The birth of a baby can bring an overwhelming rush of change and uncertainty into a new family, especially for first-time parents. Even subsequent children cause a shift in family dynamics, since each child has his or her own way of conveying their needs and wants to us.
An abundance of information on child-rearing is readily available online, of course. So while it’s true that children don’t arrive with an instruction manual, there is no shortage of opinion and advice out there. But more important is learning how to understand what your child is telling you by learning how to respond to her non-verbal cues.
Medical science has given parents and caregivers a lot to work with in recent decades, as our understanding of the human brain has grown. We know that baby is born with just about all the neurons she will ever have, and they are off and firing from day one. In the first year of life, her brain doubles in size and by age 3 it has reached 80 percent of its adult volume.
This growing brain is ravenous for input and engineered to grow in response to environmental stimuli. Synapses, the junctions between neurons that make brain function possible, are forming faster in these first years than they ever will again. More synapses will be formed than are needed, and at around 30 months, your child will have more synapses firing away in her brain than you do. Those used will stay, those unused will die — a perfectly natural process called pruning.
Babies are communicating with us from the very start. And how we respond ensures those synapses continue to fire.
What Is She Saying?
Most humans are good at reading the non-verbal cues of others, and it works just as well between parents and children as it does in other social settings. The Urban Child Institute’s Data Book indicates that being aware of cues — be it sounds or gestures — can take some of the guess work out of parenting. Children send clear signals to indicate when they need attention, rest, or help with distress. Once you learn your baby’s cues, it will help you determine the best kinds of experiences and activities to plan for your child.
Watch to see how your child communicates her needs to you. What does she do when she’s hungry, frustrated, or happy? What sounds does she make?
Parents first begin to learn the difference in their child’s cries. A distressed cry can mean fear or anxiousness, a fussy cry can indicate discomfort from a dirty diaper or hunger. It may take several months before you notice the difference, but it will come in time. Babies first begin making other sounds at around 3 months of age. They often repeat the sounds you make. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your baby in a clear, audible voice right from the start, so she can hear — and eventually imitate — language.
One cue we typically don’t miss is when our baby is tired. When your child becomes fussy during an outing, remember that many children become overstimulated by too many sights and sounds. Initially, they might get fidgety or become less focused. Eventually, that will give way to crankiness. When this happens, take your child to a quiet location, or to a dimly lit room at home to give her a break from the action. Learn what helps to soothe your child (a lovie, a small snack, rocking) and keep these with you to calm your child when out. Remember, young children have short attention spans, so plan activities in short spans at first (an hour or two) during baby’s early years. Don’t ignore fussy behavior, or worse, get angry with your child. Instead, meet his or her needs promptly. Children can only take so much stimulation before becoming overwhelmed.
It’s also important to keep in mind that all children, even siblings and twins, have traits that are unique to them. What works for one child may not work for another. Learn what works best for your child, by paying attention to how she responds to her surroundings.
Learning From Experience
Ultimately, you are in the best position to know your child. Learning how he or she communicates his or her needs is a great way to help your baby grow. The language of gestures, facial expressions, sounds, and cues develops between children and caregivers, and is part of the intricate roadmap that leads to a happy, healthy, and adaptable adult.