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How to read your baby's cues

How to know what your little one needs and respond appropriately.

If your baby could talk, what would he or she say? "I'm hungry," "I'm tired" and "I think I need a new diaper" are all likely possibilities.

While your baby may not be talking with words and sentences, he or she is communicating with you—using facial movements (smiling, eye contact, grimacing), body language (moving legs and arms in excitement or distress) and noises (crying, cooing, squealing).

In addition to signaling an immediate need, your baby's cues are an attempt to interact with you. When you talk back to your baby, you are encouraging him or her to develop communication skills. You're also strengthening your bond.

Translating baby speak

Unfortunately, there is no Baby-to-English translation dictionary. That's because every baby is unique.

Paying close attention to your child is the best way to learn his or her cues. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) describes three general levels of need:

Urgent needs. Your little one will have his or her own way of indicating needs such as hunger or pain. He or she might whimper, scream or use desperate body language. In time you'll recognize this signal easily and be able to respond quickly—possibly even before your baby knows why he or she is upset.

Unclear needs. Even when his or her obvious needs are met, your baby may whine, fuss or move fitfully. It might seem that not even your baby knows what he or she wants. How you should respond will depend on your child's personality. You may find that playing, rocking, singing, talking or walking helps. Or you may find that letting your baby fuss for a little while is best.

Although not knowing what to do can be frustrating, these experiences will help you and your baby get to know each other, according to the AAP. You'll learn what your baby likes while he or she is learning how to get you to respond and what your limits are.

Satisfied needs. Often, your baby will be awake, alert and calmly playing. At this time, you will know that his or her needs are met. This is a good time to watch your baby developing new skills, such as reaching for or tracking objects.

Responding to your baby

It's important to respond to your baby's expressions, gestures and sounds, according to Zero to Three.

Respond quickly and enthusiastically. And don't interrupt or look away. This tells your baby that he or she:

  • Is a good communicator.
  • Is important and interesting to you.
  • Can trust you.
  • Has some control in his or her life.

The following table can help you respond to some of your baby's cues.

If your baby is: Try this:
Reaching for you. Hold or kiss the child.
Gazing at you. Make eye contact and talk.
Cooing. Coo back, repeating the same sounds.
Making faces. Lean in close and imitate the look.

When communicating with your baby, give him or her your full attention. Because when it comes to understanding baby talk, your baby is your best teacher.

Reviewed 8/11/2023

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