While babies can’t talk, there’s loads they’re trying to say. Here’s how to read between the lines.
Not only do they come with no instruction manual, but babies arrive in the world with zero capacity to take care of themselves and perform the most basic tasks — like walking, talking, or even lifting their heads.
Compare this to other species, like horses. When a foal first arrives in the world, within 5 minutes it can raise its head, within 10 minutes it attempts to stand, within an hour it is successful in doing so, and within 90 minutes it can walk or run. Only after all that, does young Pharlap decide to take a nap.
Human babies are the opposite of horse babies.
For the first few months they can hardly burp or fart without your assistance. Place them down somewhere, and they’re stuck there until you pick them up and place them down somewhere else.
So lesson number one — babies are lazy and a lot more work than horses. If it’s not too late, buy a baby horse instead. Otherwise, keep reading.
As the months pass with your inferior human baby things slowly improve. With your constant help and encouragement they will acquire the muscular strength and skills needed to lift their heads, roll over when you place them down somewhere, and eventually progress to a crawl or wobbly walk.
You might even get a few words out of them sometime in the first 6-12 months — useless words like “mama” and “dada” that make you feel special and validated, but don’t exactly tell you anything you didn’t already know.
Realistically you’re facing down a baby bottle of at least 18 months to two years before they can string a basic two to four word sentence together.
In the meantime, you are going to have to decode their murmurs, facial expressions and body movements to decipher their every need.
That’s where Dympna Kennedy — one of Australia’s most qualified and respected parenting coaches — comes in.
Dympna is a bonafide ‘baby whisperer’. Here are some of her top tips to figuring what the frick your baby is wriggling and gurgling on about.
Baby for “I’m sleepy”
This is an important one to get a handle on — because an overtired baby is a whole new level of hell.
According to Dympna:
“Crying is a late cue. You want to pick up the early cues to avoid your baby becoming distressed. This is not as challenging as many new parents believe because babies are authentic; they can’t and don’t mask their feelings.”
So, what are the signs a baby is sleepy?
“Particularly when they’re younger, they may start making jerky movements. They’ll knot their eyebrows together as if they’re frowning and they may clench their fists. Just like adults do, they’ll start rubbing their eyes and yawning,” Dympna says.
“If you’ve got an easygoing baby it may not be a big deal if you miss those early signals. If you’ve got a sensitive one that’s prone to getting overtired, you’d be wise to stay vigilant for those cues. When they occur, take your baby to a quiet area where they can settle then go to sleep.”
Baby for “I’m hungry”
“A baby who is getting hungry will start making sucking noises,” says Dympna. “They’ll also put their fist in their mouth. If they breastfeed and are being held by their mum, they will turn to her breast and snuggle into it.”
“When they’ve had enough of feeding they will stop sucking and turn away from the breast or bottle. They may also arch their back, straighten their legs or start squirming.”
Baby for “Here I am, entertain me!”
“Babies learn to communicate by mirroring what they see their parents and carers do,” says Dympna (which is an excellent reason why you should start watching what you say, and how you act as early as possible — the last thing you need is an angry, sweary toddler.).
“If they experience a lot of eye contact, a lot of facial expressions and a lot of changes in voice, they will learn to be more responsive. Babies attempt to connect and it is helpful to give them plenty of feedback when they do,” Dympna says.
“A baby who is keen to play will be making eye contact with bright eyes, reaching out, grabbing your finger. That’s the time to sing to your baby, to take turns making funny faces, to exchange cooing noises with your baby and to play peek-a-boo.”
Baby for “Rack off!”
Babies are just like us… in that they have the same in-built dickhead threshold – and there will be occasions when they’ll want some alone time, but they don’t have the words to do it.
“As with an adult, if a baby has had enough of interacting with someone – or everyone – it will stop making eye contact. It may stare off into space with a glazed expression or turn its head to the side,” Dympna says.
“Overexcited grandparents will often reposition themselves or the baby to resume eye contact at this point but that’s a mistake. More subtle and ambiguous cues of overstimulation include a frowning expression, eye rubbing and ear pulling,” she says.
“If you notice a baby has one foot clasping the other, that’s a classic sign they are overstimulated and attempting to soothe themselves.”
Baby for “I’m chilled out”
This one’s pretty simple to spot – most notably because of the lack of screaming and crying is a dead giveaway that your baby’s in its ‘happy place’.
“A baby that’s relaxed will appear serene,” Dympna says. “Its arms and legs will be loose, its fingers splayed rather than bunched into a fist and it will be gazing in a quiet but alert manner.”
Baby for “I’m doing a poo”
You can’t always rely on your nose to know when junior’s dropped a bomb. Especially when they are still on the boob or bottle, as their poos don’t really smell that much.
“A baby who is having, or is about to have, a bowel movement will often tighten its leg muscles or bring its legs up towards its torso,” Dympna says. “It will probably get a red face and flash a smile as well.”
Baby for “I smell fear”
It’s the moment every new dad anticipates with a mix of excitement and dread: your beloved has resolved to head off alone, on a sanity-restoring outing, leaving you to fly solo for the first time in attending to junior’s every whim.
Sure enough, mere moments after she vacates the premises, the blood-curdling shrieks begin. Is the baby hungry? Sleepy? Gassy? Bored? Having a medical emergency that requires an ambulance?
“The parent who spends the most time with the baby, which will usually be the mother, can learn through trial and error to distinguish between, say, a hungry cry and a tired cry,” says Dympna. “But it’s not a crisis if you can’t work out why your baby is crying. It’s often just ‘proximity seeking behaviour’.” Your baby just wants to be close to you.
The important thing is not to panic, because babies pick up on that shit.
“If, for example, a flustered new dad (or mum) gets stressed because he doesn’t know why his baby is crying or how to stop it, that will just make the baby even more agitated. The baby will feel like it’s in an unsafe, out of control situation,” Dympna says. So, your baby is not just being an arse – sensing your weakness and exploiting it – they’re stressed and hoping for the life of them (literally) that you know what the hell you’re doing.
The solution: Fake it ’til you make it:
“The best thing to do is just calmly pick up the baby; you don’t need to try to distract the baby or stop the baby crying. You just need to convey, ‘I’m here for you, together we will work it out, everything will be OK.’
If you do that, the baby will be comforted that there is someone there to help them regulate their emotions. They will then settle down more quickly and easily.”
Basically, take it easy – you’ve got this (at least as far as the baby knows).
Foal for “I’m awesomely superior to human babies”