Newborn baby cues: understand what your baby is telling you
Most of us, as new parents, find it really hard to interpret those newborn baby cues. They grunt, grimace, and cry… but what do they need?? Sometimes, we try something and our babies just cry louder. Then we start to worry and panic that we’re doing it wrong.
Every baby is unique so they all have different needs and reactions. Some babies are fairly chilled out and relaxed. Other babies will start screaming if you don’t work out what they need in under five seconds!
However, all babies share some common characteristics, and will communicate their needs in similar ways. Learning to interpret what your baby is telling you is like learning a new language. We all know that crying is a sign that our babies need something. However, some of those newborn baby cues are really subtle and easy to miss. When you start to notice them, it means you can act more quickly and prevent the crying.
Newborn babies - what they are like
Newborn babies are physically helpless
A newborn baby is completely helpless and relies on their parents (or another adult) to keep them safe. A lot of their communication, especially in the early days, is signaling for an adult to pick them up. Most newborn babies will be much more settled and calm when they are in contact with an adult, because they can relax and know that they are safe. A newborn baby is unable to meet their physical needs at all, and therefore, their survival depends on being near an adult who can take care of them.
Newborn babies have immature brains
As well as this physical helplessness, their brains are very immature, and under-developed. Their little brains have billions of brain cells, but there’s not very many connections between the brain cells. Over the first year of life there’s a huge amount of change that goes on in the baby’s brain. In that first year, a lot of the brain cells that don’t get used, die away. This process is called synaptic pruning and continues throughout life. (By the way, this process of losing brain cells is really normal. You can’t prevent it.) (Sunderland, 2016)
As newborn babies, the most developed part of their brain is their brain stem, which is responsible for keeping them alive (breathing, heart rate, digestion), and signaling for someone to look after them (fussing and crying). The next “layer” of brain comprises of the areas that regulate emotions and stress states – the amygdala, hippocampus and hypothalamus. When we respond to our babies, we start to build connections between that survival part of the brain, and the parts of the brain that regulate their emotional states. The more you respond to those newborn baby cues, the stronger these connections become. You literally build their brain by responding to them. (Sunderland, 2016)
Self-soothing and being soothed
Babies have very limited capacity for self-soothing. They rely on us to soothe them. As we soothe them, over and over, this helps to build the connections in the brain that eventually will help them self-soothe. Self-soothing only really happens properly when the outer areas of the brain start to develop – these areas are involved in memory formation and logical thought. These areas don’t develop until a child is much older! They certainly have no capacity for logical thought when they are babies.
Stimulation is linked to fussiness
Another feature of this underdeveloped brain is that the level of stimulation may affect how fussy they are. Some babies are very sensitive to their environment and stimulation. Other babies can actually cope with quite a lot of stimulation and actually are LESS fussy when they are being exposed to lots of exciting new experiences. Since all babies are individuals, it is quite important to work out your baby’s response to stimuli. You’ll find that some babies are just completely chilled out no matter what you’re doing with them, and other babies get really fussy if their environment isn’t 100% right for them.
The brain-gut connection
Newborn babies are often quite windy/gassy. We put a lot of effort into burping them, and we worry about gassy, crampy tummies. One of biggest changes I’ve made as a health care professional is how I interpret this gassiness and how I suggest we manage it. This change came about because of realizing that much of this gassiness is due to the brain-gut connection. Often, those newborn baby cues are clues to how your baby’s nervous system is coping. (Douglas, 2021)
The vagus nerve (which is responsible for the body’s ability to either go on high alert or be calmed and relaxed) has many connections in the gut. When our brain is on high alert, our gut become over-active too. You will have experienced this yourself! When you are nervous or anxious about something, your gut gets a bit active, doesn’t it?
Babies are no different. So, it often helps to make a shift away from thinking that gassiness is all about trapped wind. Instead, often a gassy, crampy baby is like that because their nervous system is over-active, overstimulated, or just not feeling safe.
Dr Brazelton, an American paediatrician, wrote about the six states that a baby moves through:
- Deep sleep – the muscles are deeply relaxed and floppy, there is no eye movement, they don’t make any noise.
- Light sleep – you might see some eye movement, they may move their limbs, or grunt/moan in their sleep.
- Drowsy – they may open their eyes and close them again, they may be quite still or move a bit more.
- Quiet alert – they make eye contact, have a bright look, and minimal physical movement.
- Active alert – they are moving their limbs a lot, they may be starting to get a bit fussy.
- Crying – there is prolonged crying, rather than just the odd little cry or fuss. (Nugent et al, 2007)
Some babies move through these states really quickly, without apparent warning. You might find that one minute your baby is completely calm and alert and the next minute they are screaming their head off! Meanwhile, you’re trying to work out, in that split second before they start screaming, what you’re supposed to do. Other babies build up to the fussiness and crying and give you a bit more time to prepare. However, as we’ll see in the next section, there are often subtle signs that your baby is about to start crying.
Think of their nervous system as having a dial
It may also be helpful to see these states as a visual representation of what your baby’s nervous system is doing. Remember, initially your baby is governed by that survival mechanism in the brain. As a result, their nervous system can become activated very quickly – they will reach that alarm point where they cry a lot to signal that they need.
Dr Pamela Douglas talks a baby’s nervous system having a “dial”. (Douglas, 2021) When babies are “dialed down” they are calm, sleepy or fast asleep. Their nervous system is registering that they are safe, warm, with a full tummy and comfortable. As their nervous system dials up, they start to get fussy. When their nervous system is on high alert or “dialled up”, they cry. They signal, in the only way they know how, that they need an adult to fix something for them and keep them safe.
Seeing it from your baby’s perspective
So, if you think about a little baby’s brain: it’s really underdeveloped, and they’re constantly having to deal with new experiences. So even something as simple as a nappy change or a bath can cause them to react. They are helpless to control their environment and rely completely on adults to keep them safe. Imagine how you might feel in that situation!
You can’t avoid these situations, but observing your baby will give you clues into how well they are coping with any given situation. So, let’s look at those newborn baby cues and what your baby is actually telling you.
Nervous system/stress cues
We all know that crying is a sign our babies are unhappy about something. And, as we’ve already discussed, we know that crying means that their nervous system is on high alert, or dialed up.
But what are the more subtle signs that your baby is struggling with their environment? These are signs that your baby is finding something stressful, or a bit threatening. Watch your baby closely when they are in the alert states, because from here they will either transition to sleep (being dialed down) or fussiness and crying (dialed up).
This is a really subtle newborn baby cue, and you’ll probably only notice it when you are changing a nappy or dressing them. You might notice that their skin goes a little bit mottled, so it might look about paler in some areas and darker in others. In white babies, this will be a contrast of white/pink patches. In darker skinned babies, it may just be the difference between pale and dark. (Nugent et al, 2007)
We worry a lot about reflux in our culture. Most of the time, this is just normal and doesn’t need to be medicated. It is really common for babies to spit up after a feed. In fact, around half of all babies will bring some milk up after a feed, and this doesn’t need to be medicated. I write about reflux here.
However, sometimes bringing up a little bit of milk can be a sign of stress. Remember that gut-brain connection? Their nervous system becomes a bit overwhelmed, and their digestive system responds. In this case, their stomach tenses up in response to something they feel a bit uncomfortable about, and your baby brings up a mouthful of milk. (Nugent et al, 2007)
Let me give you an example. You are making eye contact with your baby. They are bright, alert and engaged. You talk to them, they gaze enthralled. After a few minutes, they look away, maybe fuss a little. If you respond to that cue appropriately (you cuddle them in close and stop the stimulating interaction), they calm and settle. However, if you keep trying to make eye contact, you may find that fussiness increases more and then suddenly it becomes too much and they have a little vomit.
Hiccups and sneezing
You might notice these really subtle newborn baby cues as well. Of course, they could sneeze because they’ve got a little bit of dust in the nose or they could hiccup because they’ve got a full tummy. But again, if they have been in a calm, active state and engaged in eye contact with something or someone, then start to look away and become a bit more agitated, hiccups or sneezing may be another sign that they have had too much stimulation for now, and need some soothing. (Nugent at al, 2007)
Touching their face
Some babies bring their hands up to their face or their mouth, when they are feeling a bit overwhelmed. You may even notice that your baby sucks on a finger. This is just one of the reasons why I don’t like scratch mitts and swaddling!
Touching their face is one of the few things that babies can actually do to comfort themselves and give themselves a bit of reassurance. Again, just watch your baby when they are feeling a bit uneasy, perhaps at a nappy change, and see if they bring their hands up to their face. They are trying, in a very limited way, to reassure themselves. This is a subtle sign that they are finding that experience a little bit stressful. (Nugent et al, 2007)
Some babies are just naturally very active. However, if your baby has initially been quite still, and focusing on something and then gradually starts to move their limbs, they may well be moving through one of those behavioural states. Think of this as your baby starting to become a bit disorganized – it will probably lead to crying very shortly.
Use their senses to help regulate them
You’ve probably noticed that initially, newborn babies don’t really make an awful lot of eye contact. They may even spend most of the time with their eyes closed. As a society, we tend to focus on eye contact, because communication is important to us. However, it might be more helpful to think of the other senses initially. Partly because newborn babies don’t have very well developed eyesight anyway, but also because they can find prolonged eye sight over stimulating.
As your newborn gets older and starts to see better, often just the sight of you will be helpful and calm them down. At around 6 weeks or so, you may find that your baby gazes intently at areas with big contrasts of light and dark. So you may find that changing the room you are in, helps to settle your baby. Getting outdoors often gives them a change of scenery too and something new and interesting to stare at! Initially though, when they are only a few of weeks old, you may want to try using the other senses to calm them, first.
Often, cuddling them in close helps them, as we help to co-regulate our babies’ nervous systems. Essentially, when we are calm and relaxed, we help our babies to relax too.
You may also find that holding or containing their little hands across their chest, or bringing their knees up to their tummy helps too. Most newborn babies naturally adopt this position on your chest – that adorable newborn scrunch.
I call this position on your chest their “default position” – this is always where babies are going to feel safest and calmest. This curled up position on your chest is incredibly regulating for them. In this position, they can also access the right level of stimulation for their other senses too.
When babies are curled up on your chest, they can hear the familiar sounds that they heard in the womb: your heart beat, your voice, and even a gurgling digestive system! These familiar sounds are always going to be more soothing. As they get older, you may find that music helps. Don’t always assume babies need lullabies, I’ve seen some babies settle to Queen! Getting outdoors often helps too because it gives babies a wonderful new range of sounds to listen to.
Babies very quickly recognize their mother’s scent and the scent of her breastmilk. The same will be true of other adults who care for them. Sometimes, you have no choice but to put your baby down for a while. You could try tucking an item of clothing you’ve been wearing over their mattress. This can be reassuring and soothing.
Babies recognize their mother’s milk within the first 24 hours and both breastmilk and formula have a sweet taste which is very soothing for babies. We know that babies who are undergoing painful procedures in hospital often are given something sweet as this helps them block out that painful stimuli. You can use feeding as a tool for soothing your baby.
The soothing aspect of feeding goes beyond just the taste of the milk. The muscles in the face that are involved in sucking and swallowing are also linked to the vagus nerve – that calm down nerve. Newborn babies suck lots because it is so soothing for them!
You maybe haven’t thought of movement as a sense, but it really is! For the purposes of keeping this blog relatively simple, here I’m combining the senses of proprioception and vestibular awareness. When your baby is held, their limbs are contained and there is a gentle, subtle movement that doesn’t happen if they are lying in a cot.
Most babies will settle with that gentle movement of lying on your chest. So you can chill out and watch something on tv while soothing your baby. You may find that your baby needs a bit more movement, and will settle best when in a sling and carrier, and all you have to do is walk around the room. Some babies need constant motion, and some will only settle with vigorous bouncing.
Finding the right level of movement for your baby can take a bit of practice! I’d always recommend you start with the least amount of movement and gradually build up, until you find the level that is right for your baby. Firstly, we want to use the least amount of effort possible, but also, if you start off with vigorous movement, this may actually be too much for your baby!
Have you ever considered that your baby is is complete panic mode when they get hungry? Think about it this way: they rely on you completely for food. When they are in your arms, they can relax, knowing that the source of food isn’t that far away. But imagine lying in a cot, hungry and helpless. You’d panic a bit too, wouldn’t you? Often, we wait until babies are crying to feed them, but that is a really late, panic hunger state. It’ll be much harder to calm them down and get them “organised” for feeding. Instead, it might be helpful to look for early feeding cues.
Just starting to stir
You will probably notice the earliest feeding cues when your baby is still asleep. As they start to come out of deep sleep, you might see that they start to lick their lips, or turn their head to the side. If you have a baby that goes from 0-60 very quickly, then often trying to initiate a breastfeed at this stage is successful. You can try putting your baby on your chest while they are still asleep. Often, their newborn feeding reflexes kick in and they will scoot over to the breast themselves and can self-attach.
If your baby isn’t fed with those very early feeding cues, then you might start to notice that they have a more obvious rooting reflex: if their is something touching their cheek, they’ll open their mouth wide and turn towards that side. They may start to bring their hands to their mouth as well. Again, a really good time to offer a feed!
Raising their voice
The next stage is that they will start to make little grunty, moany noises, that are an attempt to get your attention and prompt you into action. You may also notice that they become a bit more active, kicking their arms and legs. Remember, this is a behavioural state that can very quickly move into crying. Essentially, they are telling you a little bit more loudly: Hey! I’m really hungry here! Don’t make me shout!
And finally, shouting. Yep, this is when they are full-blown crying. They are in full-blown panic mode. They are starving and panicking because they don’t know when, or if, they are going to be fed. Most babies will find it really hard to latch on and breastfeed in this state. You’ll need to calm them down first so that they can get organized to feed.
When I first started out as a sleep consultant, I would give parents a little chart with early and late sleep cues. I tend not to do that any more. Mostly, because I think we are obsessed with overtiredness. I often see clients that are so worried that they will miss sleep cues that they jump in at the first yawn and try to get their babies to sleep. And then their baby cries and resists sleep because they were just yawning. They weren’t really tired or ready to sleep!
Make sleep irresistible
By and large, I think that if newborn babies are tired, comfortable, calm and feel connected to you, they will sleep. In fact, under those conditions, sleep will be irresistible! You really won’t have to do much at all. For the first couple of weeks, you may even find it quite hard to wake your baby up! But from around 3 weeks onwards, don’t focus so much on whether they are tired or not. It really will work a lot better if you focus on:
- Feeding frequently. It is really normal for babies to feed to sleep, whether they are breast or bottle fed. If they are feeding and are ready to sleep, then they will sleep.
- Keep them close. Most babies will fall asleep easily if kept in contact with an adult, both day and night.
- Keeping them calm. The first part of this blog covers this in detail.
If you want to read more about newborn sleep and how to help them sleep better at night time, this article is helpful: Newborn sleep: why is my baby waking so much?
It’s ok if you miss the early cues
OK, still not convinced? You really want some information on sleep cues? OK, I’ve included my little chart below. But honestly, it’s not the end of the world if you miss those subtle early cues and you end up seeing late cues and your baby is a bit fussy and cranky. Just work on calming them. Give them a cuddle, a feed, and they will sleep.
Getting to know your baby
The learning curve
The first three months of your baby’s life are a huge learning curve for all parents. Whether it’s your first, second or 10th baby! Every baby is just going to be that little bit different. While you will probably recognise some of the newborn baby cues more quickly with your second or third baby, each baby is still an individual. They will respond differently to what you do. Therefore, there is still a learning curve. One baby may move through the behavioural states really quickly, so you need to be more attentive. Your other babies maybe give you a bit more warning that they are getting fed up. Some babies like loads of stimulation. Other babies don’t.
It’s ok to get it wrong
You haven’t failed if your baby cries. All babies cry. What matters is that your baby knows you are there for them. It is the repeated response that helps babies learn that you are there for them. Soothing them even if they don’t stop crying straight away lets them know that they are not alone. You are looking after them.
Of course you’ll get it wrong sometimes. You’ll not always read those newborn baby cues correctly. But you can try something different and see if that works. That process of trial and error means that you gradually learn what works for your baby. The next time you’ll try something different and it’ll work more quickly.
The more often you respond, the more your baby starts to realize that you are there for them. They will cry less, because they learn that they have your attention with a little moan or a grunt. You jump in quickly and give them what they need before they need to escalate to crying. You end up with a content baby that trusts you.
Some babies do cry more than others. Some babies cry for long periods of time, even when being consoled. If this is your baby, then it may be helpful to read this article, just to make sure that you are covering all potential causes of crying: Newborn babies: the distress of crying and colic
It’s perfectly ok to experiment to find out what works. Our babies are actually quite forgiving, and we only need correctly identify the newborn baby cues about half the time for our babies to understand that we’re trying to help them. The response builds trust.
Often, in our technological world, it feels safer and easier to rely on an app to tell us when to feed our babies, or put them down for a nap. Or, we spend the day engrossed in our phone, googling symptoms and baby products. What I would encourage you to do instead, is just focus on your baby. This may sound strange, but get into the habit of just watching your baby. Watch them move, make noises. Observe them for periods throughout the day. Sit, watch and notice. Of course you can still check your phone from time to time, and it’s ok to tidy up while your baby naps! You don’t have to observe them ALL day.
Just start consciously spending time just watching, observing what they are doing, and start predicting what might happen next. As you become an expert in reading your baby’s cues, you’ll start to predict what they will need in the next 10, 30 minutes. And with that, your confidence in understanding your baby will grow. Before you know it, you’ll be navigating your day calmly and confidently, responding quickly to those newborn baby cues.
Need some help with your newborn baby?
Sometimes, it can be really helpful to chat it all through with someone. I offer online and in person consultations to help you with your newborn baby’s feeding, sleep and fussiness. You can find out more here: Support with newborn baby: feeding, sleep, crying, reflux, colic
Douglas, P (2021) The Discontented Little Baby Book, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia
Hookway, L (2019) Holistic Sleep Coaching, Praeclarus Press, LLC, Amarillo
Nugent et al (2007) Understanding Newborn Behavior and Early Relationships, Paul Brookes Publishing Co, Baltimore
Sunderland, M (2016) The Science of Parenting, DK Publishing, New York