Learning your baby’s cues

Key points

  • Your baby gives you cues (signals) about how they feel and what they need.
  • Learn what your baby’s cues mean and how to respond to them.
  • Interact with your baby when they’re ready and give them a break when they need one.

What are your baby’s cues and how do they help you know what they need?

Cues are signals from your baby that tell you how they feel and what they need. Some cues tell you that your baby is ready to interact (be active with you). Other cues tell you that your baby needs a break or to rest. To figure out what the cues mean, look at what your baby is doing and what’s happening around them. Once you’ve learned to read your baby’s cues, you can better respond to their needs.

What cues tell you that your baby wants to interact?

These cues show that your baby is ready to interact:

  • They’re awake and alert.
  • They bring her hands or feet together, or they stay in a softly tucked position with their arms and legs tucked up into the middle of their body.
  • They grab at someone’s finger or an object.
  • They put their hand on her ear, the side of their face or near their mouth.
  • They move smoothly (not jumpy or startled).
  • Their eyes are open wide, and they try to follow a moving face or object.

Here are some ways to interact with your baby when they’re ready:

  • Hold them.
  • Talk to them, read them a story or sing a song to them.
  • Give them a bath.
  • Change their diaper.
  • Feed them.

What cues tell you that your baby needs a break from activity?

These cues show that your baby needs to take a break:

  • They feel stiff like they’re tense or limp like they’re really tired.
  • They stretch out their arms and spreads their fingers wide apart. When they do this with their fingers, it’s called splaying.
  • They squirm, startle or twitch more than usual. They won’t make eye contact, and they turn their head away.
  • They arch their back, make a fist or pushes their hand out like they’re telling you to stop.
  • Their skin gets pale.
  • They frown or is fussing and crying.
  • Spits up or chokes

Here are some things you can do when your baby needs a break:

  • Hold them. You may want to use a containment hold. This is when you gently hold your baby’s head and their tummy, bottom or feet. Ask the nurse to show you how.
  • Talk softly to them.
  • Place your hand lightly on their tummy or chest, or let them hold your finger.
  • Swaddle them snugly, but not too tight. Swaddle means you wrap your baby in a thin blanket so that it covers most of their body below the neck.
  • If they use a pacifier, give them one.
  • Put a rolled blanket or diaper near their feet so they can press against it.

Sometimes doing these things may be too much for your baby. If none of these work, put them in their bed in a quiet place with dim lights. If you can’t dim the lights, shade your baby’s eyes with your hand.

To learn more about the Newborn Intensive Care Unit, visit the March of Dimes.

Learn more

Last reviewed: April, 2017

About March of Dimes
March of Dimes leads the fight for the health of all moms and babies. We support research, lead programs and provide education and advocacy so that every baby can have the best possible start. Building on a successful 80-year legacy of impact and innovation, we empower every mom and every family.

Visit marchofdimes.org or nacersano.org for more information. Visit shareyourstory.org for comfort and support. Find us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram and Twitter.

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