Understanding Your Baby's Language

Know what each cry means, for responsive, connected parenting

Babies cry to communicate but also to release emotion. As they mature emotion becomes stronger but remains unregulated. By six months of age, the limbic system is fully functioning. Babies cannot control their feelings and often are simply unable to stop crying without the help or co-regulation of an adult. As babies mature they develop self-ageny and discover cause and affect. They become expressive and develop wants vs needs. Expressing wants with crying can become confusing. You must decide if the cry is emotional, need based or simply a desire or want. Either way it is communication and you must respond somehow. Knowing how to respond is imperative when working through sleep cahllenges.

I'm Hungry!

A hungry cry sounds like a “neh” sound, a low-pitched, on-and-off wail that stops when you give your baby the breast or bottle.

From birth until about 3 weeks, babies cry mostly because they're hungry. This is a good time to learn this cry and recognize it again as your baby gets older.

In the first few weeks, try to feed your baby before she cries from hunger. Among other reasons to do so: A ravenous baby can have a hard time latching on, which can lead to even more crying. So look for hungry-baby signs: Before she resorts to crying, a baby will let you know she wants to eat by opening her mouth, rooting for your nipple, trying to suck on your neck or your hand, or stuffing her own hand in her mouth. If you don't take the hint, she'll cry.

I'm Sleepy!

A sleepy cry starts out as a whimper and builds into a full-fledged wail, it sounds like an “owh” sound, the sound might quiver and make a noise that sounds more like a “wah-wah.” 

Anticipate the cry and know when to expect that your baby will feel tired. In the beginning, she will be sleepy after any social time or any outing, a walk or a visit, time at the store. Activity and stimuli make babies very sleepy. watch the clock and plan a nap before the crying.

Try to catch your baby’s sleepy cues and get her down to sleep before crying begins.  A baby who is ready to sleep will fall asleep if you let her. But a baby who becomes overtired has a difficult time winding down and can grow distraught, making it difficult for her to settle. 

I Need You!

Cries that stops the minute you pick up your baby - and starts again when you put him down. This may be simply a rhythmic sounding cry or a whimper but it needs to be managed. 

Babies need comfort and human contact. They love to be hugged and cuddled. They crave this connection above all else and need to feel safe and secure. This is a need, not a want and should be considered as such. 

Spend as much time as you can holding your baby during during happy awake moments in the day. Carry your baby in a sling or baby carrier. Make connections positive and separate them from feedings and sleep. That way your baby will not associate cuddles only with feeds and bedtime.

Discomfort Cry or Gassy

This cry starts as an “eh” or “errhg” sound but then has a more of a high pitched sound and almost a screech. 

Your baby might also pull her legs up to her chest and arch her back, showing you signs of discomfort. When your baby has gas he may start out grunting and groaning trying to push the gas out. Unfortunately this pushes the air further down and makes the burp harder to achieve. Try to catch this before you see your little one doing this and work on the burp.

Colic still remains a mystery, but is believed to be associated with gas and abdominal discomfort. A newborn's immature digestive system can produce lots of gas and parents typically see more crying after week three. Frequent breaks in the feed and making sure your baby is sitting up straight or pressed into your shoulder straight not curled up, while patting her back more assertively then most think, usually does the trick. If you cannot get the burp and know your baby has gas, try rubbing your baby’s head and getting her to relax, gently rub her back and jiggle slightly but not too much after feeding! If nothing works, try "pedaling" her legs to help her dispel the gas, then lay her on her tummy across your arms.

I'm Overwhelmed!

This cry sounds like a soft whimper that grows louder and more fraught with every minute. Similar to the tired cry.

Having spent nine months in the quiet, dark privacy of the womb, your baby may be easily overcome by the world’s lights, noises and movement. In the first week or two, she might sleep through much of the hubbub. But as she stays awake for longer and her vision develops, watch for overstimulation.

You can help your baby calm down before she even starts crying by keeping an eye out for overstimulation. The most obvious early sign is avoidance. A baby who's had enough will turn his head away when you try to engage him; it's his way of protecting himself from even more stimulation. Other signs: He might get jittery, his breathing might speed up or he might look totally spaced out. Yawning, sneezing and extended hands with fingers splayed. Help him calm down by eliminating the source of stress, covering his eyes, gently rocking him, swaddling him or letting him suck on your finger or breast - and don't talk to him!

I Need a Diaper Change!

Starts with an H-sound. “Hey” before the cry. Whiny, nasal, continuous

Sensitive babies cry when they are wet or about to have a bowel movement, you'll also hear this if they have a sore bottom or feel too warm or too cold.

Newborns can't regulate their own temperature and need help to feel comfortable, they don't sweat to cool down or shiver to warm up. So you'll have to adjust clothing and covering to compensate. This improves with time but until your baby can tell you whats wrong, expect them to cry. learning body language in babies helps to limit crying and anticipate behavior.

This cry may also occur with other discomforts, such as the car seat or a tight jacket. Cold hands or feet, a hair in her eye, or an unfamiliar smell. They may also cry from a clothing tag bothering them or a twisted blanket underneath them. Babies cannot reposition themselves and rely on you to keep blankets flat and tags away from sensitive skin. Look at anything that may be bothering your baby. 

Ouch, that Hurts!

A sudden high-pitched shriek and out of control cry followed by loud wails

You won’t miss this one! This kind of cry means that something hurts and he needs help now! 

If you can't find the source of the pain and your baby keeps wailing, call the doctor and get help. Babies with twisted bowels or other serious medical conditions cry excessively. Look for hidden sources such as a hair wrapped around a toe or even a little boys privates:( 
This hurts and is hard to see, but can be very dangerous for a baby, cutting off circulation. Sometimes your baby has tummy pain from certain foods in mom’s diet. Pay attention to what you've eaten and reassess. Watch for ear infections as well! This can be tough to identify but the cry gets louder when the baby lays down. 

Panic Cry or Fear

Similar to a painful cry, but more shaking and gasping. Big tears and quivering lip. Often rapid breathing and a rhythmic cry that has the same tone over and over.

Avoid allowing your baby to feel abandoned or afraid. This can cause anxiety and increase clinginess in your baby.

Babies trust us and feel vulnerable when afraid. We are the weakest animals born in the mammal world and the most helpless. The fear is real and designed to protect your baby from predators. He doesn't know why he feels fear and doesn't know that a wolf wont eat him, but his brain is programmed to believe that.

Protest Crying

This is a frustration cry and occurs in older babies. This cry is more deliberate and often stops when the desired request is met. The cry is loud and shrill without shaking or distress. They are upset and do not like what’s happening but they are not afraid. 

A cry may start out this way but then change to become more distressed as baby becomes overwhelmed with emotion. Often the crying itself upsets the baby and they lose control. Be aware of when the cry changes and how to support your baby. Setting limits is perfectly okay and beneficial to your baby, but supporting emotion is important. 

Protest crying is ok if monitored appropriately in older babies. Your baby will not always like everything. Often you hear this cry when you are getting them dressed or changing a diaper during play time. Not everything is negotiable and the sooner your baby learns the rules the easier it will be!

Emotional Development

Babies are born with limited emotions and continue to develop these emotions at different stages. A 4 month old can smile and feel happy, but may not display anger yet. A six month old can show anger and frustration that are separate from sadness and express emotion in response to being told “no.” A nine month old can feel all types of human emotion but cannot make sense of it. 

Babies need to learn that it is completly normal and perfectly ok to feel these emotions, but limits must still be set. A baby may want to touch the stove or a hot coffee. They may want to play with a toy that isn't safe. They may protest the car seat but must learn to accept it anyway. All babies have highly unregulated emotional capabilities. Even though they feel these emotions, they have no idea how to manage them. It is up to caregivers to help them manage these emotions appropriately. This is why sleep challenges are so hard!

Fear develops later, around 7-10 months as well as separation anxiety. Babies at this age show intense sadness and grief with the loss of a loved one. By 12-15months more complex emotional processes form with the ability to identify pride, shame and embarrassment. This is confirmed by recognizing their reflection in the mirror. 

By 18 months the precursors to empathy appear and are seen even in younger babies when they hear other babies crying. This first stage of empathy is similar to a puppy who licks your face when you cry, they know something is wrong but they cannot understand why. 

As we know, emotions require a high level of intellect to identify and control. Some adults continue struggle with this concept throughout life. The emotions your baby or toddler feel are immature and require a certain level of cognitive ability to manage. They continue form over the pre-school and early school age years at a rapid rate. 

Understanding anger and frustration in your baby without rescuing him from these feelings, allows him to learn. Supporting temper tantrums in your toddler while setting limits and providing safe boundaries lets him work through it. Emotions are hard for us to watch, but as parents, we are the first teachers our baby will have. Our reaction to emotion sets the stage for life and is an important part of brain development.

Be patient and know when you need a break. Babies tears can be stressful for moms to hear, but knowing what the tears are communicating, will help! You will know when to rescue and when to stand by, when to meet the needs, and when to help them meet their own needs. When the crying is a “want” vs a “need,” how to teach them and when to support them. 

Setting limits provides safety. Limits and boundaries are happening from day #1. We limit the environment for our baby to sleep in, and limit the people who interact with them. We set boundaries on healthy nutrition, diaper changes and bath time. We set limits on safety with car seats and immunizations. These boundaries and limits increase with the age of your child. 

Healthy sleep needs limits and boundaries as well. Your baby will feel the emotion in you and mirror your emotion back. Be aware of the energy you bring to each situation. Mirroring emotion is not the same as identifying your feelings. A six year old may not realize they have hurt someones feelings and will need to be told, so don't expect your baby to recognize your emotions for sometime. 

Understanding where your baby is from a developmental stage emotionally, helps parents to model good behavior, teach deeper connections and support their baby’s feelings without reacting to them. Awareness of our own feelings is key. Children trigger emotional wounds from our past and remind us of our own childhood experiences. Accept the feelings your baby displays and let your baby know that it’s “ok” to feel and that even unpleasant and unfamiliar emotion is necessary sometimes! This biggest part of sleep work involves emotional parenting and connection. Knowing what kind of relationship you wish to have with your child will help you choose the best sleep option for your family.