Giving birth to a new life is a uniquely tender and exciting experience. Your newborn's first breath communicates at once her perfect vulnerability and your crucial role in ensuring her emotional and physical wellbeing. Nothing truly prepares parents for the journey that lies ahead, but here's an idea of what to expect in the first few weeks of your baby's life.

The head
Your newborn's skull is made up of bones not joined together, but covered with a tough membrane. This allows for growth and enables her head to mould to the shape of the birth canal for easier delivery.

These bones are often overlapping and you may be able to feel ridges down the sides of her head. Within 24 to 72 hours of birth, her head will be rounder, and within six weeks a more normal shape will form. The two soft spots on her head where the bones aren't fully formed are called fontanelles. The triangular one at the back of her head closes at six to eight weeks, while the diamond-shaped spot at the front can take up to 18 months to close.

Your baby's head makes up a quarter of her length and, at birth, it may be swollen from being squeezed through the birth canal. There could also be temporary bruising or swelling if forceps or a ventouse was used during delivery. The crown of her head might have a soft swelling called caput succedaneum (or 'caput'), which usually disappears within a day. Often there will be fine, downy hair on your baby's head and body, maybe even a centimetre of it. Called lanugo, this grows in utero and disappears a few weeks after birth.

The ears and eyes
At birth, your baby's eyes are about two-thirds the size of an adult's, and she can best see objects 20 to 30 centimetres in front of her. The constriction on her eyelids during birth may make the eyes look puffy – perhaps with tiny haemorrhages that appear as red triangular marks on the whites. This is nothing to worry about and won't affect her sight.

Your newborn's ears are miniature copies of an adult's. Some of the internal parts
are immature, so it can be hard to tell exactly what she can hear in her first few months. Most babies stop moving and may widen their eyes when they hear an interesting sound, particularly a voice. If you think your baby is not hearing properly, or there's a history of deafness in your family, ask your GP or midwife to conduct a hearing test.

The genitals
In both sexes the genitals can appear enlarged after birth. This is caused by hormonal stimulation, which soon settles. Girls may have a slight vaginal discharge
or spots of blood for a few days. This requires gentle cleaning with damp cotton wool, always wiping from front to back.

Baby boys' testes develop inside the body, and have usually descended into the scrotum by the time they are born. Occasionally one or both may not have descended, or will have slipped back up inside the body. This is checked at birth
and a paediatrician may be consulted if they can't be brought down easily. The penis is covered by its foreskin, which can't be pulled back without damage, so leave it alone. Bathe the area to keep it clean.

Both newborn boys and girls sometimes have swollen breasts, which may leak a few drops of milk. This happens because the hormones that were preparing your body to breastfeed are also still circulating through your newborn. The chest will return to normal after a few weeks, as your baby's hormone levels fall, but if it appears to be sore or red, speak to your doctor about it.

The umbilical cord
A plastic clamp is applied to the umbilical cord soon after birth. The cord is then trimmed to about two centimetres from the navel. After a day or two, the clamp is removed and the remaining section of cord becomes dry and dark, falling off a few weeks later. Often a mild discharge or a few drops of blood appear at the cord site over the following week – this is normal.

Infections are rare, but if you notice a white, pus-like discharge or a strange smell, or if your baby's navel is shiny, red and swollen, inform your doctor or midwife.

The body, legs and arms
Babies vary greatly when it comes to length. The average is about 50 centimetres, with 95 percent of newborns measuring 44 to 56 centimetres from head to toe. Her chest is smaller in circumference than her head, and her tummy may look large and wide due to underdeveloped abdominal muscles.

Babies are born with curled-up hands, so if you put a finger in her palm, she will demonstrate the grasp reflex. Her hands may look blue due to immature circulation – very normal – but if her lips or tongue appear blue, contact your doctor urgently.

Your baby's nails will be soft and long and her feet flexible and strong. When she is held upright on a surface, her walking reflex will kick in. Her toes will also display the Babinski reflex (stroke the side of her foot and her big toe will curl upwards), as well as the Plantar reflex or 'toe grasp' (press lightly on the sides of her foot and her toes will curl under).

The skin
Many babies are born with birthmarks, which usually fade within three years. Newborn 'stork marks' are also common. These are red patches between the eyes,
on the eyelids and on the nape of the neck. They often run in families and fade during the first year. Your newborn baby's skin is prone to dryness and rashes, including little pimples called milia. Talk to your doctor if you're worried about any unusual marks.

The weight
Babies usually lose up to 10% of their birth weight in the first week of their life while they pass meconium (their first bowel movement) and surplus fluid. Full-term babies have plenty of reserves to cope with this initial weight loss and will soon put on weight once breastfeeding is established. Due to the low rate of energy absorption in the first few days of your baby's life, this weight regain usually takes about 10 to 14 days. She'll continue to put on between 150 and 300 grams a week in the first three months. If you're concerned your baby isn't putting on enough weight, speak to your midwife or doctor.