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Receiving the Newborn Child: Tenderness, Quiet Awareness, and Nursing

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The first hour after birth is (ideally) a time for receiving the newborn child into the world with tenderness, gazing, and words of welcome.


by Susan Windley-Daoust

This article is adapted from chapter fourteen of The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence During Childbirth by Susan Windley-Daoust: “Receiving the Child.” Read other chapters as they become available by clicking on the chapter links in the sidebar. Get the whole book in print or ebook formats at the Gracewatch Media store.

Read a review of The Gift of Birth in Church Life magazine.

With my first, I was exhausted. No one handed him to me until he was just about to be taken to the nursery. At that point a nurse called out, “Mum hasn’t seen him yet!” I do have recollections of my husband carrying him around the delivery room singing, “Happy birthday to you. . . .” For the other children, I got them right away. It was always a treat to snuggle with the tiny, squishy little one and look into their seemingly bottomless eyes.

This is a reflection that perhaps doesn’t need words, and words that come do not touch what happens. Yes, the mother delivers the placenta, which in most Western cultures, is an afterthought.[1] But for most women, this is the moment when you first see and hold your child.

Cradling the child

If the baby and mother don’t require special medical attention, there is usually an effort to let them bond. The baby may be put on the mother’s body, skin to skin, which helps regulate the baby’s breathing and temperature. They may be covered with a blanket for warmth and spend time cuddling, or nursing. The smell of the mother is familiar to the child, as is her voice. Sometimes lights are dimmed for baby’s new eyes and the mother and father and child are left alone to have time to meet each other and recover from the birth.

It is a moment of genuine tenderness. Tenderness was a word highly valued by John Paul II:


It is especially in relationships between two human beings that one of them is able to, and feels the need to, enter into the feelings, the inner state, the whole spiritual life of the other—and is able and needs to make the other aware of this.[2]

. . .

Tenderness is the ability to feel with and for the whole person, to feel even most deeply hidden spiritual tremors, and always to have in mind the true good of that person.[3]


Many women are full of mixed emotions at birth: relief, concern, joy. But seeing and holding the baby evokes tenderness, which is more than an emotion—it is a kind of love. The hospitality you offered the child in the womb has changed venues: you are introducing him to family, to the world.

Babies, especially in medically uncomplicated births, do not always come out distressed. But there is so much that is new—the light, the air, the cold, the unmuffled noise. Most women, if at all possible, want to take the child and protect her from that confusing newness. Most women hold the baby close, gaze intently, and say words like, “Hello, little baby. You are so beautiful. I am your mama. Shhh, it’s okay, it’s okay. I love you.”

This natural impulse to set the baby in relationship is an act of tenderness. Those typical first words to the baby are an expression of what John Paul II wrote; the mother is “enter[ing] into the feelings, the inner state, the whole spiritual life of the other—and is able and needs to make the other aware of this.”

The state of quiet awareness

Another event that typically occurs after a few moments of calming and quiet cuddling is the “look of quiet alertness.” Don’t miss this by reaching for your phone as soon as baby is cradled in your arms—the world can wait.

This is a moment for gazing, that long, loving beholding that we practiced in chapter 4. Give the baby your eyes and attention. Typically, baby’s eyes will wander a bit until he focuses on the mother’s eyes looking back at him. Newborns cannot see well, but can see perfectly within 10–12 inches— the exact distance of a nursing child’s eyes to his mother’s eyes. Within a half hour, a baby born through an unmedicated childbirth will enter this stage of quiet alertness and receive the world around him. (The baby also will fall into the quiet alertness stage off and on for the first few weeks of life.)

This time is a precious opportunity to practice the Law of the Gift, the giving and receiving that is the hallmark of the spiritual life. Baby is all about receiving as he takes it all in: learning who he is, learning who loves him. The mother responds by giving that love, that knowledge of who he is, that security. But she also has the opportunity to receive: the gift that is the child, the gift of new relationship, the gift of her vocation to motherhood.


Some women have difficulty with nursing, some do not want to nurse, and others are unable to nurse at all (for example, if they are on medications that can harm the baby). However, if you are able, I would encourage you to nurse the baby for at least the first few days, or even just the first day. The first few days, women produce colostrum, a kind of “supermilk” that is incredibly advantageous to the baby. The regular milk that comes in later is remarkably advantageous, too. I personally found nursing to be very healing after a difficult first birthing experience. It does take some practice, so connecting with a lactation consultant or the La Leche League could be helpful. In any case, there are probably few greater symbols of giving and receiving than the nursing mother and child.

When the mother nurses, she gives of herself to address her baby’s basic need of hunger. She satisfies baby’s hunger and even boosts his immune system. She also addresses very naturally his need to be touched, cuddled, and loved. Nursing may even involve sacrifice (those 3 am feedings and more).

And what is received? The opportunity to connect, emotionally and physically, with your baby; a happy, healthier baby; and (unless you are having unusual difficulties) a pleasant and relaxing feeling. Nursing was designed to nourish your child, nutritionally and emotionally. If you do not or cannot nurse, many of these bonding elements can be incorporated into bottle feeding (holding close, skin to skin, cooing and connecting).

But what if . . . ?

But what if none of this goes according to plan? What if you are too exhausted to connect with your baby? What if your baby has medical issues that require immediate help? What if you can’t nurse?

The way mothers receive their child after birth was designed by God to provide many gifts to both mother and child. But those gifts are not absolutely necessary. God is all-powerful and creative, and we may receive our sign that we are called to motherhood in different ways. You may need to find or help create these graced moments with your child. And that is okay. As I said, we live in a fallen world. We’re birdwatchers on the lookout for signs of grace.

When I gave birth to my first child, I had a C-section after forty-seven hours of labor. I had a spinal block and was strapped to a surgical bed, and after they tugged my son out, they rushed him, crying, to the pediatric table to check things out. He was fine. I, on the other hand, was experiencing a massive headache and nausea from the anesthesia and still couldn’t move my arms (which were strapped down). Someone suggested I hold the baby, but I couldn’t see how and thought I was going to throw up. He was still crying. So my husband held the baby close to me, and I sang a song that I had sung to him every day while he was in the womb. He immediately quieted down, listening alertly.

That was a true moment of grace. He knew me and I knew him. He stayed with my husband while I recovered from surgery and the previous forty-seven hours. Our first meeting should have been better . . . but what was given was enough.

For prayerful reflection


Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth, and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
—Psalm 22:9–10


If it is not clear, the “you” in this psalm is God.

Consider praying this Scripture through lectio divina, beginning by deliberately placing yourself in the light of Christ:

Read/listen: Read the Scripture aloud, slowly and deliberately, at least three times. Continue reading them aloud or silently as inspired. Linger on words that move you.

Meditate on the words: What strikes you about this passage? Do any words or phrases seem to rise to the top? You may want to look at all of Psalm 22 in order to have more context for these words.

Dialogue with God: Speak with the Lord about this passage. Give your questions and emotions to the Holy Spirit, and ask for light; ask the Lord what he wants you to know.

Contemplate and rest: Take some time to rest in God’s presence. As the scripture says, “On you I was cast from my birth . . . .” Perhaps this is an image to guide your contemplation and rest in the providence of God.

Lectio divina, by the way, is an ancient Christian prayer practice that translates literally as “sacred reading.” If you find this reflection exercise helpful, you may wish to look for more in-depth resources on this practice.



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[1] In some Eastern cultures, the birthing of the placenta is important: the placenta may be saved and planted under a tree, and, in some cultures, ritually consumed (in part). There is really no Western tradition of anything like this.

[2] Pope John Paul II, Love & Responsibility, rev. ed. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1981), 201.

[3] Ibid., 207.

Susan Windley-Daoust is a Catholic theologian, spiritual director, and award-winning author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying. She teaches theology at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota, where she lives with her husband and five children.

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Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.

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