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  • Is Your Baby Hungry, Tired, or Sleepy? Here's How You Can Understand Him Better!

    Your little one’s facial expressions and body movements are clues that can help you determine if he needs something
    by Kitty Espiritu-Ricafort .
Is Your Baby Hungry, Tired, or Sleepy? Here's How You Can Understand Him Better!
  • An old saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” When it comes to deciphering what your baby is trying to telling you, this adage is never more accurate.

    If you stare at a sleeping newborn’s face long enough, he will involuntarily frown, smile, grimace, or giggle in a span of 10 seconds. As parents, we’re sure you’re wondering what’s behind these emotions. Is he just a victim of his biological impulses?

    Experts say that “…from baby’s first cry, she is [already] learning all about language, communication, and connecting with you.”

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    How to understand your baby better

    Instinctive facial expressions, body movements, as well as unintelligible grunts and cries are the means by which your baby is reaching out to you. It’s up to us to act as a translator, spokesperson, and all-around ambassador for this newly minted human being.

    Interacting with him and watching his expressions closely can help you read between the lines. Be guided by these tips:

    Take note of your baby’s milestones

    In the first month or so, your baby is trying to work out the kinks – with reflexes, muscle spasms, and knee-jerk reactions as the norm. Studies have shown while the first few weeks indicate some unintentional movements, the important brain-building exercise of “serve and return” can already be put into play.

    “Serve and return interactions”, described by Harvard University, “shape brain architecture. When an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills.”


    Likened to an engaging game of tennis, it only works if both players are reacting and responding to each other and keeping the “ball” in play. Give your baby enough time to “return” what you’re “serving” by taking turns with the little one and responding to his facial expressions, movements and sounds with encouragement and affection.

    Get to know each other well

    Like any new relationship, you and your baby are in the getting-to-know-you stage. He’s born with a personality, so find out what it is! Take your sweet time and get to know your little one.

    It may seem overwhelming at first, but you’ll be surprised how fast you’ll learn what he likes and doesn't like. Engaging him daily with loving hugs, facial expressions, eye contact and by mirroring his coos and gurgles, you’ll start to observe what experiences he enjoys and what he doesn’t. And surprise: it’s usually all nonverbal!

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    Decode the “baby code”

    According to Dr. Kathryn Barnard, founder of the Center on Infant Mental Health and Development at the University of Washington, “There are two types of nonverbal cues used by infants and toddlers: engagement and disengagement cues.”

    She adds, “When a child expresses herself using engagement cues, a parent may find it a good time for talking, teaching, playing, or feeding the child, in other words, the child is willing to interact with the parent.”

    Barnard explains, “when displaying disengagement cues, the child usually tries to communicate a need for a break in whatever they are doing (whether it’s eating, playing, or listening).”

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    When baby is engaged or disengaged, they exhibit both obvious and subtle cues. An engaged baby is smiling, babbling, and trying to reach for his caregiver. Subtle cues include raising his brows, his face lights up, and he opens his hands.

    On the other hand, a disengaged baby crawls away, cries, and often falls asleep. The subtle cues include fast breathing, pursed lips, and kicking legs. These cues are sometimes hard to detect and missed by caregivers.

    Reading between the lines

    With these reminders, it can be easier to decipher what your baby is trying to tell you. By identifying and leaning his cues to a few basic questions, a parent learns to decode baby’s important wants and needs.

    Is he hungry?

    Hungry babies usually make a particular sound or agitated cry accompanied with a fist inside his mouth. Newborns tilt their heads to the side and open their mouths as if reaching to feed from a breast which is called rooting.

    Other signs to look for are reaching out to caregiver with waving arms and eye contact. Here’s a tip: have a regular schedule for feeding (usually two to three hours per feed) to make it easier to identify his hunger cues.

    Is he tired or sleepy?

    This is where baby usually shows some disengagement cues by fussing, yawning, crying, staring blankly or loss of interest in her surroundings. Settle him down in a quiet place and let him drift off naturally.

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    Is he uncomfortable or in pain?


    A gassy stomach, vaccination shots, ear piercings, circumcision, fevers, insect bites, or a clogged nose may cause discomfort and pain. Assess if his fussiness or restlessness are due to some of these, then comfort him with soothing sounds and gentle caresses. If these don’t work, check if his diaper needs changing.

    Is he overstimulated?

    Too much attention or stimulation in the form of people, toys, or noise can be too much after some time (and usually the younger the baby, the shorter “playtime” or stimulation they really need).

    When you notice he’s turning away, crying, fussing, or pushing you away, he needs to take a break. Take him away from the stimulation and let him find peace with in a warm cuddle.

    Is he bored or lonely?

    Although it seems like every single experience is a new one for baby, he does get to a point where he’s been there, done that. When he starts looking away from a favorite toy, it means that he’s on a hunt for his next adventure.

    Give him something new to look at or play with from time to time. His engagement cues will start showing once again with wide alert eyes and excited movements and sounds. Remember, you don’t have to keep buying new toys! Set aside the toys he’s grown tired of for now and “introduce” them again after a couple of weeks — this will make the old like “new” again.

    Each baby comes with his own set of needs, wants, likes and non-verbal cues. It’s reassuring to know that the first step to understanding our little one is as easy and as natural as enjoying the precious little life we’re holding in our arms. So, go ahead and baby talk, coo, and make your goofiest face for him—it’s okay, you’re in love and so is he.


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