What your baby is trying to tell you

Your baby has a lot to tell you with baby talk.

He lets you know when he’s hungry and when he’s had enough to eat. He tells you how he prefers to be held and how much he likes (or doesn’t like) to be rocked as he drifts off to sleep. You get to know the ups and downs of his day, his favourite toys and soon, the best pictures in his board book. He shows you who his favourite people are (that would be you!)

Months and months before you ever record his first word in his baby book, the two of you will already understand each other pretty well — all without a word from your baby.

Ottawa mom Laura Storrie’s first baby, David Joseph, gave her a poignant message, early on in their relationship. “We knew something was wrong and we took DJ back to the hospital. Nurses and doctors were running tests — he was screaming and fidgeting. They needed some blood for a test. I was standing by him, a bit shell-shocked. A nurse asked me to hold him so I picked him up and started talking to him — and he immediately calmed down. He just knew I was his mom. He knew my voice and my touch and that I would protect him.” At nine days, DJ let his worried mom know how connected they were at that difficult moment, how safe he felt in her arms.

Not all messages from our babies are as clear as DJ’s. The behaviour of a newborn seems irregular, even random — not because you’re an inexperienced parent, but because newborn behaviour is unpredictable. Lactation consultant Catherine Watson Genna recalls, “I’ll never forget one day when my first-born was two weeks old. He was crying and we couldn’t figure out why — my husband and I were both crying with the baby! What to do? He couldn’t possibly want to eat again. But that was it — he did.”

Through baby talk, your baby will express other needs besides hunger. He can be lonely, too hot or cold, bored, excited or frightened. Sometimes he will be contented; other times, he needs a cuddle. Barbara Nicale, a public health nurse with the Healthy Babies Healthy Children Program at Niagara Region Public Health Department, explains, “Babies have their own thoughts and feelings — on a baby level — right from birth.” If you think of the baby as his own little developing person, that will help you intuit his needs.

Babies need gentle, loving responses from their parents. Nicale says, “When a newborn cries, it’s a strong signal or cue: ‘I need to be comforted; I need to be held; I need you!’ It’s important to respond in a timely manner to relieve her distress and calm her.”

Making sense of your baby’s communication comes with watching your baby. “From the beginning, be a really keen observer — in a quiet, calm way, just watch how your baby behaves. In time,” says Nicale, “as the relationship grows, you’ll get to know her better. You’ll start to learn what her little facial expressions and body movements mean.”

Crying isn’t the only way babies let us know what they want. Nicale explains what a parent who’s watching closely might see: “The baby is wide awake, lying calmly and quietly, but intently gazing into your eyes. She’s interested.” This is a good time to talk softly to your baby, smile at her, let her know how much you love being with her. But moods change and if you’re attentive, you may notice subtle signs. “She’s starting to tense a little, turns her head, looks away and gazes to the side. She’s telling you that she’s had enough for now.”

Despite our loving intentions, we can sometimes miss the baby talk message. Genna explains: “A baby’s communication can be subtle, and cultural messages about babies can get in the way.” For example, she says, “we have the idea that babies are incompetent. But a hungry baby will throw himself off his mom’s shoulder and down to the breast — or he might peck his way to the breast. If his mom thinks it’s just that the baby is weak and can’t control his movements, she might hold his head very tightly. Then he could get overly hungry and cry out of frustration.

No one grasps perfectly what a baby wants every time he frowns or cries. “It’s important that you make the effort to read what the baby needs, but you don’t always figure it out,” says Barbara MacKay Ward, co-director of First Three Years Parenting Resources and Training in Toronto. Does the baby need food, a burp or a more interesting view? Often, we’ll offer several options before hitting on the right one. But the key is to try to understand and to let the baby know that his needs are important to you. “The baby knows that you’ve tried,” says MacKay Ward.

As time goes on, the unpredictability of the newborn stage gradually gives way to patterns; you’ll come to know that after feeding and burping, your baby likes some time on your shoulder to digest. Through all the little rituals of the day — the diapering and feeding and rocking — his needs and likes and dislikes will be clearer to you. You’ll identify some of his different cries and facial expressions.

Something marvellous is happening. As you begin to understand your baby, your baby begins to understand you. As you respond to her — rub her back to calm her or tickle her feet when she’s playful — she comes to know that you’re there for her, that you love her and will protect her. She’s learning to trust you.

You’re both learning about trust. “Trust yourself to know what will make your baby happy,” urges Genna. “And trust your baby to teach you.” It happens something like this: A frown washes across your baby’s face and you know the game the two of you have been playing is over. Her eyes widen as you pass the window and you know she would like to look longer at the trees reflected on the glass. She smiles at you and you smile back.

Now you’re talking her language.

It’s normal and important for mothers and babies to develop an intimate bond early on, says parent educator Catherine Watson Genna, but fathers have a lot to teach their babies, too. “It’s important for babies to learn that there are other people who love them, and that’s where Dad come in.”

Still, relating to a tiny baby may feel like unfamiliar territory to many men. Here are some tips to help you:

• There’s more than enough baby care to go around. If Mom is breastfeeding, Dad can be involved with bathing, massage, diapering, reading and rocking. He can take the baby for a tour and show her the interesting things in the house or yard.

• Mom, let Dad try it! Everyone in a new family is learning. It’s true that Dad may find a slightly different way to hold the baby or wash her hair, but it’s a gift to the whole family if baby and Dad get to connect.

Are you worried?

Barbara MacKay Ward reminds parents that if communication with your baby seems not quite right, check it out. For example, if your newborn isn’t startling at loud noises, talk to your doctor. And you can expect babies to make eye contact for a few seconds by about two months of age.

We do know what our babies are telling us. Parent educator Catherine Watson Genna often sees new parents reading baby talk without even realizing it. “When I do home visits, I can point out, ‘Wow, when your baby gets upset, you’re shushing him in just the rhythm of how a calm baby breathes. You’re giving him the rhythm of calm breathing.’”

Here are some other baby and parent communication clues and cues from Genna:

I’m hungry!

“A hungry newborn might smack his lips or make little sucking movements in his sleep. If mom doesn’t pick him up, he’ll start to mouth his little hands. If mom still doesn’t notice, he’ll start to wiggle and root around looking for a nipple and if that doesn’t work, the baby will start to cry.” Crying is a late sign of hunger.

From about a month on, an observant parent will begin to recognize an escalating pattern of hunger cues. Genna says, “At first the baby is relaxed and calm. Then he might seem more excited. Soon his movements become more frantic and he will look upset. Then he’ll start to fret and finally cry.”

I’m full!

There’s nothing to compare to the sight of a blissed-out baby. A baby who’s had her fill will let go of the breast and perhaps look up at her mom and smile. Full, happy and content with her life, she might put her face on the breast and go to sleep.

Hold me!

Your baby needs time in your loving arms.

How does she tell you? She’ll probably seem unhappy and unsettled. “She might make little grouchy faces and whining sounds, like she’s complaining, ‘I’m just not happy. I’m just not comfortable,’” suggests Genna.

Those are times when she needs to be held, rocked or walked around. Genna explains that there are two different kinds of stimulation: Rocking or swaying are calming or organizing stimulation (needed when the baby is a bit overwhelmed with the world and “losing it”); jiggling and bouncing are alerting stimulation (because, yes, even young babies get bored!). Parents, she says, are good at figuring out which type a baby needs, in the moment.

Look at that!

When babies stare at their hands, your face, that pretty mobile, they’re fascinated! You can talk to him about what he’s seeing — “the wind is moving the leaves” — and make sure he has interesting things to look at.

Hold me close/Give me a break.

Genna explains that very young babies can become overwhelmed and overstimulated by noises, sights, even eye-to-eye contact with Mom or Dad. “The baby might look away, yawn or hiccup — these signs are: ‘OK, I need a little break.’” When your baby shows “I need a rest” signs, Genna suggests looking away for a minute or putting the baby on your shoulder where he can snuggle, so that your baby doesn’t become overstimulated.

This article was originally published in 2007.

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