How to Understand Your Baby’s Cries and Cues

Did you know that babies are born fully capable of communicating their emotions and needs?

Perhaps not the way you and I communicate, which is mostly with words, but that doesn’t mean their emotions are any less real or their needs are any less valid.

According to professor emeritus of psychology at University of California, Davis, and author of Baby Signs, Linda Acredolo, Ph.D.:

“Babies are born with the ability to express several emotions, including distress and contentment.” (source)

There are generally three major types of baby cues. Tuning into them can help immensely with the common new parent frustration of not understanding your newborn.

Here’s a quick overview of common baby cues. Check out’s “11 Important Baby Cues” post for a full list. Below are the tips I found most helpful during my first year with my little one.

Facial Expressions – Eye contact and gaze aversion


When my little one was born I wanted to give her the same level of respect I would give any human being. To me, that meant not getting in her face all the time when I felt like playing. I really wanted her to lead the way.

To that end I paid close attention to her facial expressions, especially her level of eye contact. When she made direct eye contact, I would engage. I would talk, make faces, etc., and as long as she kept looking at me I’d keep playing. As soon as she’d look away, however, I’d ease up on the play and give her the space she was looking for.

Respecting your baby’s need for downtime helps her process everything she’s seeing, hearing and learning and keeps her from getting over-stimulated and frustrated. If she looks away, try waiting patiently until she’s ready to re-engage. We all need moments to ourselves and since babies can’t just walk away or ask you to stop playing with them, gaze aversion is an important cue to respond to.

Body Language – Rubbing their eyes and/or ears


In my experience, this is a sure fire way to tell if Baby is tired … especially if she’s been up for a solid amount of time. With my baby, though, she would also rub/pull her ears when she started teething around 4-5 months so try deciphering this one in context.

If baby is consistently rubbing her eyes before every nap you may want to try letting her sleep a little sooner next time. Eye rubbing is considered a “late” cue, meaning by the time you see the eye rubbing your baby is really, really tired. Try noticing when she starts to wind down by getting quieter, becoming more still, gazing off into space for longer periods of time, or when her eyes just look a little less alert than usual. That’s when she’s ready for a nap.

Crying – Hungry cry vs. tired cry


Crying is the fastest way baby can let you know she needs something, or something’s bothering her. It took me several weeks, but ultimately I was able to distinguish her hunger cry from her tired cry.

The full post has a full list of different cries and their descriptions, but you’ll come to know your baby best. Keeping an attentive ear on her different cries will help you translate her needs in no time!

Tuning into your baby’s cries and cues means less frustration for them AND for you! Plus, it’s an opportunity to really get to know this new little person in your life. Pay close attention and enjoy the bonding. This precious phase of infanthood doesn’t last long.


Source: 11 Important Baby Cues on

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