Everyone wishes they could go home from the hospital with an instruction manual for their new baby. But what might be even more useful is a translation device to decipher those infant cries. Wouldn’t it be nice if your baby could just say, “Hey Mom, I’m really hungry!” In fact, new parents quickly become experts at understanding their babies without manuals or machines. By the time you’re reading this – even if you’ve only been home with your baby for a little while—you’ve no doubt become your family’s own personal baby whisperer.
The most obvious way that infants communicate is by crying, and they use their cries both to indicate when they’re unhappy and to express what they need. They could be tired, hungry, bored, scared, gassy, or over stimulated. They might be lonely and in need of a cuddle, or dirty and in need of a diaper change. But how can you tell the difference?
Tune in. “Moms are very attuned to their babies and very sensitive about understanding what they’re trying to say,” says Kathleen Alfano, Ph.D., Former Director of Child Research for Fisher-Price. “One mom told me she could decipher fifteen different cries!”
Okay, so that’s a bit extreme. But in general, parents who pay attention to their infants learn to understand their baby’s sounds. Sharper, more piercing or high-pitched cries usually indicate pain, for example, while one of the most common cries – hunger – tends to be shorter and more rhythmic, building in volume and intensity as baby’s hunger increases.
More ways to communicate. Crying is just one way that babies express their needs. “Communication is more than just talking or making sounds,” says Dr. Alfano. “It’s a whole way of understanding. Gestures and expressions are other ways that babies tell you what they want.”
For instance, a baby who is crying and pulling or touching his ear may have an earache – or sore throat, or need to burp, or have other body pain or discomfort. A baby who is crying and rubbing her eyes might be tired. And a baby who is crying and looking at something or pointing might be indicating he wants it brought to him. It’s important to be tuned in to your baby’s body language as well as his voice.
Some aspects of baby “language” are almost universal. Most babies will kick their legs when they’re happy or want attention, turn away when they’ve had enough food, arch their backs when they want to let you know they've had enough of whatever you've been doing with them.
But there are individual baby “dialects,” too, and you will be the expert on your own little one’s special language. One mom I know, who has nine-year-old twins and a new three-month-old infant, says that all three of her children indicated hunger differently. When the twins were babies, the girl would cry when she was hungry, while the boy would make clicking sounds with his tongue. Her new baby, she says, brings her hands to her mouth and sucks on her fingers. Another way that babies commonly indicate hunger is to turn their head and open their mouth, called rooting.
Of course, there will always be times when your baby is crying and you can’t figure out why. But most of the time, you and your baby will be speaking the same language.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.