For parents of a new baby, deciphering what they need based on a series of subtle cues and seemingly identical cries can be overwhelming. As a new mom, I found a lot of comfort in developing a pattern of feed, sleep, and play, with diaper changes sprinkled in the mix, but there were still plenty of instances when I found myself confused to the point of tears. It often felt like nothing I tried would calm my baby or help her drift to sleep. With time, I learned that my baby was actually an excellent communicator—I simply needed to learn to watch for patterns in how she expressed her needs. My daughter wasn’t extraordinary; babies actually begin communicating with their parents from a very young age. Want to learn how to read your baby? Here’s what you need to know.
The Development of Communication
The foundation of communication is being built long before babies are born, according to Ayelet Marinovich, pediatric speech-language pathologist and parent educator. “We know that even babies in utero are starting to use their sense of hearing,” she says. “So they’re listening to things like the components of speech and the melody of the language or languages.” This learning begins around 20 weeks into the pregnancy. From birth, developing children tend to hit specific communication milestones, both verbal and nonverbal. One of those first milestones, seen roughly around 6 weeks post-birth, is a social smile. The baby observes someone smiling at them and returns the smile, noting that their smile evokes a positive response from the recipient. “They can recognize … ‘Oh! That gets a response,’” Marinovich says, noting that crying functions very similarly, with babies learning quickly what their cries achieve. At 4 to 6 months, babies coo, indicating that they are learning vowel sounds. This is followed by babbling, which is all about learning to use vowels and consonant combinations. At 9 months, babies begin using gestures to draw attention to things. And around 12 months, the first words are spoken.
Listening and Watching for Subtle Cues
A year is a long time to parent a baby without the assistance of words. The good news is that words aren’t the only form of communication, and babies use crying, body language, and facial expression to give voice to what they want and need most from their caregivers.
Although many babies cry if they’re hungry, most babies start dropping hints long before things feel urgent enough for tears. Cries are actually not considered hunger cues; instead, they signal distress, according to WIC Works (link opens a PDF), a project of the United States Department of Agriculture. According to this resource, parents can avoid distressing hunger in their children by learning patterns and subtle cues babies use to draw attention to their hunger. In newborn babies, rooting around for the breast, sucking on their hands or fingers, and drawing their hands to their face are all signals of hunger. Most babies also open and close their mouth when they’re ready for a meal. Typically, babies are ready for solid foods once they are sitting up on their own. Parents can gauge their baby’s interest in solid foods by watching for common signs like reaching for what is on their parents’ plate or the ability to handle foods without pushing them out of their mouths.
Just like babies signal their parents when they are hungry, they also communicate when they are satisfied. This is an interesting and important topic, as properly reading infant cues on hunger and satiety is considered part of obesity prevention. It helps avoid over-consumption, according to a research review in the journal Maternal & Child Nutrition. Newborns typically slow their sucking or even fall asleep when they are satisfied, according to WIC Works. They may turn their head away and appear more relaxed. As babies grow older, they become distracted or want to play while eating. Some babies clamp their mouth shut to refuse a bottle or breast.
If you’ve ever cared for an infant, you know there is such thing as an overtired baby. Some babies become so exhausted it is actually more difficult to get them to sleep. Watching for cues that your baby is ready for a nap or bedtime can make the whole experience less dramatic for everyone involved—saving you from a bedtime struggle or hysterical crying from a wiped out baby. Most obvious, perhaps, is that newborns yawn when tired. They also pull their hands to their face, clench their hands into fists, rub their eyes, or pull at their ears, according to Today. As babies grow more tired, their movements become jerkier and they become less interested in their surroundings. Catch sleepiness early, use a routine to make naps simple and predictable, and encourage healthy sleep habits in developing babies.
I need quiet.
From a young age, babies drop hints when their environment has become too much for them. Like older children and adults, babies need quiet and breaks from stimulation. “Maybe they’re closing their eyes,” says Marinovich. “Or they’re crying for ‘no apparent reason.’” Many babies will also look away, wave their hands, or kick their feet if they’re becoming overstimulated. The solution to overstimulation is as simple as making an adjustment to their environment like lowering or removing noise, stepping away from them for a time, or lowering the lights in the room.
I want to play.
One of the primary jobs that comes with being a baby is learning by interacting with their brand new environment, according to Marinovich. “The baby is in this sensory world, they’re all of a sudden exposed to noise and everything they’re seeing and everything they’re touching,” she says. “This is a very different environment than what they had in the womb.” As they watch, listen, and learn, babies are focused on finding patterns in their environment and indications of what deserves their attention, Marinovich explains. Having a parent present and close gives them an opportunity to learn through interaction. Of course, newborns don’t exactly toss a ball or drag out a train set when they’re looking for a little one-on-one with their caregiver. How can you know when they’re up for some interaction? According to Marinovich, babies indicate this even within their first week of life by settling into an awake, but calm, state of being. “Babies sort of have these patterns of alertness and quiet,” she says.
I’m in pain.
Babies do so much crying, it is difficult to determine what their cries mean exactly. Are they tired and hungry, or is something causing them pain? Crying that indicates pain escalates in intensity and doesn’t resolve with comfort or food. A cry caused by pain may also have a higher pitch than usual, according to Kyla Boyse, RN, of the University of Michigan. Parents can also watch for body language typically associated with pain. Infants in pain scrunch up their faces, and their body may become tense. Determining the source of pain is difficult, but a common cause is gas or an upset stomach. If you are concerned about your baby, a doctor can help determine what is causing the pain and if further treatment is necessary.
Encouraging Strong Lines of Communication
A strong bond between an infant and their caregiver is foundational to their emotional and physical health. One popular school of thought on child attachment, developed by German psychologist Erik Erikson, argues that the first lesson children must learn is that the world and the people around them are trustworthy. For this reason, understanding how to read your baby and responding to their needs is an important part of building a healthy relationship with your child. The good news is that encouraging strong lines of communication with an infant or young child isn’t rocket science—it’s really about being present and consistently tuned in to their needs. Marinovich strongly believes that parents are already equipped with the tools they need to bond with their baby, and she says many parents are already doing many of the things necessary to encourage communication. “We tend to overcomplicate things,” admits Marinovich. “We can see how they are communicating by these early cries … we can offer comfort through things like our touch and smell and voice and milk.”
“[Take] a moment while you’re changing a diaper or while you’re nursing, to get into a comfortable position, to make eye contact, to include a moment of touch on your baby’s skin. We already have the materials we need.” —Ayelet Marinovich, pediatric speech-language pathologist and parent educator