As you get to know your little one, you’ll begin to pick up on their physical cues. Soon enough, you’ll be understanding their garbled coos like it’s your second language. Learning how your little one expresses themselves takes time and attention, so don’t worry if you don’t get it right every time, or straight away.
Sometimes babies just want to be understood. As adults, we can imagine it would be challenging to have such limited means of communicating what you want. Babies tend to mirror emotion, so if you’re unsure what your little one is asking for, try making a happy face, or being very calm. This may settle them down, whereas getting upset or frustrated may spur on their crying. Making eye contact could also help them feel acknowledged, understood, and therefore less distressed.
As your little one is learning speech, they are listening to your tones. You may be able to recognize particular ‘tones of voice’ in their baby talk, which might give you a hint as to what they’re trying to say. ‘Crying’ can be a sign of almost anything but is typically a ‘later stage’ cue. Cries may sound different for each need; keeping note of which sounds tend to mean what might save you some time in the future.
Several cues seem to be relatively universal across most babies. If your child presents differently to these ‘common’ cues, that’s okay. The following list is a rough guide to help decipher some newborn needs.
● Clenched fists
● Gnawing or sucking on hands (yours or theirs)
● Reaching for/trying to nestle close to mum’s chest
● Opening and closing mouth
● Turning head side to side
● Trouble focusing
● Pulling on ears
● Rubbing eyes
● Jerky movements
● Long blinks
● Seeming disinterested
● Pursed lips (as though saying ‘oooh’)
● Gripping onto you
● Smooth (not jerky) movements
● Cooing or babbling
Full or gassy
● Arching back
● Raising knees
‘Disengagement signals’ (signs your baby doesn’t like what’s going on). Your little one may be in need of a break if you notice physical cues such as:
● Wrinkled nose
● Squinting eyes
● Squirming in your arms
● Turning their head away
● Avoiding eye contact
● Falling silent
● Staying still
● Losing interest in toys or people around them
● Irregular breathing
● Red face or eyebrows
● ‘Thrashing’ movements
● Tense posture
● Dull or glazed eyes
‘Engagement signals’ (signs your baby is happy with what is going on)
● Wide, bright, or focused eyes
● Turning head toward you or whoever is speaking or trying to engage with baby
● Steady breathing
● Relaxed posture
● Gripping your finger or a nearby object
● Seems alert
● Clasping hands together
You’ll have noticed many of these signals can mean different things. There is no one-for-all guide to each baby. Over time, signals may even change in meaning. For example, fidgeting could mean gassiness in a newborn but may be a sign of trying to roll over when your baby is a few months older.
If you can’t figure out what your baby is asking for, try a few approaches. Offer them food, a cuddle, a nap, check their nappy, take them to a quieter room, or try to engage in play. Newborns are continually processing new information, and sometimes just need to have a good cry!
If you’re concerned about meeting your baby’s needs, or they seem to be crying more than usual, consult with your doctor.