Baby holds his breath; baby loses hair; baby cries for hours. What to do? A new book has answers to reduce parental anxiety and give baby the best beginning to optimize your child’s first crucial 18 months.
I met Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, a pediatrician, father, and health communications pioneer when we were both guests on the same show. He shares his breadth of knowledge about babies and the science behind his views in his new book, Baby Comes Home: A Parent’s Guide to a Healthy and Well First Eighteen Months.
In one sense, Dr. Paul helps parents get ahead of their baby, be informed and calm down when something alarming or unfamiliar happens. I asked him to tell me why the first 18 months of a child’s life are so critical and what parents need to know even before the baby arrives.
Q: I remember delivering my son and seeing so much activity in the delivery room with the baby, but I had no idea what was going on. Can you explain the testing and measurements and why parents should know what the doctors and nurses are doing?
Dr. Paul: The first few minutes of life are amazing, because many things happen in the baby's body, so that the lungs and heart can work on their own for the first time outside of mom's womb! Immediately after birth, newborn babies are closely observed to ensure that they are breathing and moving well and that their heart rate is normal. Shortly after birth and baby's first hug and feed with mom and dad, he/she is weighed and measured, receives a Vitamin K injection to help baby's blood clot and antibiotic eye drops to prevent infection. In addition, the baby will be examined literally from head to toe, to ensure that all is well. The baby is also observed during the initial and then subsequent feedings to ensure there are no problems with the baby's ability to suck and feed. Because newborns cannot maintain their own temperature, we need to ensure they are kept warm. Skin to skin contact with mom is a great way to achieve this! Before baby goes home, blood is taken, usually from the heel to test/screen for a variety of hereditary illnesses.
Q: You feel strongly that the first 18 months are critical to lifelong wellbeing. Please explain what you mean.
Dr. Paul: We now better understand that what happens early on in life can have consequences many decades down the road. Although children of all ages have special and specific needs to grow and develop normally, the first eighteen months of life are crucial. Science has now shown that responding to baby’s needs, caressing, touching, and stimulating baby are very important interactions … from day one of life. As a baby develops, many changes in the brain related to such vital functions as language, learning, emotional regulation, social ability, vision, and perception occur at a very fast pace. Most of this complicated development is well underway by eighteen months of age. It all relates to the baby's brain growth, also known as sculpting. More specifically, babies are born with many more brain cells (neurons) than adults and the ones that get used are the ones that remain. During the first few years of life, these brain cells start to develop connections that on the outside we see as development. So it is important during this period of growth that babies are in a situation and environment that promotes (allows) their brains, nerve cells, connections, and learning/cognitive abilities to develop to their full potential. We know that, if they do not achieve this development properly or fully, there can be long-term consequences. These effects may not be obvious early on in life, but may appear years or even decades later. This is why I urge parents to discover and connect with their new baby.
By establishing and maintaining this relationship with new and growing babies, you can help them develop to their full potential. This concept of being able to shape a baby’s future positively has been examined very closely recently. In fact, there is a new term: “Life Course Perspective.” It recognizes that experiences early in a baby’s life build connections that have effects on development—emotional and physical growth— that can have lifelong behavioural and even physical consequences.
Q: What should new parents focus on when taking their baby home?
Dr. Paul: I believe that when taking baby home, aside from the physical aspects of care and prevention such as home safety, physical care, nutrition, immunization a very important challenge is getting to know and understand baby’s routines which are different and literally change from week to week. Parents can focus on learning about what to expect beforehand so they can concentrate on caressing and interacting with baby as much as possible. Another activity that can never start too early is to read to baby as much as you can.
Q: In your book you give very detailed information about everything from common newborn rashes to rare infections. For example, earwax, you tell parents how to do remove it and what to do when they can’t. Are you attempting to turn parents into being their own pediatricians or is the information to be used more on a need-to-know basis when something alarms a parent?
Dr. Paul: No, I am not attempting to turn parents into pediatricians. What I have always believed is that the more parents know about all aspects of their child’s health/wellness (including illnesses and common conditions such as baby-hair falling out, earwax, spitting up and breath-holding-spells), the more comfortable they will be. Having worked in emergency wards and clinics and from the thousands of emails I have received through my website over the last two decades, I am very familiar with most of the issues that new parents frequently worry about. Many of these concerns are really “normal” or commonly seen and of no serious consequence. All it takes is to explain this to parents so they will be reassured and not fearful. Personally, this is one of the most satisfying parts of my job as a pediatrician.
Similarly, this applies to more chronic conditions such as asthma, for example. Although asthma attacks can be disruptive and severe, once we provide parents with the necessary information as to causes, what to look for and what to do to prevent attacks, the child’s asthma is much better controlled. So I wrote the sections on common baby care issues and common illnesses with this approach in mind. Of course the information should not replace the advice of a healthcare provider, but can provide parents with supplementary (even pro-active) information to help foster peace of mind…especially on the common conditions that are part of normal development or of no consequence.
Q: Baby Comes Home is amazingly comprehensive and as a parent myself, I wish I had it as a resource when childhood problems and illnesses struck. You offer, for example, the basic treatment for coughs and colds and warn against over-the-counter cold and cough syrups for children under the age of six. Because there is such a wealth of information, how do you recommend parents and caregivers use your book?
Dr. Paul: I wanted to provide parents with a lot of practical information, yet I do not think the book will be used in the same way by all parents. In fact, various sections will be more useful than others depending on the age/stage of baby and the level of experience parents have. As far as first time parents of a newborn are concerned, I suggest reading the first half of the book ahead of time. Specifically, the sections on TLC, what happens at the hospital, injury prevention, immunization, baby routines, handling baby, nutrition and common baby/childcare issues. The common illnesses chapters, and for that matter, the rest of the book can always be referred to as the need arises later. Still others may prefer to read the whole book before baby arrives. But even so, given the large volume of information, the book will also serve as a handy reference guide.
Roumeliotis, Paul. Baby Comes Home: A Parent’s Guide to a Healthy and Well First Eighteen Months. Canada: Influence Publishing, 2014.