What Babies Need to Thrive: Understanding Your Baby’s Hierarchy of Needs



As parents we want to make sure we are always doing what is best for our babies. We want them to grow up healthy and strong. We want to foster their cognitive development, and we want them to be happy. But how do we do that?  How do we meet all of our babies’ needs and help them to thrive?

Today’s parents have access to more information than any other parents in history. At the touch of a button, we can learn about the development of an unborn baby, the nutritional needs of newborns and the expected developmental milestones. We can quickly look to see whether our baby’s development is “on track,” and we can look for warning signs that something may be amiss. While all of this information can help us learn what to expect, it can also be overwhelming.  Knowing where to start can be difficult.
When trying to figure out what is best for our baby and what strategies we should use to help him or her develop, we need to think about our baby’s hierarchy of needs. Just like the hierarchy of needs for adults that was identified by Maslow, our baby’s needs can be looked at on a continuum, where basic needs must be met first before more complex needs can be addressed.

All babies have three basic levels of need: physical, emotional and cognitive. All of the things that babies need to thrive can be lumped into one of these three categories.

Physical

Physical needs are our babies’ most basic needs. Before our babies can bond with us, before they can learn to sit up, roll over, crawl or talk, their physical needs must be met, and they need to be healthy and comfortable. If a baby is hungry, tired or sick, she won’t be able to grow and develop emotionally, and her cognitive development will be impacted. When we think about our babies’ physical needs, we need to consider their nutrition, sleep and comfort. It is also imperative that they are living in a clean environment and that they have access to quality medical care.

Nutrition. It is important to figure out what form of feeding works best for your baby and to provide an adequate amount of nutritious food, be it breast milk or formula.
Sleep. Babies should get 12 to18 hours of sleep, depending on their age.  The amount of sleep your baby will need may vary, but be sure to let your baby sleep as much as she may need and in long enough blocks of time so that she is able to fully recharge.

Comfort. Be sure to keep your baby’s diapers and clothes clean and dry.  Remember that babies have difficulty regulating their body temperatures, so be sure to dress your baby for weather, keeping him cool enough in hot weather and warm enough on cool days.

Clean environments. Babies’ immune systems are much weaker than those of adults, so be sure to sterilize bottles and sanitize toys on a regular basis.
Checkups and immunizations. Visits to the pediatrician can help make sure babies are growing properly, that they are meeting developmental milestones and can receive important vaccinations to prevent dangerous disease. 

Emotional

Emotional needs refer to our babies’ needs for security and love. Once our babies’ physical needs have been met, bonding with caregivers can flourish. The ways that caregivers interact with babies will help to create security and will allow for emotional bonds to grow.  Babies who have their physical needs met, who are secure and who have good bonds with their caregivers tend to be happy babies. Caregivers can foster their babies’ emotional needs by creating a structured environment with routines, by responding to their babies when they cry and by being affectionate and loving.

Create routine. Routines are important for helping babies know what to expect and when to expect it.  They help to create security by making your baby’s world predictable. 

Respond to their cries. There is a time and place when letting your baby cry it out makes sense, but it is also important to make sure you are responding to the needs of your baby. When your baby is crying, try to figure out why. After all, she can’t talk to tell you what she needs right now. Crying is how she communicates.

Be affectionate and loving. When you hug, kiss and cuddle your baby, it helps her to feel loved and secure, which in turn gives her the confidence to explore and try new things.  Every family expresses their love in different ways, but however you choose to do it, do it often.

Cognitive

Our babies’ developmental needs include cognitive stimulation and learning new skills. Once our babies’ physical needs are met, once they have developed security and strong bonds with their caregivers, then they are able to interact with their environments in ways that help them to learn new things. Babies’ developmental needs are addressed when we talk with them, when we create enriched environments to give them lots of stimulation and when we read to them.

Talk to your baby. Babies develop their ability to talk and understand language only if they are exposed to language.  The more you talk with your baby, the quicker she will learn to communicate and the greater her vocabulary will be.

Enriched environments. Babies learn new things through experience.  The more experiences you can provide for your baby, through sight, sounds, smells, tastes and touch, the more she will be able to learn. 

Read to your baby.  Reading is important.  It provides auditory and visual stimulation, helping to develop your baby’s cognitive skills. It’s great cuddle time, too!
When we think about our babies’ needs and we begin to sift through the numerous resources that are available to us, the task of helping them to thrive can seem very daunting. But by thinking of our babies’ needs as part of a hierarchy, we can easily figure out what we need to do first and in what order needs should be addressed.

Dr. Annette Griffith lives in the Kansas City area.  She is the director of Momentum Behavioral Health and the mother of two young children.

As always, please consult your health care provider with any questions or concerns.

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