The baby’s signals and needs

Infants don't have words but can still give you clear messages. How can you see and hear the difference between when your baby is happy, tired, hungry or ready to have contact with you? 

A lot of parents probably wished there was an instruction book when they suddenly find themselves with a small child in their arms. A baby has many needs but cannot express them with words.

A lack of language does not prevent the baby from trying to tell you what she needs. As you get to know each other better, you will find ways to comfort and calm her that work for you both. It is quite natural to make some mistakes at first.

The younger your child is, the less clear are the signals you are looking for. For example, small babies may seem hungry all the time because they search with their mouths and try to find something to suck upon. Sucking helps to calm your baby, and the need to suck on things will often be present constantly – even when they are not hungry. This can easily be misunderstood and make you put your baby to your breast even though she is not hungry.

The baby's body language

Even newborn babies can tell you a lot without words. Body language and bodily reactions can tell you a lot. Here are some signs you can look for:

Signs that your child is comfortable:

  • an even complexion
  • a relaxed body
  • calm movements
  • a relaxed facial expression
  • the child is easily calmed

Signs that your child is uneasy and uncomfortable:

  • jerky movements
  • spread out fingers
  • tension/stiffness of the arms and legs
  • worried facial expression
  • wrinkled forehead
  • spitting up, hiccuping, sneezing or yawning
  • the baby looks away or closes her eyes
  • difficulty in being calmed
  • uneven or changed complexion

It may be harder to see colour changes if the baby’s skin is dark, but it is easiest to see on the lips, around the mouth, on fingers and toes and possibly on the chest. 

The majority of these signs may also have other causes, and as parents we must get to know what is typical for our child.

Crying is the baby's language

Crying is an important part of how your baby communicates with you, and crying is perfectly natural for your baby. A crying child is telling you that it needs you. You don't have to worry when your baby is crying, but it's natural to want to do something and try to comfort.

Crying alone for a long time is not okay. Crying is a signal that your baby sends out and needs an answer to. By responding to your child's crying, you create security and predictability for your child.

It is common that the amount of crying in infants increases from birth and reaches a peak around 6–8 weeks, before decreasing gradually. There is research to suggest that tummy ache is not necessarily the main reason children cry. Especially in the afternoon and evening, crying can be a way of “discharging” after a long day involving many new experiences. 

Infants don’t cry to get attention. Such an intentional act requires a level of maturity that the child simply doesn’t have.

Comforting

To comfort and calm your child is a demanding and important part of caring. Your child is aware of, and becomes accustomed to, receiving responses to their signals and being taken care of.

A newborn child may also have some ability to calm herself. For example, she can suck on her fingers or a dummy. We can also see that some babies hold their hands on their cheeks, over their noses, over their eyes, or that they hold their hands on their heads.  

Eventually, your child will become better at calming herself, and you will experience less urgency and that things get easier. Maybe a short look or the sound of your voice is enough. There are, of course, large individual differences. One child will be able to fall asleep fairly easily, while another child will need more help. There can also be large differences in the clarity of the signals that children give.

When crying becomes colic

Colic is a term used for a condition in which babies cry more than is typical. The definition of colic is that the child cries at least three hours daily, at least three days a week over a period of at least three weeks. Read more about colic at helsenorge.no.

What is your baby trying to tell you?

Most babies sleep for large parts of the day during the first few weeks. The child alternates between light and deep sleep.

When the baby is awake, there are often only brief periods where he or she is calm and attentive. Otherwise, there will be periods where the baby is restless or also cries out loud.

Professionals observing the very youngest children use a model called Newborn Behavioural Observation (r-bup.no) and divide the baby's states of consciousness into six states of sleep or wakefulness. By recognizing these states, you can understand more easily if your baby needs comfort, wants to sleep or is ready for contact.

But we should remember that babies are very different. Some change more quickly than others between the different states, and the transitions between them are also gradual. Also, even the very youngest children have different temperaments, and for some children it is harder to "read" what condition they are in.

The baby's six states of consciousness

According to the Newborn Behavioural Observation method, the baby’s states of consciousness are divided in the following way:

1. The baby is awake, calm and attentive

  • The baby's eyes are open and his gaze is searching.
  • He fixes his gaze and seems interested in your face or voice.
  • His body is calm and relaxed.

This means that your baby is ready for contact. It’s time for small talk, fun and play. Babies rarely manage to hold their concentration for long, the youngest may only manage a few minutes or even seconds, so it is important to seize the moment when it arises.

You can try to make sounds, facial expressions, small talk and have fun together. Children are born social, and we know that they need to be stimulated by seeing your face, getting a smile, feeling your touch, hearing you sing, and eventually by looking at exciting toys with vivid colours and contrasts.

There is no rule as to how long your baby will seek active contact. You'll notice that your baby's concentration is weakening, and that he needs a break, when he looks away, closes his eyes, yawns, sneezes or breathes faster.

If the baby "asks for a break", for example by turning slightly away, you should wait and see if the baby is seeking eye contact with you again before proceeding. Some parents may feel rejected if their baby gives such signals, but it just means that the baby needs to gather himself a little bit before joining in on more fun.

2. The baby is awake, restless and pre-occupied

  • The baby is active and moves her head, hands and feet often.
  • She makes little grunts and sounds.
  • She seems extra sensitive to sounds and movements.

When the baby sends these signals, it means that she would like something to change. There may be many reasons why your baby feels that way, and you will often have to try out different things to calm your baby.

You may feel insecure and perhaps a little stressed when your baby gets restless. In that case, it might be useful to spend a few seconds calming yourself down first. Find some space of your own and take some deep breaths. It is easier to calm a child when you are calm yourself.

Then you can try to gather your baby's hands, let her hold onto your finger or support her feet against something. If the baby still seems uneasy, you can check if she is hungry, wants to sleep, needs a nappy change, is too hot or too cold or has trapped wind. It may just be that your baby wants to "chat" with you, in which case you will see that she seeks you with her gaze.

3. The baby cries loudly and intensely

  • It can be difficult to get contact with the baby.
  • He draws deep breaths, closes his eyes and screams until hot and flustered.
  • The muscles of the body are tense.
  • It can be difficult to understand why your baby is crying and what you can do to comfort him.

Crying is perfectly normal and one of your baby's ways of expressing his needs. Your baby cries for several reasons, for example to tell you that she needs help to calm down, needs closeness, is hungry, tired, bored, or has tummy pains.  

There’s a lot you can do to try to calm her him down. Just remember to give your baby enough time to react to the different things you are trying. If you constantly try new things, it can make your baby even more uneasy – or you may not understand what actually worked if she gets calmer.

How can you comfort when your baby cries?

  • Talk to your baby with a calm voice. Slow down and wait a while - is this enough for the baby to calm down?
  • Try to put your hand over the chest and tummy of the baby. The warmth and bodily contact may seem soothing to him.
  • Gather your baby's arms upon his chest and provide some support under his feet. It can give your baby a sense of calmness and security.
  • Try to let your baby suck a little on your fingers or hand. The need to suck can be strong even when your baby has been fed and is satisfied.
  • Hold your baby close to you while rocking rhythmically, preferably bending the knees up and down.
  • Swaddle the baby firmly into a blanket. The baby is accustomed to being tightly enclosed in the mother's womb. It creates safe boundaries around the child and prevents excessive movements that would otherwise cause the body to get unbalanced. Your baby feels encased and safe.
  • Give your baby a dummy.

By trying these things, you will eventually get to know your baby better and understand what he needs and when.

4. The baby is sleeping deeply

  • The baby’s breathing is smooth and calm, sometimes so quiet that you can hardly see or hear it.
  • The baby is hardly moving, and there is no movement behind the eyelids.
  • In this sleep phase, it will take a lot to wake or disturb the baby.

When your baby is sleeping deeply, a lot is actually happening. He grows, rests and develops during his sleep. Small babies need a lot of this deep sleep in order to develop properly.

Use this precious time to get some rest yourself! Parents also need sleep, and soon enough it will be all go again! You should avoid waking your baby when he is in deep sleep, even if encouraged to do so by friends or other visitors.

5. The baby is sleeping lightly

  • The baby's eyes are closed or half-open, and you can see the eyes moving slightly under the lids.
  • You can often see bodily movements and tiny grimaces when your baby is sleeping lightly.
  • She might open her eyes once in a while, and then close them again.
  • Breathing is often more irregular than when she is sleeping deeply, and it is easier to wake her.

The light phase of sleep is also important for the baby's development – especially for the brain. Both deep and light sleep are important for the child's neurobiological development. Among other things, this involves connections being established in the brain during sleep which are important for her development.

If you want your baby to keep on sleeping when she's in this phase, you may want to reduce sounds and distractions as much as possible.

6. The baby is drowsy

  • The baby’s eyelids keep drooping and she may make sucking movements.  
  • Her movements are gentle, and she responds to sounds, movements and touch.

The baby is now a little bit detached from the world and relaxes well. From a drowsy state like this there are two possible exits: The baby will either go into light sleep or she will wake up.

If it’s time for some food, you can talk a little to your baby and stroke her gently. If you think your baby needs to sleep a little more, you can wait and see if your baby falls asleep herself or calm her further down if she needs it.

Don't let your baby change everything

Even if you show a lot of consideration to your baby and follow closely what she needs, it does not mean that everything has to revolve around her. You don't have to stop listening to music, and you don’t have to creep around the house feeling anxious that you will wake your baby during the day.

On the contrary, it may be nice to remember that babies are part of the family, including all that families bring: life, hustle and bustle, different personalities, small talk and everyday sounds. The atmosphere of your home is the normal, natural environment, and the baby should be a part of it.

Each family is different and every parent is different. Some parents see that having routines and structure in everyday life works well for both themselves and the baby, while others live more spontaneously and take the baby with them everywhere. It’s important to find a pattern that's right for you, often through trial and error.

Sometimes it can be useful to talk with other parents, friends or family, while other times all the different types of advice only make things seem more confusing.

And remember, if you are unsure or worried about something, it’s perfectly okay to contact your doctor or maternity and child health care centre. They are very aware of the fact that parents have many questions and they have the skills to assess what you need and to reassure you.

This article is based on the brochure "Se barnet ditt snakker til deg" ("Look, your child is speaking to you"), published by Regional centre for child and adolescent mental health (RBUP Øst og Sør).