Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

"Baby Cues": Learning to Understand Your Baby's Communications

Babies don't talk, but they have a lot to tell.

I well remember the frustration and puzzlement of trying to interpret my first baby's early noises, facial expressions, and other communications. I just felt I couldn't guess what he wanted, except sometimes by thinking how long it had been I had nursed him. One night I had this so much on my mind that I actually dreamed that my four-month-old could talk, and with his toothless little mouth he said to me plainly " I... want... MILK!"

No doubt I managed better than I thought I was doing, because I did figure out well enough what the baby needed, and he grew and developed until he could tell me quite plainly what I wanted to know. Without really knowing it, like other first-time mothers I learned to pay attention to expressions, all sorts of noises (not just crying), hand movements and gestures, and body posture--- all the many forms of communication that humans use instead of or in addition to the spoken language.

It would have been easier if I had had "Baby Cues: A Child's First Language", a set of teaching cards published by the NCAST nursing child assessment group at the University of Washington. (And let me assure you that I have no financial interest in or even personal connection with this organization. If you'd like a set of the cards, though, you can go to "Baby Cues" consists of 46 cards with pictures of children on one side and an explanation of the nonverbal cues each child is giving on the other. About half of the cards indicate that the cue means the child is "engaging" or wanting to continue and increase whatever is happening. Other cards show "disengaging" cues, in which the child's expression or gestures mean that the child wants to take a break from activity or isn't too sure about what's going on. Some of the cues are labeled as "potent" or easy to detect, while others are "subtle" and harder to pick up.

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Many of the "Baby Cues" cards show babies' ways of disengaging and saying that they've had enough of something for the time being. They may simply want a brief break, if an adult has been playing too intrusively or too long--- or they may have decided they don't like or want something at all. Most people can recognize the "potent" cues of disengagement, like a baby arching the back strongly while in someone's arms, or putting up an open hand to push away a person or an object. We're not necessarily as good at reading what it means when a baby turns the head all the way to one shoulder in an attempt not to see something. When babies who are being spoonfed do this, parents often think the baby is just looking around, but in fact the communication is that no more of that food is wanted.
Subtle ways of disengaging may appear briefly and not mean much, but when a baby persists in showing these cues, or shows several of them, caregivers should pay attention to the communication rather than keep pushing the baby until he or she is distressed . For instance, when wanting to disengage, the baby may briefly look away from a person or an object, or may show disengagement with an expressionless or "dull", uninterested face, or by compressing the lips, or by protruding a little of the tongue between the lips. As well as the facial expression, hand movements can be subtle indications of the child's need to take a break. She may put the two hands together and interlock the fingers, or may put a hand to the face or an ear, or put a hand on the stomach or pluck at clothing. A slight pause can restore the child's interest, and he or she may soon turn back with bright interested eyes to the play or activity that had become too much. It's important to know that when a baby shows these disengagement cues, it is not a good idea to try to "rev up" the activity, to make more noise or exaggerate playfulness. That will just increase the baby's need for a short rest.

The "Baby Cues" cards are charming and attractive-- when I spread them out on a table in a public place, almost everyone who passed by stopped to have a look, and would have walked off with them if allowed! But of course the cards can't show every cue that a child can produce. Let me describe one other communicative cue that I find fascinating. This behavior, described by the psychologist Michael Lewis, does not occur until children are about 18 months old and able to recognize themselves in a mirror (no, they don't recognize themselves much before that). Then, they show that they are capable of embarrassment. The child catches sight of himself in a mirror, stops and looks again in a classic "double take". Then he walks away from the mirror, ducks his head, glances up, and smiles while holding his head down. Why is the child acting so silly? He's having his first taste of that powerful feeling that will help shape his public behavior for the rest of his life-- and we can see when that happens if we understand this "first language."


Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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