60 breaths per minute. Usually resolves by 1 month of age.

Call your doctor if any of the following happen.

  • Your baby is breathing fast or turns blue.
  • Transient rapid breathing. Sometimes, newborns take rapid, progressively deeper breaths. This is so they can expand their lungs all the way. This is normal if the breathing slows to normal within a minute or so.
  • Seesaw breathing. With breathing, the chest seems to contract when the stomach expands. The cause is the soft rib cage of some newborns. It tends to pull in during normal downward movement of the diaphragm.
  • Yawning or sighing (off and on) to open up the lungs.
  • Breathing becomes hard.
  • Breathing pauses last more than 10 seconds.
  • You have other questions or concerns.

Normal GI Sounds And Noises

  • Belching air from the stomach.
  • Passing gas per rectum.
  • Gurgling or growling noises from the movement of food through the intestines.
  • Normal grunting with pushing out stools.
  • Hiccups are often caused by overeating. They can also be from a little acid irritating the lower esophagus. Give your baby a few swallows of water to rinse off the lower esophagus.

Normal Sleep Sounds And Noises

Normal sleep is not motionless or quiet. Expect some of the following to occur.

  • Moving during sleep transitions.
  • Occasional startle reflex or jerks.
  • Breathing noises – especially gurgling from secretions that sit in the throat.
  • During light sleep, babies can normally whimper, cry, groan or make other strange noises.
  • Parents who use a nursery monitor often become concerned about these normal sleep sounds.
  • GI tract noises from normal movement of digested food.

Normal Feeding Reflexes

  • Rooting reflex – When the side of the mouth or cheek is touched, your baby turns to that side. He will open his mouth in preparation for nursing. Present until 6 months of age.
  • Sucking reflex – Will suck on anything placed in the mouth. This survival reflex does not imply hunger. It is even present right after a feeding. This reflex fades between 6 and 12 months of age.

Normal Protective Reflexes

  • Sneezing to clear the nose of any irritant. Sneezing helps to open the nose. It’s usually caused by dust, fuzz, tobacco smoke or other strong odors. If sneezing becomes frequent, use nasal washes. This is not caused by an allergy.
  • Coughing to clear lower airway.
  • After spending 9 months in darkness, newborns have light-sensitive eyes. At first, they prefer to keep their eyes closed. They blink often with light exposure.

Flying With Newborns

  • Never fly during the first 7 days of life. If flying is needed, it’s safe to fly after 7 days of age.
  • If your newborn is not healthy, do not fly. Your child’s doctor should give medical clearance first before flying.
  • Your baby can be exposed to infections aboard aircraft. Therefore, it is preferable not to fly before 2 or 3 months of age.

Mountain Travel With Newborns

  • Avoid mountain travel above 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) for the first month of life unless your family lives there year-round.
  • Travel to destinations below 8,000 (2,438 meters) feet is safe.
  • Brief drives over higher mountain passes are safe.
  • If your newborn is not healthy, don’t travel above 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). Your child’s doctor should give medical clearance first.

Call your doctor if your baby starts to look or act abnormal in any way or if you think your child needs to be seen.

When to Call 911 for Your Newborn

  • Can’t wake up
  • Not moving or very weak
  • Weak cry and new onset
  • Severe trouble breathing (struggling for each breath)
  • New moaning or grunting noises with each breath
  • You think your child has a life-threatening emergency

When to Call Your Newborn’s Doctor 

  • Age less than 1 month old and looks or acts abnormal in any way. Examples are a poor suck or poor color.
  • If they are hard to wake up.
  • Age less than 12 weeks old with fever. Caution: do NOT give your baby any fever medicine before being seen.
  • Breathing stopped for more than 10 seconds and now it’s normal.
  • Trouble breathing, but not severe.
  • Seizure suspected.
  • Your child looks or acts very sick.
  • You think your child needs to be seen, and the problem is urgent.
  • Call your pediatrician within 24 hours if you think your child needs to be seen, but the problem is not urgent.
  • Call your newborn’s doctor during office hours if you have other questions or concerns.

Trust the Pediatricians at Vickery Pediatrics

Vickery Pediatrics provides professional care for children of all ages. For all of your newborn’s needs, visit us in Cumming, Buford, Dawsonville, Gainesville, Johns Creek, Sugar Hill, Suwanee or Forsyth County. Call (678) 990-2501 or request an appointment today.

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