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The ways babies communicate

Updated: Jan 19, 2019

In case you didn't know, babies can't speak. They can't tell us what's wrong. But they can show us. It's up to us to interpret those signs.



Here are a bunch of cues that communicate meaning, even from babies as young as a few hours old:


Ready to play


Babies generally go through stages of alertness and tiredness; when they're ready to play they'll be:


· Awake and alert

· Making eye contact; eyes will be open wide and bright

· Smiling

· Moving their arms and legs, exploring and looking at their surroundings

· Reaching out to you


Sometimes, however, babies just get bored with what they're doing and will start fussing. They'll kick their legs and look away, looking for something else. These signs sometimes get confused with hunger or tiredness, but they're often milder and a quick change or scenery or activity will create a smiling, happy baby once more. If it doesn't improve their fussiness, look out for signs of other things they're trying to communicate:


Hunger


When they are born, babies' stomachs are about the size of a grape. By the end of the first month, they are about the size of an egg. Babies need fed little and often in the early weeks. If you're breastfeeding, feed on demand: respond to your babies hunger cues and they'll eat however much they need at that time. If you're bottlefeeding, you can pace feeds to build up the amount in the bottle gradually. Once the baby stops sucking on the bottle, they're done for now. Offer more later.


Signs of hunger:

· Sucking/lip-smacking noises

· Sucking fingers

· Opening mouth and ‘rooting’

· Cry sounds like ‘ngya’


How to help:

· Feed. A little and often is best.


Wind


It's sometimes difficult to tell when a baby is hungry and when they're gassy, but each cry sounds unique.


Signs of wind:

· Sucking fingers

· Pulling legs in towards body

· Frowning, screwing face up

· Loud, sore cry


How to help:

· Make sure to help baby to burp after each feed (as they get more mobile there's less of a need as they will manage themselves). Baby's head should be higher than their stomach when feeding. Burp by holding them upright, with their head on your shoulder and gently pat their back or by gently raising them from lying prone to sitting upright. Often the change in position helps shift the gas.

· If the gas is causing discomfort, lie baby on their back and 'cycle' their legs. Lift one up, then the other, pushing slightly into the tummy.

· Massage baby's tummy in a clockwise direction.

· Lie baby on their front across your knees. Supporting their head, move your legs from side to side slowly.

· If gas is persistent, look at what you're eating (if you're breastfeeding), to rule out gassy foods or intolerances. If you're bottle-feeding, make sure flow isn't too much and that the bottle is in the correct position, allowing air to escape through the small hole in the side of the teat.


Teething


Ah, teething. It comes and goes so regularly and can upset all those routines we have finally managed to get to grips with. We wonder why our baby has been so fussy, when all of a sudden we notice a new tooth cutting through. Every baby goes through this, and while it can be upsetting for us to witness their pain, there are ways we can help.


Signs of teething:

· Chewing on fingers/everything

· Lots of saliva

· Runny nose

· Soft, runny poos

· Loud, painful cry


How to help:

· Let babies chew. Give them something hard but yeilding (like a plastic teething toy), a frozen washcloth, or an ice lolly. Ice will help numb the area.

· Teething gels can also help numb the area, and teething powders help with both pain and saliva overproduction, minimising drooling rashes.

· If they're really in pain, you can give them baby paracetamol (older babies can have ibuprofen).

· Some parents swear by amber teething necklaces. Though there is very little research to substantiate these claims, the theory is that Baltic amber has natural analgesic properties (it releases succinic acid when warmed by body heat, which helps relieve pain, calms heart rate and minimise drool). Make sure not to leave it around baby's neck while sleeping: you should wrap it around their ankle.


Tiredness


There is a fine lie between tired and overtired. Some babies do not want to go to sleep, and need a lot of help to do so. Some babies magically fall asleep whenever they need to.


Signs of tiredness:

· One or two yawns (by third they’re getting overtired)

· Rubbing face

· Pulling ears

· Staring into the distance

· Pale face, red around the eyes

· Fussing, losing interest

· Jerky movements

· By the time they’re crying they’re often overtired and it will take longer to get to sleep


How to help:

· Try and encourage them to sleep in the earliest stages of tiredness, as the more tired they become the harder it will be to persuade them to sleep. (Ever hear of getting a 'second wind'? Babies get these too.)

· Get them to sleep in whatever way works for you and baby. The earlier we instill routines, the easier it is to continue to reinforce the difference between 'awake time' and 'sleep time'.

· Remember that babies do not care whether it's night or day; they will have no routine in the early weeks.

· Remember that routines will change often as babies develop.

· Test the temperature of where baby is sleeping: they cannot regulate their temperature themselves for a long time after birth so if it's too hot or cold it could wake baby up.

· Also remember that it is normal, indeed it is instinct, for babies to wake often throughout the night in the early months. They wake to be fed, looking for reassurance and comfort. Babies need this attention just as much throughout the night as during the day. Respond to them, comfort them; nap when they nap! Do not worry that your baby is not sleeping for longer than an hour or two; it's just as normal as babies who sleep for four or five hours at a time.

· Look after yourself. I promise, one day they will sleep.


Overstimulated


Before I had my own, I didn't even know that babies could get so overstimulated by their surroundings that they want to switch off. It's very different from overtiredness. Babies are learning so much in such a small period of time; they're trying to interpret all their senses and sometimes can get a little overloaded with information.


Signs of overstimulisation:

· Turning face away

· Hiding face

· Banging head off pillows

· Getting fussy

· Loud, annoyed cry


How to help:

· Turn the lights low and just hold them.

· If they're fussy, rocking them in a dark room can help.

· Sound, lights, movement can overstimulate a baby. Watch for the signs and breastfeed them or have some quiet time.

· They often get overstimulated just as they're getting tired; maybe it's naptime.

· Remember that babies instinctively learn everything they need to know. You don't have to take them to every class or get the brightest, flashiest toys: most babies are happy with a wooden spoon and a pot.




I really hope this helps you understand more about your baby. I wish I had been given a 'baby language' manual in the early days. I would have known better what my baby needed. I believe that the better we understand and respond to our babies, the more secure they feel in their attachment to us and the happier they (and we) are.



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