Communication and Your Newborn

Do you remember your baby's very first cry? From the moment of birth, babies begin to communicate.

At first, your newborn's cries may seem like a foreign language. But before you know it, you'll learn your baby's "language" and be able to answer your little one's needs.

How Babies Communicate

Babies are born with the ability to cry, which is how they communicate for a while. Your baby's cries generally tell you that something is wrong: an empty belly, a wet bottom, cold feet, being tired, or a need to be held and cuddled, etc.

Sometimes what a baby needs can be identified by the type of cry — for example, the "I'm hungry" cry may be short and low-pitched, while "I'm upset" may sound choppy. Before you know it, you'll probably be able to recognize which need your baby is expressing and respond accordingly.

But babies also can cry when feeling overwhelmed by all of the sights and sounds of the world — or for no clear reason at all. So if your baby cries and you aren't able to console him or her immediately, remember that crying is one way babies shut out stimuli when they're overloaded.

While crying is the main way that babies communicate, they also use other, more subtle forms. Learning to recognize them is rewarding and can strengthen your bond with your baby.

A newborn can tell the difference between a human voice and other sounds. Try to pay attention to how your little one responds to your voice, which is already associated with care: food, warmth, touch.

If your baby is crying in the bassinet, see how quickly your approaching voice quiets him or her. See how closely your baby listens when you talk in loving tones. Your baby may not yet coordinate looking and listening, but even when staring into the distance, will be paying close attention to your voice as you speak. Your baby may subtly adjust body position or facial expression, or even move the arms and legs in time with your speech.

Sometime during your newborn's first month, you may get a glimpse of a first smile — a welcome addition to your baby's communication skills!

What Should I Do?

As soon as you hold your baby after birth, you'll begin to communicate with each other by exchanging your first glances, sounds, and touches. Babies quickly learn about the world through their senses.

As the days after birth pass, your newborn will become accustomed to seeing you and will begin to focus on your face. The senses of touch and hearing are especially important, though.

Your baby will be curious about noises, but none more so than the spoken voice. Talk to your baby whenever you have the chance. Even though your baby doesn't understand what you're saying, your calm, reassuring voice conveys safety. Your newborn is learning about life with almost every touch, so provide lots of tender kisses and your little one will find the world a soothing place.

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Communicating with newborns is a matter of meeting their needs. Always respond to your newborn's cries — babies cannot be spoiled with too much attention. Indeed, quick responses to babies' cries lets them know that they're important and worthy of attention.

There will probably be times when you have met all needs, yet your baby continues to cry. Don't despair — your little one might be overstimulated, have too much energy, or just need a good cry for no apparent reason.

It's common for babies to have a fussy period about the same time every day, generally between early evening and midnight. Though all newborns cry and show some fussiness, when an infant who is otherwise healthy cries for more than 3 hours per day, more than 3 days per week for at least 3 weeks, it is a condition known as colic. This can be upsetting, but the good news is that it's short-lived — most babies outgrow it at around 3 or 4 months of age.

Try to soothe your baby. Some are comforted by motion, such as rocking or being walked back and forth across the room, while others respond to sounds, like soft music or the hum of a vacuum cleaner. It may take some time to find out what best comforts your baby during these stressful periods.

Should I Be Concerned?

Talk to your doctor if your baby seems to cry for an unusual length of time, if the cries sound odd to you, or if the crying is associated with decreased activity, poor feeding, or unusual breathing or movements. Your doctor will be able to reassure you or look for a medical reason for your baby's distress. Chances are there is nothing wrong, and knowing this can help you relax and stay calm when your baby is upset.

Here are some other reasons for prolonged crying:

  • The baby is ill. A baby who cries more when being held or rocked may be sick. Call your doctor, especially if the baby has a temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or more.
  • The baby has an eye irritation. A scratched cornea or "foreign body" in a baby's eye can cause redness and tearing. Call your doctor.
  • The baby is in pain. An open diaper pin or other object could be hurting the baby's skin. Take a close look everywhere, even each finger and toe (sometimes hair can get wrapped around a baby's tiny digits and cause pain; this is known as a hair tourniquet).

If you have any questions about your newborn's ability to see or hear, contact your doctor immediately. Even newborns can be tested using sophisticated equipment, if necessary. The sooner a potential problem is caught, the better it can be treated.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: August 2014