A baby’s cues are their way of communicating how they’re feeling, and what they may need from the adults around them. By watching and listening carefully to baby, new parents can start to learn their baby’s language.

When their needs are met consistently, a new baby learns to trust the people in their world. This is necessary for building their first secure attachment relationship.

Types of cues

Some cues are easier to understand than others. Some are verbal (crying) and some are non-verbal (facial expressions and body movements).

Crying is generally a very clear message that baby needs something. However, deciding exactly what that need is can be a challenge. For example, when a baby squirms or arches their back, they might be in pain – but it also might mean that they’re overstimulated and need a break.

This is when parents may feel confused or anxious – especially when they’re unable to calm their upset baby.

Watch baby carefully to learn their cues

A baby’s cues can be subtle or fleeting, but careful observation, practice and support will help new parents begin to understand what their baby’s cues are signalling, and how they can meet their needs.

Cues to watch for

When a young baby wants to connect, talk, be held or be fed, they may:

  • babble
  • coo
  • gaze at your face
  • have a wide-eyed and bright expression
  • lift their head
  • move smoothly rather than jerkily
  • reach out to you
  • smile
  • stop moving
  • turn their eyes or head towards you.

When they need a break or a rest, they may:

  • arch their back
  • breathe more quickly
  • cough
  • cry and fuss
  • fall asleep
  • frown
  • have a dull expression on their face
  • hiccup
  • look away
  • pull away
  • put a hand to their mouth
  • put their hand up as if to say ‘please stop!’
  • show changes in skin colour
  • spit up
  • squirm or kick
  • turn their head away
  • yawn.

When they’re hungry, they may:

  • be active, even fussy
  • have their hands fisted
  • have their arms crossed over their chest
  • suck everything, including your neck.

When they’ve had enough to drink, they may have their:

  • arms down by their sides
  • hands relaxed and more open.

Other resources

Raising Children has lots of advice and parenting inspiration. You can sign up to access all the information – it's free. You can also download a free app to get regular tips and 'age and stage' notifications.

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There are other websites with information about baby cues, including:

Baby cues and baby body language: a guide | Raising Children Australia(external link)

Video: Moms and dads matter – Building babies’ brains through everyday interactions | Dr Nicole Letourneau (YouTube)