Reading baby's cues

“The more you observe and care for your baby, the easier it will be to tell.”

My friend Mary, expecting her first baby, is “practising” with Candice’s six week-old son, Liam. She carries him around on her shoulder, and when he starts to fuss she rocks him back and forth the way she has seen Candice soothe him.

But it doesn’t work. Liam’s still crying and squirming. Looking forlorn, Mary brings him back to his mother. “I don’t know why he’s crying,” she confesses. Candice knows. “He always acts like that when his diapers are wet,” she says confidently. “He hates having wet diapers.”

She’s right. A quick change, and Liam’s content again. Mary isn’t though. “How did Candice know?” she says, worriedly. “How will I be able to figure out what my baby is trying to tell me? Is there a course or something you can take?”

Greg Moran, professor of clinical and developmental psychology at the University of Western Ontario, tells worried new parents like Mary, “Relax. You’ll know. Our biology has taken care of it. The research repeatedly and compellingly tells us that parents are quite naturally inclined to notice the baby’s signals and figure them out.”

For most parents, he adds, learning to read your baby’s signals isn’t something you have to do deliberately. By simply enjoying your baby, spending lots of time together and being focused on your baby, those cries and signals will start to make sense to you faster than you expected.

He acknowledges that it’s mostly trial and error in the beginning. Your baby fusses, you pick her up and she keeps on crying. You offer your breast, but she turns away, still unhappy. So you sit down to rock her for a few minutes in the rocking chair. She nuzzles into your shoulder and falls asleep. Aha! She was tired. Next time she fusses that way, you’ll know what to try.

It’s a good thing that learning to interpret your baby’s cues turns out to be fairly easy, says Rhona Wolpert, of the Department of Psychiatry at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, because it’s very important. “During the first six months of life, the baby is learning to regulate himself to the world,” Wolpert explains, “and he needs his parents’ help to do that. As he learns he can depend on his parents when he signals them, he feels increasingly safe and secure. The loving relationship between baby and parents becomes the foundation for all future relationships.”

For those times when you just can’t figure out what your baby is trying to tell you, Wolpert suggests these steps:

• First, take a couple of deep breaths and calm down.

• Pick your baby up if you’re not already holding him, and look into your baby’s face. What emotions do you read there?

• “Put yourself in your baby’s booties.” Try to imagine what your baby is feeling and what will help.

• Even if you can’t figure out exactly why your baby is unhappy, rocking, holding her close or walking around with her may help. Or, if your baby is overstimulated, she may be happier if you set her down in a quiet, safe place.

Sometimes parents recognize what baby is trying to express, but they discount it, Wolpert finds. “For example, if your baby is scared by something – and with a small baby, lots of things can be scary – the fear reaction is pretty easy to recognize. But sometimes parents will respond with ‘don’t be silly, that can’t hurt you’ and dismiss the baby’s feelings,” Wolpert says. “Your baby needs you to take his fear seriously and offer comfort.”

Does “baby reading” come easier to one gender than the other? Sometimes fathers do find it harder than mothers to figure out the baby’s cues, says Moran, although he adds “it’s dangerous to generalize – many fathers have no trouble.” When dad is having more difficulty, though, it’s usually, Moran says, “because the father simply isn’t spending enough time with the baby from early on.” He suggests building in more ways for the father to interact with the baby as part of the daily routine – such as making it the father’s job to change diapers, bring the baby to mom to feed, burp the baby or give the baby a bath.

Moran notes that each parent and baby relationship develops in its own way, commenting that “just as all marriages are different, the relationship between you and your baby will be unique. That’s one of the joys of parenting. So don’t look to other parents and infants as a model to follow step-by-step. That won’t work.” Mom and dad may not do things in quite the same way either – but that’s OK. With two parents tuned in to baby’s messages, understanding what baby needs should be that much easier.

Wolpert says that even if you can’t figure out the exact reason for your baby’s crying or fussing, babies appreciate the fact that you are trying to do something, that you are responding to them. “You can’t spoil a baby by responding to his cries and trying to understand his signals,” she stresses.

To help parents, Wolpert and other experts from the Infant Mental Health Promotion Project have produced a 10-minute video called A Simple Gift: Comforting Your Baby, which can be ordered by calling (416) 813-5819.

“Learning to understand and respond to your baby’s signals is an important task,” Wolpert says. “The effects are far-reaching.”

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