Young children don’t have the words to express themselves. Of course, this fact alone often causes parents to develop a plethora of fears about the health and well-being of their babies, particularly when they’re new and/or first-time parents. One way to help quell these concerns and fears is to better understand how your baby communicates so that you can more accurately and quickly identify their needs, discomforts, and wants.
While babies may lack words, they do communicate with adults. Experts have actually identified three primary methods babies use to make their needs known – cries, sounds, and gestures. Let’s explore each to help you better communicate with your baby.
1. Your Baby Cries
During a baby’s first developmental stage, which occurs over the first four months of life, their primary way of expressing themselves about anything and everything is through crying. So, how do you distinguish what a cry signifies?
The Calling Cry
This attention siren cry is for when baby feels alone or lonely and wants to be held. They’ll cry for around six seconds and abruptly pause for around 20 seconds to see if their call has been heard. If not answered, they’ll repeat the process several times until you either pick him/her up or they grow impatient of waiting and cry continuously without a pause.
The Hunger Cry
This cry can initiate as a calling cry that goes on without baby being picked up. As it continues, it may become hysterical. Baby will usually accompany the crying with intermediate smacking sounds and rotating their head back and forth in a searching pattern. They’re politely requesting food.
The Pain Cry
Painful cries are typically loud, consistent, and monotonous, but the hysteria of the cry often changes as the baby’s pain levels increase and decrease. Monotonous cries that are weak or quiet can signal that baby is getting more sick and doesn’t have the strength to sustain loud, exaggerated crying.
The Physiological Cry
Whether it be trapped gas or a wet or soiled diaper, physiological processes can make baby mildly to extremely uncomfortable. The uncomfortable cry is squeaky and resembles a whine.
The Sleepy Cry
Just like adults, babies can want to go to sleep and be unable to do so. This cry is slightly softer and smoother than a whine and may be interrupted by yawning, rubbing their eyes, or even briefly nodding off for a few seconds between cries.
The Discomfort Cry
Babies are very sensitive to temperature, lighting, and the overall ambience of their environment. They also get bored and frustrated easily. Their clothing or diaper may be uncomfortable. They might just be positioned uncomfortably or feel the need to move. In any event, a cry of discomfort is usually intermittent and irritated with flailing, arching, fidgeting, and/or wiggling.
2. Your Baby Makes Sounds
According to Priscilla Dunstan, an Australian pediatrician, the reflex sounds babies make to communicate their physical needs are universal. Dunstan has studied early childhood sounds for over 20 years and has conducted studies involving thousands of babies from across the globe.
In fact, Priscilla was born with a photographic memory for sound that allows her to hear things others cannot. When she had her first baby she was able to pick up certain patterns in her babies cries and then remember what they were. She quickly realized that other babies had the same sounds.
Her research shows that babies start making clearly identifiable sounds after they’re about four months old and that these sounds correlate to the baby’s emerging physical needs. Dunstan has opened a school to teach parents to recognize these sounds so that they can better understand their child’s needs/wants and even proactively prevent many crying episodes. Her sound dictionary includes:
This is the feed me sound that signifies baby is hungry. “Neh” is a sound made by the baby’s tongue being pushed against the roof of the mouth, which is triggered by the sucking reflex.
This one means a burp is likely coming. It’s formed as baby reflexively tries to use their mouth to release excess air starting to escape the esophagus.
Your baby is likely tired when this sound is produced. “Owh” is the result of your baby folding their lips just before yawning. It’s cute, but do remember that this means baby wants sleep, not stimulation, right now.
Assess how your baby might be uncomfortable. As your baby encounters unpleasant tactile sensations, they wiggle, squirm, jerk, and flail their arms and legs. Such movements, particularly when the baby’s mouth is open, help create the “heh” sound.
Gaseous pains are usually the reason your baby makes this sound. It’s a distorted moan as baby strains his/her belly and tries to exhale through the pain.
3. Your Baby Makes Movements
The third component of understanding your baby’s communication tactics is in their body language.
If your baby is less than two months old, back arching is usually a pain response and could be an indicator of colic. Back arching after feedings is a good sign your baby is full, and it’s a good sign of reflux if it occurs during feeding. For babies older than two months, back arching most often occurs in response to a bad mood or being tired and sleepy.
If your baby is anxious, such as when meeting new people or when trying to fall asleep without soothing, they may rotate their head. Baby use head rotations to self-soothe and calm.
Ear grabbing can be a sign of an ear infection, especially when repetitive and accompanied by persistent crying or agitation. That said, babies often benignly grab at their ears as they begin to curiously explore their body.
Fist clenching is an early indicator of hunger that often proceeds hunger cries.
When tummy pain strikes, your baby instinctively lifts their legs in an attempt to ease the discomfort.
Bright lights, loud noises, sudden movements, and such frighten babies. It’s called the startle reflex, and it means your baby needs to be reassured and comforted against environmental stimuli.
Good communication is essential to any relationship. Did you know pediatricians actually recommend talking to babies from the day they’re born? It may sound silly considering baby can’t talk back, but it’s actually a significant part of baby’s development and communication learning.
Understanding the above three communication tactics of cries, sounds, and gestures babies use to express their needs and wants will help you best know how, when, and why your baby needs you. This certainly makes for a healthier and happier parent and baby.