Communicating with your baby
This article covers the following aspects of how we interact and communicate with babies:
Baby sounds, signals and cues
Remember babies have five senses
Baby body language
Talk to your baby
Early baby sounds
The beginning of words
In your baby’s first few days and weeks, you are his world. You give him all the loving care that makes his new life safe and nurtured.
Communication of all sorts is very important so that he can tell you his needs and his emotions. When he seems anxious or unhappy, you can tell him that you are there and that everything is OK. When he is alert and receptive, you can help him enjoy awareness of all the objects and other people around.
Babies’ means of communicating become more sophisticated very rapidly, and you’ll need to learn quickly what the baby’s signals mean, as they get more complex. These are often called ‘cues’ as they are meant to prompt you to take action. Common baby cues indicate needs like hunger and sleep, though other things can be suggested even when your baby is very young.
For example, even in the early weeks, a baby can become over-stimulated. This may mean he doesn’t feed well or go off to sleep easily. You may need to find ways to soothe him down before getting back to the normal pattern of feeding and sleeping. Look for signs of frustrated or negative behaviour, like avoiding your gaze or jerky movements of arms and legs.
Sight and hearing are the senses that adults use most, and it’s easy to focus mostly on these as your baby grows. But babies are also very sensitive to touch and smell, for example. It’s helpful to remember that, before the baby was born, there was sensory stimulation of all sorts, but sometimes very different from that outside the womb.
Touch should all be very gentle to start with, as the baby is only used to contact with the amniotic fluid. Some babies may like light stroking or tickling, others may prefer just a firm hold. A little later, you can learn to do infant massage, which can be a wonderful way of communicating closeness and physical stimulation, while leading to a relaxed time for both of you afterwards.
It’s hard to know exactly what a baby’s experience of smell is, but it is likely the sense is well developed by birth, as babies can identify the physical closeness of their parents this way. Your baby may have different reactions to smells from most adults, though. He won’t mind his own nappy, but may not like the aroma of cooking or scented cleaning products. It’s useful to be aware of this, in case it is a reason for him to seem uncomfortable. When caring for a very young baby, it is best for parents or other carers to avoid perfumed toiletries. Babies will prefer the familiarity of what is to them the distinct smell of their parents’ skin.
Babies will have a hearing check during their first few weeks, as hearing loss can occur in up to two babies in every 1,000. Most often, this can be treated and the hearing restored. In even more rare cases, babies may have impaired sight. Your health visitor and doctors will help and support in these cases, but it makes it more important than ever to keep up communication using all the other senses.
As well as using the usual five senses, a baby is sensitive to gesture, movement and mood. He won’t like quick movements near to him that may appear threatening, and will very soon react to hurrying and bustling around him. Up to a point, this can be exciting and stimulating, but stress or anxiety will be communicated to him. He is likely to cry or fuss, just when you may not have time to pay a lot of attention and soothe him back to contentment.
It can be hard to do, especially if you have older children to organise too, but keeping a calm atmosphere is the best environment for your new baby. If this doesn’t work out, and he starts crying, it’s worth taking time later to talk to him calmly and ‘say sorry’ for the upset. He won’t understand the words yet, but the idea that arguments or stressful occasions are soon resolved is a good one to be established early.
If you are feeling very low, a cuddle with the baby can help. Tell him that he is cheering you up, and try to give him a smile. Play a quiet little game together, and see if the closeness can help you both feel calmer and more relaxed.
Babies love to listen to the voices of their parents. They are highly receptive to tone and rhythm and may move their bodies in time with the adult’s speech. They also imitate facial expressions, and begin to learn how these are related to the meaning of the words.
Many adults speak to young babies in a special way, adopting a higher-toned, sing-song voice, with exaggerated smiling and wide open eyes. Others use the same tone as to adults, but choose phrases with lots of repetition, ‘nonsense’ words and sounds, perhaps imitating the baby’s noises. All of these are good ways to communicate. It does not matter greatly which approach you prefer, but it does matter that the baby receives warm, positive attention, with lots of eye-to-eye contact.
Babies quickly learn that ‘conversations’ happen by taking turns, and you can support this learning by making sure that you listen, then respond. Remember, though, your baby is using a lot of his energy and concentration in the process, so let him rest again before too long.
The early sounds your baby will make are likely to be crying of some sort, to get your attention. Some babies make a variety of other sounds, usually related to the mouth-action they use for feeding. The next sounds you will notice in the early months are ‘cooing’, then baby babbling.
During this very early speech development, turn-taking continues to be a key element. Although caring for a young baby can feel quite a lonely job, it’s best to try and avoid talking on the phone a lot in front of the baby, when he’s awake. You will not only miss the chance for face-to-face ‘chatting’ with him, but he may be confused by hearing your one-sided conversation.
Babbling - recognisable sounds like ‘mamama’, ‘dadada’ - makes its appearance at about 6-8 months. For you as a parent, building on what he seems to be saying becomes increasingly important. This is known as ‘scaffolding’. For example if your baby says ‘da,da,da’, you listen carefully as if to ‘real’ speech and then say ‘Yes, there’s Daddy’. You are responding to what your baby says and building on it, so your baby learns that the sounds he makes can become words.
It is fun to try and see whether your baby is connecting what he sees and hears with what he says. You can help by naming the things he looks at, or is listening to.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700.
You might like to try one of our Mother and Baby Yoga classes, which aim to help improve your physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as give you time to relax and concentrate on your new baby.