Hi Mum – it’s me! How babies communicate from day one

Birth.

A brand new baby.

A wonderful, exciting and intense time.

Without doubt, many new mums and dads are ‘jolted’ into parenthood - the steep learning curve in the initial weeks of parenthood can leave us feeling tired, overwhelmed and unsure.

For first-time parents this is all ‘new’ after all, and most of us look for guidance, finding ourselves searching desperately for the instruction manual for this new little person.

The mass of parenting books can be contradictory, as can the suggestions of well-meaning friends and rellies....

All the advice can be confusing.

I want to hold every “newborn parent” to my bosom now and reassure you that it will be okay. I want to reassure you that you are doing an awesome job.

This new gig is definitely a learning process. You can read all of the books but, a little bit like an apprenticeship, parenthood really requires ‘on-the-job’ training and communication.

Our understanding of newborn communication has come a long way in recent years.

In the past it was widely believed that a newborn did not smile until about six weeks of age. Those little content expressions were written off as ‘wind’ or non-intentional movements but research has confirmed that babies are learning, responding and interacting right from birth.

In fact, we now know that newborn babies are actually pretty amazing communicators, using their crying, their facial expressions and mutual gaze, and their body movements to communicate their needs to you.

All your baby requires from you is for you to slow down, relax, look and listen to them - your baby itself is the best guide book you will ever find!

Crying

Crying is one way that a baby communicates an emotional or a physical need (e.g. fear, loneliness, sadness, feeling too hot or too old, feeling tired, feeling hunger, discomfort and pain, needing a nappy change etc.).

We know that babies release tension through crying, but our society tends to jump to shush a crying baby.

What if we looked at crying a little differently? Instead of trying to stop a baby crying, what if we calmly responded by listening to the baby, letting them know that they’re being heard, that it’s OK to cry, and reassuring them that we’re here for them? Instead of shushing them, what if we give them our full attention and helped them feel secure?

After all, we all want to be heard, right?

After crying to release their stress, you may find that babies are often relaxed, calm, alert, and happy, and may fall into a peaceful sleep. We now know that this occurs because emotional tears have a special physiological function. Dr. William Frey, a biochemist who studied the composition of different types of tears, has found that emotional tears contain stress hormones that are excreted from the body through crying. Further studies also suggest that crying stimulates the production of endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones that are our body’s natural pain killer. Crying helps a baby feel better. It’s healthy to cry, as emotional tears heal the heart, helping to release sadness and stress.

Facial expressions and mutual gaze

  Baby Indigo smiling at 5 days old

Baby Indigo smiling at 5 days old

Babies love to look at human faces, and it can be delightful to watch a baby’s subtle facial expressions. Connecting with your baby and gazing into each other’s eyes is actually vital to brain development. Right from birth babies will imitate facial expressions and this is how they start to learn about expressing emotions. In the early days their expressions may be quite fleeting. It takes great concentration to hold your gaze, and it can be quite tiring for them, so engaging with your baby usually works best when they are in a calm, alert, relaxed state. But in time, these interactions will become more obvious and very, very mutually rewarding.

Body Movements

Babies communicate their state (e.g. tired, happy, content) through body movements. As babies become tired they tend to have less control over their body movements. Their movements may become more jerky, and you may notice they clench their fists, rub their eyes and start to cry. It becomes difficult for them to hold your gaze. This is when they need your help to calm them down, reduce stimulation and help them prepare for sleep. Rocking, wrapping or holding your baby against you can help your baby to relax and feel secure, which makes it easier for them to go to sleep. 

Baby massage is a great way to connect with your baby. It is all about slowing down and observing baby’s communication, connecting and responding. In the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM) Baby Massage classes, we teach in the context that the Mum or Dad is the expert and the baby is the teacher. I love this approach so much. It makes complete sense to me that if we support parents to slow down and observe their baby, then they will learn a great deal about how babies communicate.

This has huge payoffs in terms of helping the baby feel secure and loved. It builds trust. It helps the parents feel more confident in understanding their baby. This strengthens their bond and the relationship between Mum or Dad and Baby. It is a great foundation for emotional intelligence. As well as the physical benefits (who doesn’t love being massaged?) it is a wonderful way to take some time out to be present and connected with your baby.

The early weeks after the birth of your baby is often an intense time, adjusting to being parents, but it does not last forever. Taking the time to pay close attention to your baby’s needs, to learn how they communicate and to discover their unique personality will be so worthwhile. The special moments you have together will be the precious rewards.

With thanks to Shirin from On The Fence for the image of the fence and to Amber for the image of Indigo.