Four Important Cues to Help You Understand Your Baby

There are books that suggest if you follow the clock you will get to know what your baby needs. For instance, if the clock says it’s feeding time, you will ‘know’ your baby is hungry. If the clock says it’s bedtime, you will ‘know’ your baby is tired.

While these specific instructions may have sounded simple before you had your baby, it can feel very confusing when you have a little one who doesn’t fit neatly into this one-sized fits all template. What do you do? How do you guess what your baby needs? Are you second guessing yourself and wondering, is he hungry? Is he tired? Or, what am I doing wrong?

Watch your baby, not the clock

Rather than watching the clock, if you watch your tiny baby, you will soon learn exactly what YOUR baby needs, you and your baby will become attuned to each other, your confidence will soar! 

Your baby’s cues, or non-verbal language, are his way of trying to tell you what he needs. It may take a few weeks to get to know your baby’s cues. But if you do some baby-watching, you will be amazed at how even very young babies can give clear signals that they want to interact (or not), are tired or hungry.

Responding to your baby cues — day and night — will help your baby develop a sense of trust in his ability to influence his environment. It will also help him form a secure attachment to you. These are important prerequisites for later emotional development and relationships. Your responsiveness will also help your baby learn what psychologists call ’emotional regulation’ which is the capacity to understand that we have control over our emotions.

As you soothe your baby, you are teaching him that when he is upset, he can calm down. When babies’ signals are ignored, and they escalate to cries that are not responded to, the baby fails to develop the understanding that he can regulate his own emotions.

Baby Cue #1: I’m Hungry

Babies give a lot of subtle cues that they are ready to feed, long before they begin to cry. From rooting with their mouths to making sucking noises and trying to suck on their fists, as well as little noises that say, ‘I’m working up to a cry’. If these signals are ignored, they will yell.

Crying is a late hunger cue, and when we repeatedly wait until a young baby cries (sometimes it is unavoidable) or we try to space feeds to fit into a strict routine, we can set ourselves on a path to unnecessary feeding problems.

Notice where your baby’s tongue is when she is yelling. A baby can’t latch on to feed when her tongue is up against the roof of her mouth. If you do manage to calm her enough to latch on and feed, her suck is likely to be disorganised, or she may be exhausted from crying. This means she’ll likely only take a small feed before falling asleep. She won’t empty your breasts effectively so this can impact your milk supply. And if your baby only takes a small feed before becoming exhausted (from crying before she is fed), she will probably sleep for a very short time then wake for another feed as her tiny tummy quickly empties.

On the other hand, if you feed your baby when you see her early feeding cues, she will feed efficiently, she will drain your breasts well and encourage a healthy milk supply (the more milk you remove, the more milk your breasts will be signalled to make). Your baby will also be more settled and sleep for longer with a nice full tummy.

Baby Cue #2: Play With Me

Tiny babies have very short periods where they can actually ‘engage’ and interact with you. But as she grows, your little one will be able to play for longer periods, and her signals will become much clearer. When your baby wants you to play, her eyes will become wide and bright. She may purse her tiny lips as though she is saying ‘ooh’ as she turns towards your voice or looks at your face. Movements of her arms and legs will be smooth (as opposed to jerky) as she reaches out to you. She might grasp your finger or hold onto you. If you respond, your baby will make eye contact and smile, coo, babble or talk. These signals, or ‘engagement cues’ are your baby’s way of saying, ‘Please play with me.’

Baby Cue #3: Give Me A Break 

When your baby needs a break from what she is doing, she will give very clear ‘disengaging’ signals.

These may be:

  • Looking away (little babies can only maintain eye contact for short periods so may look away then continue gazing at you after a break) or turning her head away.
  • Squirming or kicking, coughing, spitting up or arching her back.
  • Some babies will even put up their hand in a sort of ‘stop’ sign.

More subtle cues that your baby is tiring from playing or needs a change of pace or activity include, yawning, wrinkling her forehead or frowning.

If you keep playing when your baby tries to tell you she wants to stop, she will become agitated and make thrashing movements, or she will start fussing and crying.

Baby Cue #4: I’m Sleepy

None of us like being kept awake when we are craving sleep. So rather than waiting until your baby is ‘past it’, put her to bed as soon as she shows sleepy signs.

These include:

  • Becoming quiet;
  • Losing interest in people and toys;
  • Making jerky movements (in small babies);
  • Becoming very still (these babies relax and fall asleep easily);
  • Yawning Frowning or knotting her eyebrows;
  • Clenching her fists into tight balls;
  • Rubbing her eyes and ears and fussing

If you miss this window of opportunity, your baby is likely to become grumpy and find it difficult to settle. If you miss your baby’s tired signs, she may become hyped up and will be much harder to settle.

Learning your baby's unique cues

Although these baby cues are typical signs that most babies use to elicit the care they need, individual babies will not use all of these cues all of the time. Each baby will develop his own mix of signals. For instance, one tired baby may lie still and watch her tiny fist as she becomes increasingly drowsy, another may have less control over his movements which could be jerky if he is young, or seemingly uncoordinated if he is already mobile, and yet another baby may rub his eyes and fuss.

As you play with your baby you will often notice a mixture of engagement and disengagement signals, so take your time getting to know your baby’s way of communicating when she is enjoying playing, when she is feeling a bit overwhelmed and needs a break, and when she is becoming hungry or tired. 

Your baby’s signals may seem unclear but by spending lots of time just watching your baby and being present with her, along with some trial and error working out what your baby is telling you, you will soon become attuned to each other. Your baby will develop his own unique way of communicating with each person in his world and you and your partner will learn to respond in just the way that suits your baby.