How do you understand an infant?

by Anna Kazakova
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The title of this article implies that it is not always easy to understand a baby. Although a child is attuned to communicating with loved ones from birth, it takes some time for the parent and the infant to learn about each other, to adjust to each other.

Why is it important to understand the baby?

Correct understanding of the signals of the baby in the first year of life helps to respond to his/her needs in time and adequately: to feed the baby when he/she is hungry, to stop playing when he/she shows signs of fatigue, and, on the contrary, to communicate with the baby gently and friendly when he/she is in the mood for communication; to share the baby's emotions, to build a dialogue with the baby. Thus, the infant constantly receives messages from the world: "I see you", "Mommy will always help you deal with trouble - it means Mommy is trustworthy and the world is safe", "You are good". The baby absorbs these messages and they become his picture of the world: the infant develops a good attitude toward himself and a deep trust in his parent. He begins to feel the adult as his reliable support in exploring the world. It is known that if a child has such a reliable support, he explores the world more actively, feels safer, and is more confident.

How does an infant communicate?

A first year old baby communicates his or her state and desires through crying, whimpering, humming, babbling, facial expressions, body movements, and gazing.

Infants distinguish and mimic basic emotions: interest, surprise, disgust, joy, anger, and fear. For example, in a study of emotions, a newborn infant was observed expressing interest in response to the sound of a rattle (the direct look of a small child is a manifestation of the emotion of interest), disgust - when sucking the researcher's soap finger, and anger, when the child was tested for the reflex that brings maximum discomfort. That is, from birth, the child displays an attitude toward everything that happens to him, and these subtle changes in his face, gaze, and crying can help us understand his condition.


Sometimes adults mistakenly think that a baby's crying is necessarily an expression of grief and sadness, or an attempt to manipulate. But for a baby, it's just a way of saying "I'm cold," "I'm bored," or "I'm tired. But, of course, crying is the strongest signal, usually preceded by nonverbal signs.

Researchers distinguish such types of crying in the first year of life as crying from pain, hunger, fatigue, from cooling down when changing clothes, from lack of physical contact, from boredom, fear, from surprise, helplessness, from anger and grief.

According to P. Leach, there are two very different types of crying: crying in pain and crying in hunger. Crying for pain is the loudest. A long, abrupt and loud cry is followed by a pause - silence caused by holding the breath. This is followed by a short sobbing breath and an exhalation with a cough. Then there is another scream.

The crying from hunger builds up gradually. At first it is quiet and nonrhythmic, then it becomes louder and rhythmic. The cry on exhalation alternates with a whistling sound on inhalation.


In the first two weeks of life, a baby's smile appears mostly in sleep, which is associated with changes in the electrical potentials of the brain. While awake, a smile is rare and is more of a reflex reaction to the stroking of the cheeks and lips. Between six weeks and three months of age, a smile is already triggered by external events: a human face, a look, a high intonation, a tickle. At three months of age, the infant begins to smile in order to get a response, such as a reciprocal smile or a verbal appeal from the mother. At 4-5 months of age, the infant begins to laugh: when communicating, in response to changing visual impressions and in response to tickling.


Even at five weeks of age, infants interact differently with familiar and unfamiliar people, and between 3 and 6 months of age they clearly form a preference for one person (the mother). While 3-4 month old babies smile and liven up when any adult speaks to them, 5-6 month old babies look at an unfamiliar adult with long and concentrated attention and then may smile, turn away or cry. From the age of 6-7 months, the child begins to look into the eyes of the parent after the action is done in order to get an assessment of his or her behavior. Also at this age, the infant begins to point out the object to the parent by looking at the object and at the parent in turn.

 At about 9 months of age, the phenomenon of social referencing emerges in infants; that is, in an unfamiliar situation or when a stranger approaches, the child looks at how a close adult reacts to the situation or person and, based on this, builds his or her behavior.

"I want to communicate."

A distinction is made between light and strongly pronounced signals inviting an infant to communicate.

As easy signs, there are signs of animation on the face: eyes widen, eyebrows are raised; hands open (fingers slightly bent), head rises, body movements slow down.

Clear signs of desire to communicate include a smile, turning the head toward the parent, vocalizations: humming, babbling; looking into the eyes, smooth circular movements of arms and legs.

"I don't want to communicate."

When might an infant seek to interrupt an interaction? When he is tired or overexcited: maybe there are too many different impressions, or they are too strong. Or, on the contrary, he lacks an adult's response: mom's face is unemotional, she does not respond to the child's calls.

Signals that the child wants to interrupt communication include: tightening of the lips, a grimace on the face, a frown in the eyes, blinking or closing of the eyes, averting the gaze, increased sucking movements accompanied by noise; whimpering, hiccups, joining hands or bringing them to the head (to the neck, throat, face, ear), clinging, increased leg movements, tense stretching of arms and legs.

Clear signs of an infant's desire to interrupt an interaction include a tearful face, sounds of anxiety, crying, coughing, vomiting, maximum aversion of gaze to the side, pushing away, closed postures, transition to a sleepy state.

 "I'm hungry."

When an infant is hungry, it licks its lips, looks for a breast - turns its head, opens its mouth, sticks out its tongue; sucks its hand or fist. Crying from hunger is rhythmic.

 "I'm full."

The baby is full if he stops sucking on the breast or bottle, closes his mouth, relaxes his body and goes to sleep, archs his back and turns away, and pushes the bottle away.

"I'm tired/want to sleep."

When tired, the child looks unfocused, as if inside himself, may suck his fingers or fist; he has less interest in toys or the parent, it is difficult to get the child's attention, his coordination of movements is reduced. The infant yawns, rubs its eyes, may bend, make sudden movements, and attract attention. The baby whimpers irregularly, and if nothing is taken care of, these sounds turn into bellowing.

"I want a change of scenery."

Sometimes a baby needs a change of place and may be bored. In this case, the infant turns away from the object placed in front of his eyes, whimpering with sounds of irritation.

"I'm in pain/bloating."

The child's whole body tenses, becomes stiff, the baby pulls his knees up to his chest, his face wrinkles into a painful grimace, his tongue curls upward, the baby cries out shrilly.

 "Where are you all? I want to hold hands".

The child looks around, trying to find you. Humming suddenly turns into short cries. Crying stops as soon as the baby is picked up.

What helps you understand an infant?

Each child is unique, with its own temperament, peculiarities of accepting/unaccepting new things, with its own rhythm of life and development, with its own unique reactions to certain events. Slowing down, adjusting to the baby, observing, imitating his or her behavior and analyzing the specific situation will help to understand the infant.

● Deceleration and synchronization.

From birth, the infant is an active partner in communication. A newborn baby already knows a lot: he or she can distinguish individual emotions on the face of the parent, responds to facial expressions, distinguishes from the flow of impressions and prefers the human face and voice, imitates the facial movements of the other person (tongue sticking out, opening the mouth). The child immediately enters into a dialogue with his mother. And here it is important to give him/her the opportunity to express himself/herself, to notice his/her expressions, to pause, repeat, speak and move slowly and smoothly, to adjust to the rhythm of the baby's communication, to perceive him/her as a full-fledged interlocutor. In order for interlocutors to enjoy communication, it is important for them to feel that each affects the other.

You shouldn't rush to stop a baby crying by giving him a pacifier by any means. It is better to take a few seconds to figure out what he is really crying about, what he needs right now. About that below.

If the baby's signals are not responded to or always responded to in the same way (e.g., always feeding him when he cries), the infant gets the message that it doesn't matter how he cries, the result is the same anyway, and starts crying the same way all the time.

What came before?

Your baby is crying, and you don't understand why. Think about what preceded the crying. What was the baby doing? Had she just eaten? Was she asleep, and maybe she woke up and lay alone for a long time? Or was she playing (and tired)? Maybe she had some new experience the day before: for example, did she start crawling? (Sometimes there are changes in a child's sleep, appetite, and mood during a developmental spurt.)

What happened on the outside?

Could it be a pungent smell coming from the kitchen? (Babies are very sensitive to smells.) Or a dog barking that alarmed the baby? What is the temperature of the room? Is it too cold or too hot?

How do you feel?

An infant is very sensitive to the experiences of the parent. Mom's emotions show up in her movements, facial expressions, and intonation when communicating with your baby. If you are anxious, angry or very tired, your baby will certainly feel this and his emotional state may change as well. 

● Observation and imitation.

While observing a baby, his movements, facial expressions, his sound, try to copy his behavior, his crying. When we copy another person's facial expressions, physiological changes occur in us that correspond to the emotion that our interlocutor's face expresses, and we can understand what feeling that person is experiencing. It's the same in the case of an infant. You can understand him better by imitating his movements, facial expressions, and sounds. In addition, such a reflection contributes to the development of the child's self-perception.

If you want to know more about communicating with your baby in the first year of life, I recommend two books:

  1. Р. J. Mukhamedrakhimov, "Mother and Infant: Psychological Interaction.
  2. Tracy Hogg, "What Does Your Baby Want?"

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