Understanding your baby's communication

Bringing home the new baby can be exciting and frightening for both the baby and the parents.

The main task of caring for a new baby is to make sure the baby’s needs are met. The needs of new babies are very basic: babies get hungry, tired and uncomfortable.

Some things that feel uncomfortable to a baby include:

  • being too hot or too cold
  • needing their nappy changed
  • have a pain (earache, stomach ache), for older babies this can include toothache
  • being frightened, lonely or bored
  • not being well (perhaps a high temperature)

Babies have a range of ways to gain their parent’s attention and communicate their needs. Parents learn, over time, what these signals are and how to respond. At the beginning, though, it is easy not to recognise the signals or misinterpret them. It takes a while for the babies’ signals to be decoded and understood.

Why babies cry

The main signal a baby uses to get attention is to cry. A parent will soon learn to recognise that the baby uses different cries for different needs. Babies only cry when they need something.

Babies don’t cry to “annoy” or “get at” their parents. Babies can only feel, they cannot think, anticipate or manipulate. They don’t know how their crying affects others, they only know they need something and this is the only way they have to let someone know what they need. A baby cries to survive so a parent must respond to these signals.

As you learn more about your baby you realise that babies communicate through many other ways as well.

Watching a baby’s face can reveal many different ways they communicate. Parents learn to read these and anticipate their needs before the baby needs to cry. Babies’ faces are very expressive, they are adept at creating “worry” lines above their nose, which in some babies can be the first indication of a nappy soon needing to be changed. Babies’ mouths are also very expressive and babies will contort their lips and use their tongue to communicate.

As well as their faces, babies also use their hands, especially their fists, to indicate they need something. Parents learn to recognise the clenching of fists as a signal perhaps of discomfort, or impending hunger. Babies also use their whole bodies to alert parents to their needs, often arching their backs and kicking their legs.

Communicating with your baby

As well as babies communicating to us we also need to communicate to them. Research has alerted parents to the importance of talking, laughing and reading to babies. Parents often find that talking and reading to a baby feels a bit silly when they baby does not respond by speaking. However a baby does respond and just as parents learn the signals to understand what the baby needs, the baby also gives response signals in their attempts to communicate.

Babies who are being talked or read to will often hold the gaze of the person, may chortle, or make other sounds and may be communicating back by moving hands (not a clenched fist) but looser fingers and may reach for and play with their feet.

Babies enjoy being stimulated with interesting things to look at and again will communicate their pleasure through their facial and body language. This exchange of communication signals between the parent and the baby is the beginning of a caring, loving relationship that the baby and parent can both enjoy.

Touch is an important communication signal between the parent and the baby. Parents may learn how to massage their baby and learn from the baby’s expressions and body language what they like and don’t like. Caring, loving touch such as cuddles and hugs as well as the many different ways of holding a baby, especially to comfort, is also an important way of communicating and enhancing a loving relationship between baby and parent.