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States of Alertness

Slightly distraught baby

After the initial few minutes after birth, newborn babies go through a number of different states of alertness, especially if the birth was uncomplicated and the environment is dark and quiet. These are the quiet alert, active alert, crying, drowsy, and sleeping states. Your newborn baby will cycle through these states over and over again throughout  the day.

Quiet alert state

At first, your newborn baby enters a quiet alert state, where he is cuddly and still. He looks into his mother’s eyes and touches her hand. He can listen to his parent’s voice. All of his energy is channelled into seeing and hearing. He does not move his arms and legs much during this state. In the quiet alert state, your newborn baby takes in his surroundings and starts to get used to his environment. The quiet alert state usually lasts about an hour or so after birth. If a newborn baby remains in close contact with his mother during this first hour of life, the quiet alert state will last longer. The newborn baby’s very first quiet alert state is a precious time for his parents, because they can enjoy their baby in a calm and unrushed manner.

Active alert state

Your newborn baby will then enter the active alert state, where he will start to move frequently. His eyes will start to look around, and he will make small sounds. This state is sometimes a precursor to the newborn baby becoming fussy. While in the active alert state, your newborn baby will move his arms, legs, body, or face. These movements are not continuous, but they occur in a rhythm, with the movements occurring about once per minute or so. During this state, your baby will be less drawn to faces and more interested in objects. His natural curiosity may start to emerge.

Crying state

If your newborn baby is hungry, uncomfortable, or lonely, he may enter a crying state. Crying is the only way that newborn babies have to communicate their needs to others. While in a crying state, your baby may move his arms and legs vigorously, and his face may become red and contorted. Newborn babies are easily soothed if they are picked up and held up against their parent’s shoulder. Despite what well-meaning friends and relatives may say, it is not possible to “spoil” your newborn baby by responding to his every cry. On the contrary, soothing your baby when he cries makes him safe and secure, and teaches him that you are there to take care of him.

Drowsy state

Sooner or later, your newborn baby will enter a drowsy state. As its name implies, newborn babies usually enter this state before they fall asleep. While in the drowsy state, your newborn baby may move a bit, smile, or frown. His eyes may become dull, glazed, and unfocused. His eyelids will become droopy.

Sometimes the newborn baby starts life in the drowsy state, as a response to the medication that was given to his mother during childbirth. For example, if his mother was given a large amount of a narcotic, or if the dose was given too close to the time of his birth, the newborn baby may be too drowsy to suck after he is born. Newborn babies may be sedated at birth if the mother was given general anaesthesia for delivery. This does not occur if mother has epidural anaesthesia during labour.

Sleeping state

Slightly distraught baby
Last but not least, your newborn baby falls asleep. In fact, newborn babies spend about 18 hours per day sleeping. About half of this time is spent in alternating states of sleep known as quiet sleep and active sleep.

In quiet sleep, your newborn baby is relaxed, he has no body movements except for the occasional startle, and his eyelids are still. His breathing is regular and he will take a deep sigh every few minutes or so.

In active sleep, your newborn baby’s eyelids may flutter and his eyes will begin to move rapidly. This is the start of the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of sleep, but no one knows if newborn babies dream during this time. During active sleep, newborn babies may move their arms and legs, twitch their bodies, make funny faces, and move from one side of the crib to the other. Their breathing is slightly faster in this stage than in the quiet sleep stage.

Joanne Cummings, PhD, CPsych

Brenda S. Miles, PhD, CPsych