The Secret Language of Babies

14 Sep 2018
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The Secret Language of Babies

Babies “talk” to us all the time. Just like for adults, your baby’s body language can reveal a lot about how the baby is feeling and how to make him or her happy once again.

Observe and Listen

Since babies can’t yet speak, observation is the surest way for us to read their cues and understand what they are communicating. To truly observe and listen we have to do less. The cues are there, and while they can be difficult to decode if we pay attention we can get to know their cues over time. 

What are baby cues?

Before they develop words, they use their voice, and face, arm and leg movements to communicate. These sounds and movements are called baby cues.

Baby cues are the way your baby shows you how they feel and how to work out what they want. These signals are designed to draw attention, convey messages, and provide information. Cues tell you what your baby likes and what your baby doesn’t like; whether your baby is happy to continue in an activity or needs a break. Cues signal whether your baby is coping with the environment or whether there is too much going on.  

Engagement cues are signals or body language the baby uses to show that they like what is going on around them. They are called approach or coping signals.

Engagement cues

  • Eyes become wide open and bright as the baby focuses on you
  • Turning eyes, head or body toward you or the person who is talking
  • Alert face
  • Healthy pink colour
  • Steady breathing
  • Hand-to-mouth activity, often accompanied by sucking movements
  • Hands clasped together
  • Grasping on to your finger or an object
  • Smooth hand, arm, and leg movement 
  • Softly flexed posture (looks relaxed)

Disengagement cues are signals or body language the baby uses to show that they do not like what is going on around them. They let you know when your baby is stressed and needs a break from what is happening.

Disengagement cues

  • Crying or fussing
  • Gagging, spitting out
  • Red eyebrows
  • Frowning, grimacing
  • Hiccoughing, yawning, sneezing
  • Becoming red, pale or mottled
  • Irregular breathing
  • Jittery or jerky movements
  • Agitated or thrashing movements
  • Falling asleep
  • Turning eyes, head or body away from you or the person who is talking
  • Salute, finger splay
  • Limp or stiff posture
  • Back arching

If you take the time to read the cues that your child gives when he or she needs something, you can skip a lot of the frustration and have a happier baby. Here are some common baby wants and their associated cues:

Hungry

If your baby is hungry and crying, then they have already moved well past the stage where they have been trying to tell you that they need to eat. It is much easier to feed a mildly hungry baby who is still calm, than one who is extremely agitated. For newborns, start looking for cues every 1 to 2 hours or every 3 to 4 hours for an older baby. Here are some common “I'm hungry” cues:

  • Yawning, stretching
  • Smacking lips or sucking sounds
  • Fist in mouth
  • When sleeping, rapid eye movement
  • Waving hands

Most babies will use the same cues, so once you know what you're looking for, you'll understand when your baby is trying to tell you that they're hungry.

Tired

In the beginning, it is pretty easy to tell when your baby needs a nap, because he or she will usually eat and then fall asleep. As your baby ages and is able to stay awake for longer periods of time, it may be more difficult to tell when it's nap time. Some babies will follow a schedule and will sleep at approximately the same time every day. Others will not, and it will be up to mom or dad to determine when your baby is tired. Here are some cues to indicate nap time:

  • Eye-rubbing or yawning
  • Fussing or whining, which increases in volume
  • Frowning
  • Sucking on fingers
  • Becoming irritable
  • Ignoring attempts at distraction

It is important that when your baby starts giving cues for nap time that you act on them quickly, as an over-tired baby will be much more difficult to get to sleep.

Playful

Believe it or not, there will be times when your baby wants nothing but your attention. By starting good attention habits at an early age – by giving your baby attention for positive behavior – it will help to lead to better behavior as they grow up. Here are some common cues that indicate that your baby wants to play with you:

  • Holding perfectly still while watching you
  • Studying your face and making eye contact
  • Reaching out
  • Wide eyes, following your movements
  • Smiling
  • Babbling or cooing

Give your baby positive attention by getting down on their level and playing with toys or reading a story. If you are in the middle of something (like making dinner), you can give your baby attention by telling him or her what you are doing or responding to what he or she is playing with or doing.