How babies communicate
Your baby starts communicating with you as soon as they’re born through movements and sounds.
When babies are first born, days and nights are all about getting to know each other, sleeping, cuddling, feeding and crying. They use a variety of ways to communicate with you:
- sounds – crying, cooing, and babbling
- facial expressions – eye contact, smiling, grimacing, mouth movements
- gestures/body movements – moving their arms or legs in distress or excitement.
When you respond to them quickly, calmly, and with affection and warmth, your baby will feel safe and secure.
Giving your pēpi attention in this way encourages them to communicate more with you and helps them learn their needs will be met. This helps you build a strong, loving relationship with your baby, and also teaches them about being loved, behaviour and emotions.
They’ll cry or use their body language to tell you they have a physical need, things like:
- they’re hungry
- they need a nappy change
- they need a sleep
- they have an upset tummy and need to get rid of wind
- they’re too hot or too cold
- they need to be with you for a cuddle.
They might have an emotional need for comfort from you. They may be feeling:
Responding to your baby’s cry
Over time, you’ll start to get to know your baby’s cries, and what different cries mean.
Often their cries and body language will give you important clues about what they need. To help you figure this out , spend time watching them to learn their signs that they’re hungry, tired, uncomfortable, wanting to be with you, or wanting to play.
Understanding baby states of wake and sleep can also help you figure out what they might want or need.
Parenting is a learning journey, and no one gets it right all the time, especially when you’re just getting to know your new baby. Sometimes it’s a matter of ticking off all the obvious needs – trying to feed them, cuddle them, change their nappy, put them down for a nap. It can be hard to keep calm as you try to work out what they need. It may help to respond to your baby in a calm and soothing voice, and:
- sing a soothing song
- gently cuddle your baby
- gently sway, or rock pēpi side to side
- use slow and gentle repetitious patting to help them settle.
If you find yourself getting stressed or upset, try relaxing your shoulders down and taking some deep breaths.
Read about patting settling technique to help babies sleep
What to do if your baby won’t stop crying
On average, babies cry for almost three hours a day, but some cry for a lot longer than this. Often the fussing and crying seems to happen in the late afternoon and evening. This period of intense crying tends to peak at about six weeks.
Some pēpi cry for no obvious reason over a long period of time, and are difficult to settle. There are many causes, but a common one is colic. Colic is seen in one in five babies. It normally starts when a baby is a few weeks old, peaks around six weeks old, and usually stops when they’re around four months old. Caring for a baby with colic can make you feel anxious, stressed, or upset.
Never shake, hit or hurt a crying baby. If you feel like you might hurt your child, stop before you do anything and put them somewhere safe. Walk away and take some deep breaths. Call someone for help. It’s important to give yourself time to calm down.
If your baby is crying and you can’t settle them, try:
- taking them into a dimly-lit quiet room to reduce stimulation
- gently and rhythmically patting your baby’s back
- sometimes white noise, like the noise of a fan, recordings of waves crashing, or a radio tuned to static between stations, can help settle baby
- listening to lullabies or oriori
- taking pēpi for a walk or a drive (if you’re not too tired to drive). Even if they don’t go to sleep, movement can make it easier for you to cope and to calm them
- asking family, whānau or friends to help so you can have a break
- putting your baby somewhere safe so you can take a break if you’re feeling overwhelmed. It won’t hurt your baby to cry for a few minutes, but it might help you get things under control.
If you’re worried because your baby won’t stop crying, give PlunketLine a call on 0800 933 922. We're here for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Why talking to your baby is important
There are lots of opportunities to communicate with your baby during the day, whether it’s through singing, reading, telling stories, or just chatting to them about what you’re doing.
- When you talk to your tamariki, you use lots of different sounds and words. The more words they hear, the more words you’re helping them learn and understand, and the more you’re improving their understanding of language and how to express themselves.
- Speak, sing, and read to your child in any languages spoken at home. Babies have the capacity to learn lots of different languages, and the earlier they hear these languages, the easier it is to learn them. Language can also help children learn about their culture(s).
- Talking with your baby helps their brain development, and it helps them communicate with others and to do better at school once they’re older.
You don’t need to talk to your baby about anything in particular. The more you talk to them, the better.
Just chatting to them as you go about your day, whether describing what you’re doing when you’re changing their nappy, asking them what they can see when you take them out for a walk, and describing what you can see, is perfect.
Your baby will start to be more noisy, responding to you with simple sounds when you talk to them. They’ll start listening more to you and watching your face closely when you talk. Use natural pauses to wait for their response - this will teach them about taking turns when speaking. They’ll join in the conversation through eye contact, arm and leg movements, and moving their mouth. Listen to the new sounds they make and delight in their efforts – this will encourage them to make sounds and to start to try to say words.
These simple “serve and return” interactions - where your pēpi connects with you by ‘serving’ a movement, facial expression, or sound and you ‘return’ by responding to them and then waiting for their reaction - help make strong connections in developing brains.
Talking with you takes lots of energy, so your baby might get tired or need a break. They’ll let you know by looking away. This is your baby learning to calm themselves (self-regulate.)
When they’re ready to engage with you again they may turn towards you, look at you, move their arms and legs, or make sounds. If they’re getting restless or grumpy, it could be they’re wanting to try something different.
Encouraging speech and language development
There are lots of simple things you can do to help develop your baby’s language skills.
- Talk, talk, talk to them about anything and everything.
- Encourage their early attempts to communicate with you by giving them time to respond back to you with sounds or movements.
- Your baby might respond with a gurgle, a mouth movement, or a cry – anything!
- Treat your baby’s response as their turn in your conversation.
- Keep the conversation going by talking back, copying your baby’s sounds, or copying their mouth movements.
- Spend time reading to your baby. It’s never too early to introduce them to books, and while they may not pay much attention at first, they’ll enjoy the quiet time with you. Read to them every day if you can, talking about the pictures in books and pointing out letters and words.
- Sing songs, lullabies, oriori to your baby in the car, the bath, as they’re settling to sleep - even if you’re completely off-key. They won’t judge you for a lack of musical talent, but will love the rhythm of the words and the sound of your voice.
- Make music. Your baby will love listening to you shaking rattles or banging on their toys – and just wait till they grow and can join in!
- Notice what your baby is paying attention to and talk about that. If they like looking at the curtains blowing in the wind, talk to them about the curtains and why they’re billowing.
Baby communication: What to expect