Last updated on April 27th, 2021

Although they do not speak in words and sentences, babies start communicating right from birth. They send across subtle signals to convey a state of distress or contentment. A soft whimper, a smiling face, a loud wail, flailing arms, and eye rubbing are some of the non-verbal cues a baby uses to tell its mother what it wants.

But, have you been able to decode all of these yet?

Reading and understanding baby cues will allow you to respond quickly and effectively to their needs. It will take some time before you get in tune with your baby, but till then, you can at least brush through the basics.

Understanding Baby Cues

Baby Cry


The baby tries to convey different feelings through variation in the pitch and length of the cry – hunger, pain, tiredness, or irritation.

  • Hungry baby: When a baby cries out of hunger, it lets out a short, low-pitched cry. If this first warning cry is ignored, the cry becomes louder and more intense. Pick up your baby when you hear the first cry and soothe him—little actions like crying tire the infant. You can feed your baby right away, but make sure the latches on well. The poor latch will result in a low feed. If you have just fed your baby a full meal, less than an hour ago, do not feed again. It will cause stomach upset as the previous feed needs time to be digested. Here let daddy dear soothe the baby. 
  • Baby in Pain: The pain cry is sharp, more intense, and of longer duration. The crying is continuous without any breaks or pauses and may last for almost 2- 3 hours. The baby may suffer from colic, or it may be about of gas. In addition to crying incessantly, your infant may also arch its back. When unsure if your baby is in pain or not, make a mental assessment of all the factors that make babies cry. Is your baby hungry, does he need a diaper change, is your baby tired, or are the clothes causing discomfort? If all these answers to a no, then your baby is in pain or is uncomfortable. Swaddle your baby. Swing your baby gently. Try to silence her with the “Shhh” sound. Give your baby a finger or pacifier to suck on. 
  • Tired Baby: This cry is a softer version of the baby in the distress signal. It is intermittent. The tired cry in babies does not continue for long and stops once the baby is soothed. The likelihood of such a cry is higher if your baby has been awake for more than 90 minutes or if he woke up from his sleep suddenly and is restless. Different things work for other babies. Rock your baby. Sing to him. Swaddling is considered the best trick. Place the arms across the chest and swaddle him tight. If the baby feels uncomfortable in your arms, place him on the bed and gently pat his head, chest, or back. 
  • Babbling and cooing: This communication cue develops at a later stage between 5 to 6 months of age. Babbling and cooing indicate a happy baby in the mood for some play and interaction.

Understanding Baby Cues

Body Language

  • Sucking on fists: Sucking on fists is an expression of “I’m hungry, just gearing up to cry.” 
  • Sucking sounds/Smacking lips: Again, a baby makes sucking sounds to indicate hunger. 
  • Rubbing the ears and eyes: A baby rubs its eyes when it’s feeling tired and sleepy. During the first few months, they only rub their eyes, or they may rub their face against something. As they grow older, they discover the ears and start rubbing them too. The moment your baby starts rubbing his ears and eyes, try to lull him to sleep. If you don’t he will get cranky. 
  • Rooting: Rooting is one of the essential reflexes in a newborn. It helps the baby find its food. If you gently stroke the cheek, he will immediately turn in the direction to find the source. This behavior automatically subsides by the fourth month. You can use the rooting reflex to make feeding easier. 
  • Arched back: In the first few weeks after childbirth, an arched back means your baby is in discomfort. He will wriggle and writhe to find the most comfortable position. Babies arch their back when they are full and don’t want more feed. The baby is unable to move on its own. You can change the position of the baby to make him more comfortable. Hold him upright before putting him down again. 
  • Yawning, stretching, and clenching fists: Yawning, stretching, and clenching the fists into tight balls are cues for nap time. Put your baby to bed before he starts crying. 
  • Startle reflex: At the sound of loud noise, the baby suddenly makes some jerky movements, flails its arms and legs, pulls them back quickly, and starts crying. Babies are not used to loud sounds and bright lights and therefore get easily startled. The baby gets scared and starts crying uncontrollably. Calm your baby by cradling him. Make him feel secure.

Facial Expressions

  • Smiling: You will get the first glimpse of a smile at around 6 to 8 weeks. Smiles are interpreted as signs of comfort and contentment. Smile back and react positively. 
  • Gaze aversion: When your baby turns away or breaks eye contact, he’s probably trying to tell you, “enough of the play, I need to rest now.” Overwhelmed and overstimulated babies usually resort to such behavior. They may even start squirming to getaway. Don’t move into the line of contact with your baby. Give him time till he turns back to you for another session of interaction.


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