You are here

What Your Baby's Telling You

Sitting in a noisy coffee bar, child psychologist Marion Mollica-Minson stifled the urge to intervene as she watched a mother lean toward her baby. The mom smiled broadly at her son, who was starting to fuss. She tickled his chin and cooed his name. Instead of returning her loving gaze, her infant screwed up his face, arched his back, and turned away.

"Clearly, the mother just wanted to engage her child," says Mollica-Minson, "but she couldn't read his cues." The grimacing, arching, and looking away

all signaled overstimulation, but instead of removing her baby from the bustling room, the well-meaning mom added to his distress with her lively attention.

Every parent knows what it's like to feel out of sync with a baby who can't say what he needs or wants. Fortunately, we can learn to recognize an infant's particular repertoire of sounds and behaviors and match them with a response. For instance, Lynn Conoley of Cumming, GA, had been a mom for about five weeks when she realized she could read in her son's face when he'd had enough. "Jackson's eyes would shift from corner to corner, and if I didn't stop talking to him then, he'd start crying," she says.

John Bucciarelli of Southbury, CT, learned the hard way that the first hour after work each day belonged exclusively to his two kids, now 13 and 4. "As infants, they cried nonstop after coming home from daycare." At first, he and his wife assumed the crying was connected to "tummy, diapers, or bed" but eventually realized this was wrong. "They just needed to be held, so we didn't do anything else for an hour," he says.

Scheduling such downtime isn't easy in a world of cell phones and e-mail, but it's essential, says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., coauthor of How Babies Talk: The Magic and Mystery of Language in the First Three Years of Life. For at least five minutes a few times a day, try to slow down and appreciate what your infant is doing and "saying."

The best place is in your arms or supported on your lap. A crib doesn't offer much face-to-face interaction  -- imagine trying to hold a conversation while lying flat on your back. And infants can't focus beyond 12 to 18 inches for the first four months. There's no need to coach your baby  -- simply follow his lead.

The Stages of Waking and Sleeping

Newborns enter this world with a variety of ways to let us know when they're ready to interact as well as when they need peace and quiet, says Jennifer Gillette, a child-development specialist at the Brazelton Institute of Children's Hospital, in Boston. Studies show that during infancy, they go through a set of six distinct states of responsiveness:

1 deep sleep 4 alert

2 light sleep 5 active alert (fussy)

3 drowsy 6 crying

Along with learning to recognize these states, you can also develop a feel for the way your child passes from one to another. "Some babies fly from sleeping to full-blown crying," says Gillette, "while others slowly move from one state to the next in a more predictable manner." Learning your baby's individual style can help you anticipate what's ahead.

The "alert" state offers an ideal window for communication. During the first few months of life, babies typically stay in this wonderfully interactive state for just five to ten minutes at a time. Watch for the signals that your baby's primed and ready: She'll appear relaxed, breathe slowly and regularly, move her limbs smoothly, and pay attention to what's around her. "Now's the time to entice her to look toward the sound of your voice, follow your face, or grasp your hand," says Gillette.

Even as you're enjoying these wide-eyed moments, look for signs that your baby is passing into the fussier "active alert" state. Most infants give forewarning: They thrash their arms and legs, and their eye movement may be directed away from, rather than toward, faces and bold objects in front of them.

Certain easily overstimulated babies might zoom right past the active-alert state and straight to the crying. But before that point, you may be able to help your child fall back into a receptive state by cutting back on stimulation. Babies  -- and especially newborns  -- will often respond to swaddling.

A Helping Hand

It can work the other way too: A baby slipping back into drowsiness may respond well to a gentle change in your tone of voice or to unswaddling  -- if, say, you have to rouse him for a feeding. And reading and responding to your baby's "fussy cues" will give you your best shot at skipping (or at least shortening) the phase that follows: full-blown crying. You can help him make the transition straight into a drowsy state by holding, swaddling, or rocking him. "But don't assume that what works today will work forever," says Brenda Hussey-Gardner, Ph.D., a newborn developmental specialist with the University of Maryland Hospital for Children, in Baltimore. "Just when you think you know what your baby needs, it can change. So keep watching and adjust your approach."

What if he's fussing but you're not doing anything to overexcite him and his basic needs have been met (feeding, diaper change, nap)? Check his environment. Is the room too cold or hot, noisy or bright? Hussey-Gardner recalls a couple who were trying to soothe their newborn in the hospital nursery. "The baby kept looking away from his mom's face, so the dad thought she was overstimulating him. Then I noticed a blindingly bright lamp behind the mother's head."

You can also learn to recognize when your baby is ready to comfort himself  -- a very important life skill  -- and doesn't need your intervention. Sucking on knuckles or fingers is a common "self-coping" sign, for example, but sometimes a newborn needs a bit of help, says Hussey-Gardner. "If you see him trying to get his hand to his mouth to soothe himself, you can gently guide it there."

Even sleep can be instructive. Try this: When your baby's asleep, shake a rattle and flicker a flashlight over the crib. Most infants react to the first few shakes and flickers by stirring slightly. Some then shut out the noise and light and settle back into a motionless snooze. "It's wonderful to realize how your baby can protect his sleep," says Gillette. Others continue to react to each stimulus  -- a signal that they need help "protecting" their slumber.

Changing by the Day

These six basic states can keep reappearing throughout the first year. But as your baby's development progresses, the way the states show themselves can change. A dramatic leap in communication skills occurs around 2 months of age, with the delightful arrival of cooing, laughing, and playful eye contact.

Jackson Conoley had just passed this 8-week mark when his mom noticed that the messages he sent with his eyes had become more complex  -- and more fun. "Now, when he's ready to play, he'll look straight at me, then look to the right and back again. It's peekaboo with his eyes," she says. In this flirtatious mood, Jackson likes nothing more than to hear his mother's voice. "I'll smile and coo, 'What are you trying to say to me?' He'll smile back and kick his feet with happiness."

Babies begin to spend progressively more time in the responsive and quiet alert state by the third month, so they're willing to play and interact longer. Their voices may also become more nuanced, with a greater variety of sounds, pitch changes, and rhythms.

At around 6 months comes the next hallmark of communication: babbling. Not only is this the way a baby masters consonants and vowels, but the pitch and intensity can convey mood and desires. Listen closely and you'll hear hints of excitement, curiosity, and surprise.

Around this time, you can prompt your baby to "ask" for what she wants. Put a toy or an intriguing object just out of reach. Perhaps she'll look at it intently, lean in its direction, coo at it, or grab for it. Talk to her ("Yes, that toy is interesting. Do you want it?") and move the object within her grasp. It's a great way to encourage her to communicate what she needs in ways other than crying.

Between 9 and 12 months, most babies master the art of pointing, which gives them a way to comment on their expanding world. In response, a parent can touch the object of interest and comment back. ("Yes, that's a new chair.") And by the time they reach their first birthday, most babies are embellishing their gestures with a myriad of sounds, as well as signaling their frustration when you don't understand.

While there's no one best way for parents and babies to communicate, experts agree that the more you interact, the more easily you'll read your child's signals. And this special rapport will continue to pay dividends long after your child masters language. Just ask John Bucciarelli, whose son, Jay, once asked his parents in amazement, "How do you always know when I'm lying?" It was easy, Bucciarelli told him: "We've been studying your face since you were born."

Jessica Snyder Sachs, a contributing editor to PARENTING, wrote about "good" germs in the August issue.