New research suggests that babies feel and "say" much more than we think -- and that, as parents, we just need to understand their unique language of physical cues to unlock the mysterious world of infant needs and wants. Paul Holinger, M.D., M.P.H., author (along with Kalia Doner) of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk, published this month, has studied infant emotions and communication for 25 years and believes that babies "arrive in this world with the ability to express complex feelings and reactions." Your baby can feel and express emotions -- about nine of them, in fact -- that go beyond basic physical needs, he says.
You can "read" what your baby is feeling simply by tuning into his facial expressions, gestures, and sounds. Check out our guide to the nine things your baby's trying to tell you and learn how to respond in a way that will encourage your little one to communicate even more.
Interest and Enjoyment
What interest looks like:
Eyebrows are slightly lowered or raised; mouth may be slightly open; face looks concentrated and engrossed.
What it means: Your baby is zeroing in on something and tracking it with his eyes. His interest in the world around him is the root of all learning behaviors, so it's important to encourage it. If your baby takes interest in an inappropriate object, like scissors, hold the object in your hand so he can still see it and explain that it's not safe instead of yelling "no". Then find an alternate toy for your tot to play with. "When you interfere with a baby's interest, you may make them feel ashamed, as if there is something wrong with their attraction to certain things," says Dr. Holinger.
What enjoyment looks like:
Baby is smiling with the lips widened up and out. She may laugh or make high-pitched sounds of happiness. Eyes brighten.
What it means: "Enjoyment is serious stuff," Dr. Holinger says in his book. "The ability to feel and express joy is essential to building a happy, healthy life." If fostered, this emotion helps your baby develop positive social connections with others. And sharing enjoyment together is one of the best ways you and your child can bond. A surefire giggle inducer: any game that builds up suspense (when you're hiding your face behind your hands during peekaboo, for example) and then releases it (when you pop out and exclaim "Peekaboo!").
Surprise and Distress
What surprise looks like:
Eyebrows go up; eyes are wide open and blinking; mouth forms an "o" shape.
What it means: Surprise is really an evolutionary tool that increases brain activity and alerts people to possible dangers. A baby's surprise (caused by the loud dropping of a book, for example), can transform into either fear or interest, depending in part on your reaction. If you respond calmly, saying, "Oops, the book dropped! It makes a loud noise, doesn't it?" or even laugh about the noise and playfully drop it again, your baby is likely to take interest in the event. If you act disturbed by the dropping of the book or ignore it altogether, your baby might feel uncertain and scared.
What distress looks like:
Baby is crying with rhythmic sobbing; eyebrows are arched; corners of the mouth are turned down.
What it means: Distress, of course, is an S.O.S. that something is wrong, says Dr. Holinger. Your baby is tired, hungry, or uncomfortable. If her distress is ignored, your baby will become angry. If it is regularly ignored, she may learn to distrust her caregivers.
Anger and Fear
What anger looks like:
Baby is frowning and red; eyes are narrowed; jaw is clenched.
What it means: Anger is a sign of excessive distress, and your baby may even hit, kick, or bite you when in throes of it. Don't let his signs of anger turn you off or make you think your baby has a bad disposition, says Dr. Holinger. Instead, address the distress behind the anger (hunger, pain, fatigue, discomfort). While you're working to solve the problem, put words to what's happening. Though he may not understand what you're saying, he will get the sense that you're trying to figure out what's wrong and fix it.
What fear looks like:
Eyes are frozen open; skin is pale, cold, and sweating; face is trembling; hair is erect.
What it means: Like surprise, fear helps people avoid danger by pumping up stress hormones and putting the whole body at attention. But fear is also toxic, says Dr. Holinger; the hormones that are released can cause health problems if sustained. Monitor your baby's fear level and be aware of her triggers (Does she get scared when you wear that big hat? Is she afraid of dogs? Dark rooms?) -- then try to control or remedy them. And of course, reassure her with a big hug and a calm voice when she does get scared so she can eventually learn to regulate her fear on her own. Do not shame the baby for being afraid.
Shame and Disgust
What shame looks like:
Eyelids are lowered; muscles in face become slack; head hangs down. Some babies blush.
What it means: Shame is one of the most complex infant emotions. Babies express it when they get the sense that something they are enjoying is "bad" or "wrong." Your child may be fascinated by spilling milk on the floor, for example. Because the splashes and sounds it makes are so interesting to him, he expects that the grown-ups around him will be equally fascinated. When a parent doesn't share his glee, he feels ashamed. Try to set limits and teach manners without stifling your baby's interests, says Dr. Holinger. Let him know that the milk makes a mess, but give him plenty of tub toys to practice pouring and spilling with at his next bath instead. If felt too often, shame can lead to feelings of inferiority, says Dr. Holinger.
What disgust and dissmell look like:
For disgust, lips and tongue protrude. For dissmell, the upper lip and nose raise.
What they mean: Protective reactions against noxious flavors and smells, these signs generally mean your baby doesn't like something she is eating. Don't force her; you can try the offending food again a few days later.