Understanding How Your Baby Communicates
Your baby blasts out of the womb and into this world with a whole lot to say about their love, needs, and satisfaction. If you have been taught that babies are just lumps of sleepy cuteness with no preferences or personality, then you have been taught wrong…..very wrong
A trained eye can watch a mother-infant dyad and be floored by the passage of incredible moments of greeting and engagement. Even the untrained eye can see that there is something magical happening in the attuned mother-infant dyad. It’s amazing how much a baby wants to communicate and well a mother can hear it.
I am sure there is so much you could tell me about your baby, even though they can’t speak (and might even still be in utero).
But because babies use a wordless system of autonomic cues and arousal states to communicate, it can be hard to listen and understand. It doesn’t always come easy for everyone. Even if you are already very connected to your infant’s needs, individuality, and competencies, learning just a few simple things about how your baby communicates is important and can totally transform your family.
If you're having trouble staying attuned to the subtle communications of babies, it may be because your phone has become a particularly powerful distraction. If you struggle with phone addiction or media over-use, or even if you're just wanting to run a quick audit of your skills >> click here and take my LOOKUP CHALLENGE.
When I close my eyes and meditate on what I want for you - a BIG part of that picture is for you and your baby to be communicating with ease, peace, grace, and comfort.
In this picture, you’re feeling confident and curious in each moment, and your baby is feeling safe, loved, and powerful...
All it takes to get you there is a few small moments of meeting with your baby
Today, I want to help you learn how to notice the powerful communications that happen in a baby’s silence, yawns, micromovements, and cries so that you and your baby can deepen your mutual understanding of one another.
If you finish reading this post and want to dive even deeper into the subject of infant interpretation, I recommend Dr. Kevin Nugent book titled Your Baby is Speaking to You. (Click to buy). Dr. Nugent is the leading expert in newborn behavior; he trained me at Harvard in newborn behavior and observation, and is a wellspring of wisdom. If you ever see his name on an article, stop searching and start reading.
Now….let’s learn some of the ways you baby communicates, shall we?
1 - SLEEP
Recognizing which sleep state your child is in and what “annoyed” or “bothered” might look like during each sleep state can be helpful.
You can use the reactivity during the sleep state to determine helpful things like how sensitive they are to outside stimulus or how easily they habituate to activity and get the rest that they need.
At the very beginning of life, babies need about 16 to 18 hours of sleep a day. They are able to accomplish this by selectively tuning out what isn’t important to them - it’s incredible. This task of “tuning out” (or habituation) is easier for some babies than others.
ACTION STEP >>
Take time to notice how easily your baby habituates to new noises, movements, or sounds when asleep. If after several seconds they don’t return to a deep, motionless slumber, then they might be a sensitive baby that is having to expend a lot of energy to maintain sleep.
When babies are having to use a ton of energy to habituate, then sleep is less restful and waking hours are more difficult. These babies might have a hard time staying awake to play, interact, or feed. You might need to swaddle your baby tightly or move them to a more quiet place so that they can expend less energy and relax into their sleep.
2 - CRYING
Did you know that babies cry?
You’re all too familiar with a baby’s cry. It’s terrible, and to a new mom it is maddening. We are biologically and neurologically hyperresponsive to the cries of a newborn. I am sure you have experienced this...but there is more…..
Not all cries are the same. Did you know that? Here are a few differences that you can start to notice in your baby’s cries: intensity // loudness // pitch // duration // level of emotion.
Typically, the cries change in form according to the cry’s purpose. So learning the unique timbre of your baby’s cry has real value. Your baby is most likely to cry if they are: hungry // overstimulated // tired // uncomfortable // in pain.
Dr. Nugent points out that “hunger cries and cries of discomfort tend to begin softly and then to become loud and rhythmic. A cry of pain has a distinctive pattern, beginning with a single shriek followed by a short silence and then by continuous loud crying. A cry of pain might even include periods of breath-holding.”
ACTION STEP >>
When you accommodate your soothing response according to the distress that you interpret, it is an incredibly powerful moment for the baby that produces feelings of safety and confidence. This is why I advocate for a slight pause and gentle dedication to learning your baby’s noises.
ACTION STEP >>
Be careful not to over-use the pacifier to soothe because it can also prevent you from hearing and learning your baby’s early verbalizations. Even you’re using the paci, make sure that you are also listening and learning.
3 - YAWNING
Yawning is important for the newborn, and there are a couple of reasons they do it. Most parents assume that it is just a way of communicating fatigue, but it is even more than that!
Babies do yawn when tired or when they are trying to stave off sleep. But they also yawn as a way of saying, “I need a time out.” This is different from sleepy or bored - yawning is actually is a very early cue for “overwhelmed.” When a baby yawns in this manner, they aren’t yet overwhelmed, but if things keep happening and the baby doesn’t get a small break, overstimulation + upset could be right around the corner.
ACTION STEP >>
When you are happily engaging in back and forth conversation or play with your newborn, pay attention to their yawns. Allow it to be a signal to simply slow the conversation and take a brief pause. In these moments, the baby is so enraptured and in love with you, he is expending a lot of energy! His little nervous system sends him (and you) a yawn to say - “shhhhhh, pause, breathe….” so that you can continue to enjoy one another.
4 - TURNING THEIR HEAD
Baby’s are incredible, absolutely incredible. If their body’s yawning reflex didn’t convince you, then this will. When a baby is having trouble taking in something that they perceive to be too loud or too stimulating, he or she will turn to the right or left.
You will notice that your baby will widen their eyes, arch their eyebrows, and maybe tense their neck when they are trying to take in something particularly demanding. When their bodies perceive that it is too much, rather than immediately become unavailable or irritated, they will first try to avert their gaze and calm their brain.
ACTION STEP >>
When you are playing with your baby and they yawn, that means they are loving the interaction, but they need a pause. When they avert their gaze or turn their head, try and determine if they are communicating that the experience is overstimulating. “I want to stay in relationship here, but my body and brain can’t take this kind of movement, noise, or interaction.”
When we talk about having back and forth interactions with a baby, many parent’s guffaw at the thought, “but she can’t speak.” My response to that is one that I hope you now see as obvious. Your baby is speaking to you asking for rhythm of stimulation and quiet listening - just like any other conversation. Your job is to be an attuned and responsive particpant.
5 - ROOTING
I love the rooting response and used it often to determine my babies’ needs in those first few weeks. It was invaluable. As you know, sometimes your infant’s fussiness can feel like a ticking time bomb. Not always, but often it seems like they are signalling a need or expectation and you have a few moments to crack the code.
The rooting reflex is a powerful response that all typical babies have and display when hungry. When you light stroke the outside of your baby’s cheek they will turn their head, stick out their tongue and immediately start searching for a source of food.
ACTION STEP >>
When your baby begins fussining, gently stroke their cheek, near their mouth with the back of your finger. Notice how they initiate their rooting reflex. Is it frantic, energetic, and maybe even amp up the fussiness briefly? Or is it a passing habit? By patiently determing how your baby typically reacts to the rooting reflex at different times, you will learn to hear, “Yes, I am hungry, give me something quick,” vs, “That’s interesting but it isn’t the problem,” vs. “I am not hungry, but that might be nice for a minute.”
It is amazing. Your baby is amazing.
There are so many other reflexes and reactions that you can use to gather information about your baby’s capacities, preferences, and vulnerabilities. Much of which is beyond the scope of this blog post.
I do have a digital course that dives deeper into newborn interaction and gives parents the tools they need to consistently and effectively interpret their baby’s needs.
Believing in your child’s capacity for communication and then understanding their emotional needs is transformative for families. If you agree, then you should definitely consider my online parenting class for new and expecting families.
But if you’re just looking for quick tips now, I believe these are a great place to start. You already know so much about your baby. I love hearing about it and hope you’ll share below. What have you discovered about your baby even though they can’t speak? How has that knowledge changed your relationship?