Word of Mom | Relationships
Baby Talk Your little one can’t speak yet – but he does have something to tell you
Our baby cries, so you try to feed him. He’s not hungry, so you change his diaper. He’s still unhappy, but now you have no idea what’s wrong. You desperately want to help, but how can you when you don’t know what he wants? Luckily, you don’t have to wait until your baby can talk to understand him, because he does communicate—with body language and other cues.
Perhaps he’s staring into space. Maybe he’s blinking a lot and turning his face away. Or he opens his eyes wide and follows your every move. These are all meaningful signals to what a baby needs. “Understanding your baby’s unique way of communicating is like learning a new language,” says developmental psychologist Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, author of Children’s Unspoken Language. “It can even mean the difference between a wonderful new-baby experience and a stressful one. Right from birth, babies use vocal as well as visual cues to communicate with us.”
Reading your child
Understanding when a baby is hungry or tired is obviously helpful, but learning your little one’s unique language means you can tune in when she feels great. “I wasn’t sure whether my 5-week-old daughter, Lili, really enjoyed her baths,” says Alex Chesterton, from Buffalo, NY. “She was too young to smile, but she’d kick her legs quite hard and open her mouth wide. I wasn’t sure if that was good or bad! When my mom saw her, though, she immediately knew Lili was having fun and I relaxed.”
This open-mouthed “play face” is classic happy-baby behavior, even in the animal world. A recent study from the England’s University of Portsmouth showed that young orangutans and chimps open their mouths and breathe faster when they’re tickled, just like human babies, indicating it’s a universal response to pleasure.
Although there are some signs that all babies share, yours might find her own way of showing you what she feels. Shari Maser, a mother of two from Ann Arbor, MI, discovered her daughter Alex had a special method for letting her mom know she was hungry. “Whenever Alex pulled on my nose, I knew she’d be tugging on my shirt for a feed next,” she says. “My nose was like a breastfeeding alert button!
Not just for laughs
Keeping your baby happy isn’t always about making her giggle. A healthy relationship requires a mix of exciting times and calmer moments where you focus on each other (and it’s in these moments that you become really close). Just as you’ll sometimes crave a mommy break somewhere quiet—it’s the same for your baby. But while she needs this time away from disturbances and stimuli, her signals for it can be more difficult to pick up on.
“It’s very easy to get distracted and miss important cues from your baby,” says psychotherapist Jenn Berman, Ph.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. “You’re on the phone, or checking email, and your baby is pulling at your top or trying to grab your face. Instead of listening to what she’s saying—I need your focus!—you get frustrated because you don’t understand why she’s being ‘difficult.’ She’s not being tricky, she’s just trying to talk to you in the only way she knows how.
“Often,” Berman adds, “parents don’t realize that babies need quality time—free of distractions—not simply lots of time. Infants get over-stimulated very easily.” Which is exactly what Elain Evans, from Vancouver, Canada, found. “I took my daughter Sophie everywhere with me when she was born,” she says. “To the coffee shop, swimming, even to get my hair done! But she always squealed loudly when I left the room or banged her toys, drawing attention to herself. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was until I was sick and had to stay home with her. Over those days, she was like a different baby: calm, smiley, easy. It was clear that the noisy behavior was her way of saying she wanted alone time with me, so I make sure I give her that every day now.”
While understanding what your baby’s telling you will make life a lot easier, there’s another even more important benefit. “A baby feels safe when he knows he can be understood,” Berman says. “It builds confidence and also helps him to read emotions and responses in others. It will also allow him to grow and learn, because if it’s relatively easy for him to get you to ‘understand’ him, his needs will be met more quickly and effectively, leaving him time to grow and develop.” Which means your baby will crawl, walk, and eventually talk, all the sooner!
Talking is one of Franziska Green’s hobbies, so she was lost after she gave birth to daughter Liliana. But she learned to speak Liliana’s language, and they’ve been at it ever since. Green also writes for Men’s Health and Cosmopolitan.