Friday, June 26, 2009

Baby Behavior Basics Part 3 – Learning and Creating Your Baby’s Special Language

One of the most astonishing things about newborns is their ability to communicate almost from the moment they are born. Without words, they manage to let their parents know when they want to eat, learn, play, or rest. They also can use their bodies and some awful noises to send unmistakable signals when they need a break (or a diaper change!). In the past, experienced friends and family members were there to help moms “decode” baby messages. These days, many new parents are on their own in trying to understand their babies’ signals, called “cues.” In this post, we’ll help you translate the seemingly random movements and sounds that your baby makes into comprehensible messages. We’re going to tell you about “engagement cues,” “disengagement cues,” and “clustered cues.”

Engagement cues – When babies want to interact with the people who love them (or anyone nearby), they will instinctively look, move, and make noise in specific ways. Collectively, these movements and noises are called “engagement cues.”
What you’ll see – Your baby will have wide open eyes and look at you or a toy as if they are trying to memorize what they see. Their faces and their bodies will be relaxed and they will use smooth body movements. Older babies may smile and try to touch or taste whatever interests them. When they are very excited, babies will kick their legs and squirm with glee.
What you can do – Using engagement cues, your baby is asking you to help her learn more about you and her new world. At first, your baby will be content just looking at your face and listening to your voice. Later, she’ll want to play more complicated games. Enjoy this time together but be prepared to watch for signs that your baby might be tiring. Engaging with you is hard work!

Disengagement cues – When babies need a break, either for a moment or a nap, they’ll use a different set of movements and noises to make sure you know it. These signs are called “disengagement cues.”
What you’ll see – Your baby may close his eyes, turn his face or body away from you or he may arch or twist his body away. His muscles will be tense and he may frown or look like he is about to cry. If he’s not allowed to take a break, he will start crying to make sure you know what to do. Older babies will stiffen their hands and bring them up towards their faces; they may try to change position, have you pick them up or put them down.
What you can do – Let your baby take a break! Stop whatever you were doing; reduce stimulation in the environment (noises, lights, toys, or interactions) that might have been too much for your baby. Pay close attention and see if your baby is happy with a short break or if he may need a longer one or a big change of scene. Babies who are over stimulated by what is going on around them will use disengagement cues but babies have a very limited ability to communicate. While they can tell you when they need a break, they can’t tell you why they need the break. If you pick up your fussy baby and he arches away from you, he might be trying to tell you that the TV is too loud or that the dog smells bad. Sometimes the problem will be obvious; other times you’ll need to be a detective to figure out what has upset your baby.

The Ultimate Baby Body Language: Clustered Cues
It wouldn’t make sense that it could be hard to tell when a baby is hungry. If people needed a PhD to tell when babies needed to eat, babies wouldn’t survive. Babies will give parents lots of cues, called “clustered cues,” when they need them to do important things. A hungry newborn will move her head looking for something to suck on. She will pull her hands and her knees upward toward her face. She will make sucking noises and try to suck on anything she can find. If no one feeds her right away (babies don’t like to wait), she will start crying while still using all the other cues. Older babies will try to get into a breastfeeding position, or excitedly reach for the bottle or spoon. Babies use clustered cues to show they are full too. They relax their muscles, slow down in their eating, let their hands fall away from their face, and sometimes fall asleep. Making sure you know when to stop feeding is just as important to your baby as letting you know she needs to eat. It is important when parents hear their babies cry that they check for clustered hunger cues before they assume they are hungry.

Creating Your Own Special Language
Now that I’ve made it all sound so simple, I do have to warn you that some babies are not born able to give clear cues. Some babies have to develop their skills over the first few days and weeks. Fortunately, nature makes sure that things turn out well; when parents respond to babies’ signals, babies get better at using cues and parents get better at reading them. After a relatively short time, parents and babies develop their own special language and this continues as children get older and learn other ways to communicate, including using words. We’d love to hear about your baby’s special ways of communicating with you.

Next time: Crying: Your Baby’s Super Power


  1. When my baby is hungry she starts sticking her tongue out, then if that doesn't get the milk flowing, she quacks like a duck!

  2. Talk about creating your own language!

    Thank you for brightening our Friday! I just read this comment to everyone in our office and they are cracking up!

  3. There are days that i feed my 6 week old every hour or hour and a half but once he takes the nipple he falls asleep, i get confused because he gives me all the signs that he is hungry but yet he doesn't always eat. what do i do?

  4. Whenever a baby does not seem to be feeding well, it is always best to see your doctor to rule out any health concerns. But, if your baby is gaining well, staying healthy and the doctor finds nothing wrong, there are a couple of things that might be happening. 1) You don't say what you are using as signs that he is hungry and you may be getting confused with other cues. Some babies try to suck on their hands because it makes them feel calmer - you can tell the difference between this and hunger because sucking on his hands won't satisfy a hungry baby. He'll quickly start to root for something else. 2) You may not be getting your baby awake enough to feed well. The moment the still groggy baby starts to suck, he settles back into sleep. It may take more effort with a variety of stimulation to get him more fully awake. We hope that helps!

  5. Whenever my Nora wants attention , like after she has woken up from a nap or something she will cough. Just a few fake coughs and and a smile. It's so funny.

  6. My baby girl is 1 month and 2 days. She is almost always clear about her cues, but sometimes she cries and nothing seems to be what she wants, and we always assume she is overtired (overtired: 5 minutes away from the minute she should have fallen asleep), because she doesn't sleep very easily, and when she can't do it, even if we change rooms, she take a little while to sleep and stop crying. I hope what she needs really is some rest.


      Read about the Period of Purple Crying! Completely normal behavior!

  7. This article is very informative. Thanks.