Kelly Schmitt Gouss, Ph.D.'s  picture
Kelly Schmitt Gouss, Ph.D.
Developmental Psychologist

What Is Your Baby Telling You?

From birth, babies can communicate with parents and caregivers in meaningful ways

From the time they are born, babies are social beings who can recognize their parents’ voices and communicate their likes and dislikes. But how can new parents understand a baby’s unique cries, yawns and subtle facial expressions?

What your baby is telling youInnovative work by Kevin Nugent focuses on helping parents tune into their babies’ gurgles, coos and smiles. A pediatric psychologist and director of the Brazelton Institute at Children’s Hospital in Boston, as well as a faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Nugent is a co-creator of the Newborn Behavioral Observations (NBO) system. The NBO is used to describe infants’ capabilities and individuality in the first few months of life.

More than an assessment or diagnostic tool, the NBO is viewed as a relationship-building tool to teach parents about their babies’ unique qualities. By becoming better observers and learning their baby’s strengths and challenges, parents can develop the confidence they need to better support their baby’s development. Speculative research suggests that administering the NBO in front of parents during the first few days of life helps to increase mothers’ self-esteem and to decrease post-partum depression even one month later.

In fact, a cornerstone of secure attachment is parental responsiveness to a child’s cues. The NBO is a simpler tool than its predecessor, the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale, which numerous studies have shown to be effective in enhancing parenting. The NBO is considered so important that doctors, nurses and medical students are now being trained in the use of the tool for use in hospitals, clinics and home settings. Rather than being used to predict later developmental outcomes, the NBO was specifically designed to help enhance the parent-child relationship by providing information about babies’ quality of motor tone, activity level, capacity for self-regulation, response to stress and social-interactive capacities. Supporting research includes understanding the distinction between a light sleep and deep sleep, how to recognize signs of overstimulation, and why some babies simply don’t like to be cuddled.

“Your baby is absolutely truthful,” observes Nugent. “What you see is what they mean. If your baby is crying, she wants help. If he is smiling, he wants to engage. Trust your baby’s expressions—face, body and vocal—and you can begin to understand who she is.”

How can such observations of newborns help parents better understand and respond to their newborn baby? The NBO gauges a baby’s responsiveness through the concept of “habituation.” When a baby is partially asleep, the doctor or nurse administering the test shines a flashlight into the baby’s closed eye for a second and then moves it away. The baby usually startles, fussing a bit or moving his arm, then goes back to sleep. The doctor waits five seconds and repeats it—up to ten times—until the baby no longer responds at all. A baby who can ignore the light after three or four flashes can habituate with ease and is already in control of her environment. A more sensitive baby may still be agitated after eight or nine flashes, requiring help from parents to protect its sleep—ensuring the baby is resting in a darker room, wrapped in tighter swaddling, or in a quieter environment.

For insights in how to better understand babies’ “voices,” Nugent, in his book, Your Baby Is Speaking to You: A Visual Guide to the Amazing Behaviors of Your Newborn and Growing Baby, pairs up with photographer Abelardo Morell to provide parents with a visual guide to understanding their babies.

“Babies have a language. If you can be a good observer, you will be able to identify his behaviors and get to know your child,” Nugent writes. “Let go of your own preconceptions and let your baby tell you who he is…and even [show you] something about the person she will turn out to be.”

With a wide range of “normal,” Nugent’s research takes some of the guesswork out of figuring out the baby puzzle.
So, in fact, what does the research show our babies are telling us? Here’s a key to “baby talk,” adapted from Your Baby Is Speaking to You:

  • Yawning: I need to disengage or I’m tired.
  • Deep sleep: Tranquil face, little movement. You may see a sudden sleep startle coupled with a change in breathing, followed by an immediate return to deep sleep.
  • Light sleep (REM): Eyelids flutter, body occasionally moves before settling back to sleep. Facial expressions may change.
  • Full cry: An unambiguous cry for help!
  • Fussing: Lower pitched, less intense form of crying that does not include the open-mouthed “cry face” or the body tension that accompanies a full cry. This is a warning sign that she is on the verge of being upset or overwhelmed.
  • Wide eyes, arched eyebrows, slight turning away of head: I’m overstimulated.
  • Crumpled brow or eyebrows angled upward: I’m starting to lose it.
  • Shaking head side to side (rooting): Please feed me.
  • Averting gaze: I need to take a break.

Tuning into your baby’s earliest efforts at communicating can deepen the bond between parent and child. Says Nugent, “Observe closely and you will learn so much. Both you and baby will find your lives enriched.”

LEArn More:

“How Your Child Got Her Brain,” by Ruben Baler

Related Reading:

“What Is Your Baby Telling You?” Good Parenting Radio interview with Kevin Nugent

“Know Your Baby,” article about Kevin Nugent in the Irish Times

“Translating Newborn,” Wondertime