Showing posts with label disengagement cues. Show all posts
Showing posts with label disengagement cues. Show all posts

Friday, July 15, 2011

Secrets of Baby Behavior: Overstimulation

 My 3 year old, Olivia, just started gymnastics. Her class is held at 6 pm in a large warehouse-like building that includes a gymnastics area, where several classes are conducted concurrently, and a hockey rink. Olivia was so excited for her first class, so our whole family (me, my husband, and 7-month-old Charlotte) came to watch. As you can imagine, the sounds of squealing toddlers, giggling pre-teen gymnasts, and hockey practice echoing through the inadequately air conditioned building quickly became overwhelming for Charlotte. While I helped with Olivia’s class, my poor husband spent the entire hour trying to keep Charlotte calm. This week, we decided that Charlotte should stay home, so I took Olivia alone. As I sat in the waiting area, watching Olivia do her first summersault, I heard some fussing and saw a mom rocking her baby. I watched as she tried bouncing and singing, walking around, and even feeding her 3 month-old son, but nothing seemed to help him calm down. Finally, after about 20 minutes, the baby fell asleep. The mom looked relieved as she sat down next to me and said “I think he should stay home next week.”

After seeing another mother experience exactly what we went through just a week before, I was reminded how easily babies become overstimulated. Over the last 2 years, we’ve posted a lot of information about overstimulation. So, today I thought it would be good to provide links to previous posts that may be useful to parents going through the same thing.

Baby Behavior Basics Part 2: The Many Moods of Babies (June 2009) – In one of our original posts, we describe the 4 infant states babies move through when they are awake (drowsy, quiet alert, irritable, and crying). For each state, we explain what you will see that will tell you that this is the state your baby is in and what you can do to help your baby be calm and happy.

Baby Behavior Basics Part 3: Learning and Creating Your Baby’s Special Language (June 2009) – Babies give 2 types of cues to tell caregivers what they need. Engagement cues are given when they want to interact and disengagement cues mean they need something to be different. This post describes both types of cues and explains how each can be related to overstimulation.

Baby Behavior Basics Part 4: Crying: Your Baby’s Super Power (June 2009) – Babies can’t tell us with their words when they are overstimulated, so crying is an important way they tell us they need a break. For information about why babies cry, recognizing when a crying baby is overstimulated, and using repetition to help calm your baby, read this post!

Reader Question: How to keep your baby from being grumpy while grocery shopping (March 2010) – Like the gymnastics class, the grocery store can be a very overwhelming place for a young baby. The sights, sounds, smells, and even temperature change from aisle to aisle and can overload babies’ senses. In this post we provide tips to make the shopping experience a little easier on everyone!

Part 1: The Phenomenon of Late Afternoon/Early Evening Infant Crying (July 2010) –Many babies tend to get fussy in the late afternoon or evening and overstimulation is usually the reason. This post provides research about crying and why it tends to be more common later in the day. In Part 2, we provide tips to deal with late afternoon and early evening crying.

Too Much Fun: Preventing Overstimulation in Infants and Toddlers (December 2010) – In this post, we provide tips for minimizing meltdowns that can occur when our kids have had too much excitement. Although it isn’t possible to prevent your baby from ever getting overwhelmed, these tips can help!

Baby Science: The First 72 Hours (February 2011) – This post was written to provide the “baby science” behind what I experienced during the first few days after Charlotte was born. We explain why many newborns are very sleepy on day 1, how overstimulation can lead to fussiness on day 2, and why babies don’t always breastfeed perfectly the first time.

If you have questions about overstimulation, please send us a comment!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Part 2: Tips to deal with late afternoon and early evening crying

In our last post, we talked about the phenomenon of late afternoon and early evening crying. Now we would like to share a few tips to help you make it through those challenging few hours. Of course, if you have any concern that your baby might be ill, contact your baby’s doctor. If not, try a few of these ideas out and your baby’s “fussy time” may become just a little more peaceful. Remember, this increase in crying is temporary. The peak of infant crying is 6-weeks of age, and crying should get much better by 12-16 weeks.

Tip #1: Look for disengagement cues early!
I know this time of the day is probably your busiest time, but remember, your baby has had a long day full of learning and growing. If your baby is usually fussy starting around 4pm, start keeping an eye out for your babies 1st disengagement cues around 3 or 3:30pm (these cues will occur before he starts fussing or crying). What to look for? Grimacing, frowning, turning away from stimulation, back arching and squirming. By noticing these early signs of distress you can change your baby’s environment before he starts to escalate his cues and cry. For more about disengagement cues, read one of our original posts, Baby Behavior Basics: Part 3.

Tip #2: Reduce stimulation in your baby’s environment
If you are noticing “I need a break” cues you may need to change your baby’s environment (or diaper!) or stop interactions and let your baby have a break. Infants may be tired from a long day and react to overstimulation with irritability. Sensitive babies exposed to late afternoon or evening changes in light, noise, movement, smells, and activity may become overwhelmed. You don’t have to stop everything, just try a few changes to your routine, like turning the TV off or asking older siblings to play in another room.

Tip #3: Identify specific situations during this time of the day that cause your baby distress
Does your baby have a meltdown when you go to the grocery store or run errands during the late afternoon or early evening? Try to take care of these trips before your baby’s fussy time. You both will feel much less stressed!

Tip #4: If your baby is already crying and is NOT hungry, you can try the following soothing techniques
After you have checked your baby’s environment for things that may need changed, use repetitive low-key stimulation to calm him like speaking softly over and over, holding, rocking, or stroking the baby over and over. Remember, babies will take longer to calm down if they are very young or very upset. Be calm and patient! This will work!

Tip #5: Wear your baby
A past post of ours highlighted a recent study that showed carrying your baby for an additional 3 hours per day reduced daily duration of crying by 43%! Often close contact will help soothe your baby, and you will be able to notice early signs of distress.

Tip #6: Get support during this time of day
Ask your spouse, partner or another loved one to take over for a while. Take advantage of baby-sitting offers from trusted friends or neighbors. Even an hour on your own can help renew your coping strength. Recognize your limits. If you feel like you are losing control, put the baby in a safe place — such as a crib — and go to another room to calm yourself. Have a friend or family member come over to watch your baby for awhile while you take a break. If necessary, contact your doctor, a local crisis intervention service or a mental health help line for additional support.

We hope we have shared some useful tips to support you with caring for your baby during this difficult time. We too have paced the halls with baby in arms for hours on end, and actually, I have some fond memories of nice LONG walks in the early evening the summer after my daughter was born. The combination of fresh air and the soothing movement of the stroller seemed to calm her (and me). We became very friendly with the neighbors on our street that summer, and some of those encounters that started with conversations about our very loud (but beautiful) crying baby have evolved into great friendships and offers of support!

Next Time: A New Baby Quiz!


Barr R, James-Roberts I, Keefe M. New Evidence on Unexplained Early Infant Crying: Its Origins, Nature and Management. Pediatric roundtable sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Pediatric Institute, L.L.C. Accessed July 20, 2010.

St James-Roberts I, Halil T. Infant Crying Patterns in the First Year: Normal Community and Clinical Findings. J. Child Psychol. Psychiat. 1991;32:951-968.

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