As a doula for years I’ve seen lots of variations around birth and babies.
I will never forget one dad’s face when he saw the coned shape of his baby’s head straight after birth. I could see he hadn’t expected it to look like that. So I gently reassured him that it was all normal and that it would reshape naturally over the next day or so. He was relieved.
On the telly babies come out looking rather clean, pink and often the size of a one month old. So for those that haven’t seen many real babies at birth, here’s a little heads up about some common – and normal – features.
This may look misshapen and somewhat elongated. This is purely the result of the normal molding that happens as the baby navigates it way cleverly through the birth canal. At birth the cranial bones are not fused so can move to alter the diameter of the skull. Pretty cool huh?
Within a day or two it naturally takes on a rounder shape on its own. And in response to a dad once asking me – no, massage or hand sculpting is not required. Nature takes care of it.
If the vacuum cup was used at the birth, expect a circular swelling and perhaps bruising of the scalp to hang around for about the same time.
If forceps were used, there may be marks from the forceps themselves when applied to baby’s head.
You may see and feel a pulsating spot on top of the baby’s head; rest assured it’s not the baby’s brain. It’s known as the ‘soft spot’ or technically the fontanel.
It’s a diamond shape area just above the hairline where those cranial skull bones have not yet come together. It’s covered by a tough membrane so can be touched and washed gently with no dramas.
This may resemble that of a champion boxer; swollen or puffy.
Baby’s nose and ears may be flattened down a little too. These begin to bounce back into shape after a day or so. If the labour was on the fast side, there may be a little facial bruising which also sorts itself out.
These are often very busy, as most newborn activity is centred around their mouth!
Lovingly resembling a circus clown, they may open and close their mouth frequently and/or turn their head from side to side. This is an attempt to find something to latch onto; preferably a breast!
They also poke their tongue in and out. This is also in readiness to take a full mouthful of breast and adds to the whole cuteness factor.
It’s normal to hear sounds that resemble an animal. The first sound I heard from my just born baby boy was that of a little lamb; ‘baaaa, baaaa’.
Some consider the all mighty cry the ultimate, but some babies come into themselves with a little more subtlety. Especially those born gently and/or in a waterbirth.
Squeaks, baas, gags and splutters are your baby’s way of clearing the normal lung fluids up and out after the birth. Babies born via the vaginal route get a head start on this through the squeezing effect around their torso. They then finish the job off usually on mum’s chest.
If your baby is born by caesarean they don’t receive ‘the squeeze’ so they often need a little help with this by suctioning.
A big cry does help clear those lungs a lot quicker, but remember every baby arrives in a different mood.
This may be covered in a little or a lot of vernix. This is also known as the ‘white stuff, birthday frosting or baby cheese’.
In the uterus it served as a wetsuit keeping baby from becoming waterlogged.
Outside of the womb this biofilm has many impressive properties and purposes for baby. So please ensure it’s not wiped away or washed off by caregivers.
Baby’s skin will naturally drink it in over the many hours after the birth.
Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends leaving the vernix on your baby for at least 6 hours and preferably 24 hours.
If there is a lot of vernix you may gently rub it into baby’s skin. It feels waxy and smooth.
It’s thought that vernix plus the amniotic fluid creates that indescribable baby smell. And that this smell helps the bonding between mum and baby.
If baby passed meconium (it’s first poo) during labour this may discolour the vernix a little, showing as a tinge of yellow/green.
Once their skin is dry from all the birth juices and/or absorbed vernix, you may see some flaky or peeling skin. This is more common with “overdue” babies, but is no concern in and of itself.
Looking cross-eyed is normal and also quite entertaining.
At birth, baby’s eyes and eye muscles are learning to function in response to light and movement.
They can see at best to a 30cm distance, but focusing is not their strong point. But 30cm is the perfect distance for mum and bub to gaze longingly whilst breastfeeding and also to take in dad’s face and voice too.
As the weeks roll on, the eye muscles get stronger and more symmetrical in their movements.
At birth a baby boy’s scrotum will look relatively large compared to the rest of him! This is the normal effects of the pregnancy hormones and won’t stay this way.
Baby girls often have slightly swollen labia and breast tissue. Again this gradually settles within the first week.
8. Hands & feet
These may be mottled or slightly blue. It takes a few weeks for babies to sort out their body temperature systems so keep those toes warm with socks, and make the most of skin to skin opportunities with mum and dad.
These may look bowed. This is pure adaptation to the cramped conditions of the uterus. As the muscles strengthen and lengthen the legs will slowly straighten themselves out over the weeks.
The feet may often looked turned-in. Again, this is normal and anything too extreme will be noticed by the midwife or paediatrician anyway.
About 1 in 3 babies will have one, with twice as many girls than boys being affected. Most don’t hurt the baby, cause health problems or need any treatment.
There’s a few varieties and some creative names. ‘Stork bites’ are flat, pink patches that are collections of blood vessels under the skin. They usually crop up on or around the forehead, neck, nose or eyelids. Most take about a year to fade.
‘Strawberry marks’ first appear as tiny red dots and may increase in size up until the end of the first year. Half will fade by age 5, and disappear by age 10.
‘Mongolian spots’ are blue-toned splotches on 80% of the lower backs or bums of babies with dark skin tones (such as African Americans, Asians and Indian babies). These usually disappear by age 5 too.
‘Port-wine stains’ as the name suggests are the stubborn variety. With less than 1% in popularity, these tend to be permanent but can be sorted out later in childhood.
So there you have it, 10 newborn features that are normal!
It’s a good idea to share this with your partner too so there’s a lot less ‘what the…?’ when baby finally arrives.
Happy birthing to you ❤️