20 Critical Baby Cues Decoded (Keep Your Sanity & Baby Happy!)

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You’re settled in with your newborn and ready to start this parenting gig.

It doesn’t take long before you notice that babies cry – a lot.

If you’re a first-time parent, it can be tricky to figure out what your baby needs, but even if you’re a seasoned veteran sometimes we need a refresher course.

In order to minimize crying time and save your own sanity, pay attention to your baby’s cues so you can meet their needs before they start screaming bloody murder.

Baby Cues for Hunger

Baby Cues for Hunger

My husband and I love each other dearly but if there’s one thing we’ve learned in our marriage, it’s that we should never have an important discussion before meal time.

The simplest conversation can heat up quickly if our stomachs are growling.

If adults can barely function when hungry, how much more will hunger affect a baby?

Look out for your baby’s hunger cues and prevent a “hangry” baby.

Restlessness

In the early days, babies need to eat frequently, even at night.

A sleeping baby will suddenly become restless when they are hungry, squirming and making small grunts, and maybe even rooting (more on this below) in their sleep.

Rooting

Rooting Reflex for Hunger

Newborns are born with a natural rooting reflex that helps them begin nursing immediately after birth.

If you touch a newborn’s cheek, they will begin to “root”, meaning they turn their heads toward you while making sucking motions with their mouths.

This is specifically a newborn hunger cue. Your baby will grow out of it after a few months.

Sucking on Hands

Baby Sucking on Hand

A newborn will bring their hand to their mouth and begin sucking when they are hungry.

They may even find their thumb!

Not all sucking is for hunger – babies suck for comfort as well.

But if they are sucking forcefully and wide awake, it’s a good sign that it’s time to eat.

Crying

If your baby is crying due to hunger then you have probably missed the earlier cues of rooting and sucking and now you have a “hangry” baby.

Some parents swear that their baby’s “hunger cry” has a specific sound to it, but experts are divided as to whether or not there is any truth to this.

Get to know your baby and you’ll begin to pick up on her hunger cues before she gets too vocal about it.

Baby Cues for Tiredness and Sleep

Baby Cues for Tiredness and Sleep

Have you ever been so tired that you just can’t fall asleep? It’s miserable!

Babies experience the same sensation of overtiredness when they stay awake for too long.

Given that newborns sleep approximately 16 hours a day, and older infants sleep 12-14 hours, babies need multiple naps throughout the day in addition to a generous amount of night sleep.

If you can catch their sleepy cues before they become over-tired, you’ll have a smoother transition into nap or night time and a much happier baby overall.

Yawning

It seems so obvious, right? But when babies yawn, it’s usually not long and drawn out like your own yawns, so it’s easy to miss.

My 6-month-old daughter’s yawns only last for a second or two, so if I’m not paying attention, I’ll miss the most obvious sleepy cue she could give.

Rubbing eyes

Baby Rubbing Eyes

One of the most common and well-known cues for sleepiness is rubbing the eyes.

Babies rub their eyes to relieve the tension in the muscles around them, meaning they’ve been open for too long and it’s time to close them.

Sucking

Newborns suck when they’re hungry but they also suck as a soothing mechanism when they’re sleepy.

That’s why sometimes as soon as you pop a pacifier into their mouth or begin to nurse their eyes start to droop.

Most babies grow out of this after a few months, though some become attached to their pacifiers and keep them for as long as the parents will let them.

Far Off Gaze or Heavy Blinking

Baby with Glazed Over Looking Eyes

If your baby has that “glazed over” look or droopy, slow-blinking eyes, you can be sure it’s time for a nap.

If you’re about to run some errands you could bet your bottom dollar that she’ll be asleep before you pull into the Target parking lot.

Fussiness

Does your baby fuss until you hold her and then instantly calm down when you pick her up?

While this can be a sign of separation anxiety, if fussiness is accompanied by any of the other cues it is probably sleep related.

Even as I began writing this, my daughter started fussing as she rolled around her toys on the floor.

The second I picked her up she returned to her happy self. But then she began to rub her eyes. Uh oh. Time for bed.

I put down the laptop and went straight to the bedroom and began rocking her and soon she began to yawn and stare off into the distance. Sweet dreams, little one.

Pulling Ears

Tired Baby Pulling Ear

Most parents know that babies pull their ears when they have an ear infection, but did you know that ear pulling is another common sign of a sleepy baby?

If she’s pulling her ears but shows no other sign of pain or distress, it could be one of her sleepy habits.

Crying

As with hunger, if you’ve reached the crying stage then you’ve waited too long.

It’s tricky at first to pick up on the cues, but after a while you’ll get the hang of it.

If your baby is crying from exhaustion be sure to spend a little more time soothing her before laying her down.

The Clock

That’s right, look at the clock.

When did your baby wake up last?

After the first few weeks, babies settle into a predictable sleep pattern based on their biological rhythms.

Polly Moore writes about sleep and alertness cycles in The Natural Baby Sleep Solution.

Babies can only stay awake for so long before they become overtired, but by watching the clock along with your baby’s cues, you’ll be prepared to help them sleep before they reach that overtired screaming phase.

Baby Cues for Pain or Distress

Baby Cues for Pain or Distress

Ouch!

Babies don’t have the ability to verbalize what they are feeling so it’s up to us to decode their behavior to keep them happy and healthy.

Imagine if you had an itch and couldn’t scratch it or tell anyone where it was?

Once you’ve figured out hunger and sleepy cues, any behavior out the norm will stand out.

But even if your baby is still a mystery, here are a few signs that she may be in pain or distress.

Disrupted Sleep

If your baby had been sleeping like an angel (or at least had a predictable waking pattern) and suddenly begins waking every hour, there’s a good chance that she’s in pain.

Last week my daughter went from sleeping 6-7 hours straight to waking every hour, on the hour.

By the second day, I was too exhausted to properly function but a friend pointed out that she was sucking on her hand excessively.

Sure enough, a little tooth was making its way through the gums.

I gave her some pain medication and her Sophie the Giraffe to chew on, along with extra snuggles, and soon she was feeling better and sleeping (a little) more than before.

Ear infections are also known to disrupt sleep but have other tell-tale signs.

Pulling On the Ears

Crying Baby Pulling on Ears

If your baby tugs on her ears while grunting, crying, or grimacing, it’s possible there could be an ear infection.

If accompanied by a fever, be sure to call your doctor.

They may prescribe antibiotics but many ear infections will clear themselves up in a few days even without medication.

Check with your doctor about whether or not Tylenol or another pain reliever may be needed but remember that babies should not take Ibuprofen before 6 months.

An Intense Cry

If your baby’s cry is suddenly very loud and high pitched or they cry for a long period of time and cannot be consoled, they may be in pain.

Look for any signs of teething or illness or try giving the baby a warm bath, massage, and a change of clothes.

Sometimes a hair may be wrapped around a finger or toe or an uncomfortable tag may be scratching their delicate skin.

Curling Up or Arching the Back

It is especially common for young babies whose digestive systems are not yet matured to pull in their legs and cry when they need to pass gas.

While it hurts to see your baby uncomfortable, it usually isn’t serious.

But if your baby has been screaming and curling up for an extended period of time, you may want to call your doctor to be safe.

A Sunken or Swollen Soft Spot

The fontanelle is the soft spot on the top of your baby’s head and it can tell you a lot about their health.

If the fontanelle is sunken, this is a sign of dehydration, especially if they have not had many wet diapers.

A swollen fontanelle is a sign of infection and you should call your doctor immediately, especially if your baby has a fever.

Do note that it is normal for the fontanelle to bulge when your baby cries, but if it doesn’t not return to normal when they are not crying then you should seek medical attention right away.

Limpness, Rigidness, or Loss of Appetite

If your baby just isn’t herself – either limp, stiff, or refusing to eat, there is a good chance that she is in pain or ill.

Once again, call your doctor if there is a fever or any other signs that concern you.

Baby Cues for Needing a Break

Baby Cues for Needing a Break

Some days I grab my cup of coffee and a book and tell my husband I’m locking myself in the bedroom for an hour.

After spending the day cleaning poop and answering the same question again and again while the baby cries because she needs a nap but the four-year-old needs me to wipe his bottom and the six-year-old needs to know when his Squirtle is going to evolve (something about Pokémon?) I need a break.

But your baby can’t tell you when she’s had enough – at least not verbally.

Watch for signs that your baby is overstimulated so you can help her wind down and relax.

Excessive Crying

Yes, crying shows up on all of these lists. It’s frustrating, right?

But since your baby can’t fix a bottle and shut herself in the nursery, crying is the primary way she will tell you that she’s had enough.

Thankfully, you should be able to observe the surroundings to find out if your baby is crying due to excess stimulation.

Jerky Movements

After a long time on the play mat, your baby’s limbs might start jerking back and forth as they fuss. This is a sign that it’s time to move away for the play mat and try something else.

Small babies’ movements are jerky all the time, but in older babies, jerky arm and leg movements can be a cue that they are overstimulated.

Looking Away

If your baby usually engages with you and makes eye contact but suddenly begins looking away, it could be that they need to “turn off” for a bit.

Human faces are especially stimulating to babies so looking away is her way of saying, “I’ve had too much.”

Environmental Baby Cues

Have you had a long day or errands that broke routine?

Have visitors taken turns holding your baby, passing her back and forth?

Are there any noises like the television, older kids playing, or loud music?

If any of these events have been going on and your baby is crying excessively, you’ll need to find a dim, quiet place to help your baby relax.

Wrapping up Baby Cues

The first few months with a new baby can be especially challenging but don’t worry – you’ll get the hang of it.

When in doubt, use a reference like Baby 411 or call your doctor if your baby seems truly ill.

Pay attention to your baby’s behavior and patterns and soon you’ll pick up on the smallest details and learn to read your baby like a book.

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