2What if our newborns could use language to tell us just what they need? Of course, they can’t do that, but luckily for us and for them, newborns do have lots of other ways to let us know what they need. Learning to understand our babies’ signals and follow their lead allows us to provide just the kind of back and forth communication babies need.
Your newborn loves to hear the sound of your voice and see your facial expressions. Also, learning that you hear and consistently respond to them helps babies develop a sense of security and confidence that they are important and their needs will be met. Respond to your baby’s early sounds and signals with smiles, words and touch. Smile at your baby often and imitate your baby’s vocalizations. Use a gentle and reassuring tone of voice, as babies are sensitive to the emotions expressed through our voices.
Newborns especially enjoy the look and sound of “parentese,” the sing-song speech we tend to use with babies, accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions. Talk out loud to your baby, such as narrating what you are doing as you care for him or her or as you tend to your daily tasks. Hearing your voice will be comforting and helps meets your baby’s social-emotional needs, as well as preparing your baby to understand and use language in the future.
By closely observing your baby, you can pick up lots of hints about what your baby needs. Your baby might be signaling hunger, being tired, being uncomfortable or in pain, having a dirty diaper, or a desire to play and interact. Newborns may cry for a variety of reasons:
1. “I’m hungry.”
Newborns need to be fed often. Your baby may fuss, open his or her mouth, suck fingers or root for something to suck on. Babies don’t understand waiting and their crying will escalate when they are not fed promptly.
2. “I’m tired.”
Newborns need lots of sleep. You can sometimes notice as your baby moves out of a quiet, alert state and either falls asleep or moves into a more disorganized, tired state and needs to be comforted. Your baby may fuss, look away from you, move his or her arms and legs in a jerky and uneven manner, and may eventually even be startled into crying by his or her own movements. It can help to swaddle or snuggle your baby and help soothe him or her to sleep. A gentle, rhythmic rocking motion may also be helpful.
3. “I need your attention and want to play.”
Babies cannot be spoiled with too much attention, and are not developmentally capable of seeking attention in manipulative ways. Always respond to your newborn’s cries; responding quickly reassures he or she is important and worthy of your attention. Babies are little for a very short time; whenever you can, it’s important to put aside distractions and really be in the moment with your baby. Look at and touch your baby, be playful, talk to and have fun with your baby. These experiences help your baby’s social and emotional development flourish.
4. “I want to cuddle.”
Newborns learn about their world through their senses. Touch and hearing are especially important in the first few months. Hold your baby often. Talk to your baby whenever you can. Remember that your touch and voice communicate safety and security to your baby. Don’t wait for your baby to cry for cuddling- touch and cuddle your new baby as often as you can.
5. “I’m overwhelmed by everything going on around me right now.”
Babies cry when overloaded by too much noise or visual stimulation surrounding them. An overloaded baby may need you to take him or her to a quiet spot to calm down. It’s also important to avoid exposing your baby to loud conflicts or physical/verbal aggression, as these kinds of experiences have been found to be traumatic for babies.
6. “I’m feeling fussy.”
Babies commonly have a fussy period about the same time every day. Usually this happens sometime between early evening and midnight. Try to calm your baby by rocking, walking and using other soothing responses. If you find it difficult to cope or if your baby is crying for very long periods of time, call your health care team for advice.
7. “Something hurts.”
A cry of pain usually comes on suddenly. Check closely to see if you can find anything that may be causing discomfort or pain. Is there skin irritation from a wet or soiled diaper? Is your baby too warm or too cold? Is there a piece of clothing or fastener that could be causing discomfort? Drawing up the legs, tensing the body, and passing gas may signal that your baby is experiencing stomach discomfort. Does your baby seem ill or have a fever? If so, don’t hesitate to contact your health care team with questions.
With practice, you can become attuned to your baby’s social and emotional signals, and can get better at “reading” what your baby needs. Remember this is a learning process for all new parents, and like anything new, it takes time. Enjoy this time with your baby, as it is a special bonding time for both of you.