In their first year, babies have specific psychological needs. Here are a few tips to help you understand your little one.
Even before they start talking, babies try to communicate their needs and emotions by using signals parents need to learn to decode.
How do babies communicate?
For newborns, crying is the only means of expressing feelings and desires like hunger, discomfort, the need to be picked up, fear, and boredom. Little by little, babies learn to communicate through cries, smiles, coos, facial expressions, gestures, looks, etc.
Babies learn how to get their needs met by observing how their parents and others around them respond. Each time they express a need and someone they trust responds appropriately, their self-esteem grows. This newfound confidence motivates them to continue exploring and discovering new things.
For more information, read our fact sheet on how babies communicate.
Meeting your baby’s needs
Babies need to know someone is there to take care of them when they express a need. When you try to understand what your baby is telling you so you can soothe them, you learn to recognize their needs and the signals they use to express them. For example, you might eventually puzzle out that when they start sucking on their hand, it means they’re getting hungry.
Don’t worry, you won’t spoil your baby by picking them up every time they cry. Their need for human contact is natural and instinctive.
When you pay attention to your baby’s needs, go to them when they need you, and soothe them, you let them know you’re someone they can count on, and you both get to know each other better. Remember that meeting their needs and spoiling them are two very different things.
When you meet your baby’s needs and show them you care, you strengthen your relationship with them, which helps them develop a strong attachment bond with you. This bond is important because it not only has an impact on the development of your child’s identity and self-esteem, but it will influence their social and personal relationships throughout their life.
It’s not always easy to decipher your baby’s needs!
Your child may smile back when you smile at them and be happy when you take the hand they extend. But they may sometimes look away from you when you talk to them, which can make you sad if you interpret it as rejection. This may just be their way of telling you that they’re too tired or overstimulated. Or they may simply be sensitive to noise and be asking you to lower your voice and go back to a quieter activity. It may take a little trial and error, but you will eventually understand what they are trying to tell you. So it’s important that you don’t lose heart.
Every baby has different needs and different ways of communicating them, and they both evolve over time. Try to take note of changes when they happen. Understanding will come more easily when you learn to read the cues your baby gives you instead of simply following their usual routine.
For example, if your baby gets tired earlier than usual one day, but you wait for their regular nap time to put them down, they may be too tired by then to fall asleep. As your baby grows, their periods of wakefulness will increase, and their schedule will need to be regularly retuned. That’s why knowing how to read your baby’s body language will help you adapt to sudden or temporary changes to their needs and routine over time.
How do you show your baby that you love them?
To let your baby you know you love them, talk to them, pick them up, rock or cuddle them, touch your cheek to theirs, or look frequently into their eyes. Why? Because babies also form bonds through their senses. Every time you comfort or cuddle your child, their brain produces a soothing hormone called oxytocin. The feeling of well-being they get from your touch helps them develop a very strong emotional bond with you. The habits and routines you establish as you listen to your baby and recognize their needs also help them form a strong attachment bond with you.
Why it’s important to spend time with your baby
Do you think you always need to be in sync with your baby, and that the time you spend with them should be especially happy? It can’t always be like that, and that’s okay, too.
To make the most of the moments you spend together, you need to take as much time as possible getting to know each other and strengthening the bond between you. The more time, love, and attention you give them, the more happy times you can look forward to.
But making these special moments shouldn’t be just another chore you add to your busy to-do list. Make them a natural part of your everyday routine. Even the most mundane moments can be an opportunity to connect with your baby. Talk to them while you get them dressed, explain what you’re doing, sing a nursery rhyme, or take an interest in what catches their eye. Making the effort to be present with your baby (and not while running through your to-do list in your head!) will strengthen your shared bond.
Toys will never replace the attention you give your child.
It’s also important to take the time to play with your baby even while they’re still very young. This is an opportunity for you to strengthen the bond between you and to promote their development. Babies learn more easily in a peaceful environment. The best time to spend time and play with them is when they’re calm.
You may feel overwhelmed by everything you have to do, but it’s important to make time for your baby. Try to organize things with your partner (if you are in a couple) so you can take turns caring for your baby and doing household chores. This will give you both the opportunity to spend time with your baby. You can also ask family, friends, and neighbours for help with meals, cleaning, and grocery shopping.
Be kind to yourself. Learn to redefine your family priorities so you can be more available for your baby. It’s normal (and okay) to let some chores, such as your housework, slide.
Things to keep in mind
Your baby uses cries, gestures, and facial expressions to communicate with you, and you can learn to decode their language by paying attention to their reactions.
It’s crucial to your baby’s emotional development that you respond when they communicate their needs to you, and that you go to them when they need comfort.
Playtime and bonding time will help your baby thrive and are essential for developing a healthy attachment bond.
Scientific review: Chloé Gaumont, M.Sc., psychoeducator
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: October 2019
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Bourcier, Sylvie. Comprendre et guider le jeune enfant: à la maison, à la garderie. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2004, 161 pp.
Laporte, Danielle. Pour favoriser l’estime de soi des tout-petits: guide pratique à l’intention des parents d’enfants de 0 à 6 ans. Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2017, 136 pp.
Sunderland, Margot. The Science of Parenting: How Today’s Brain Research Can Help You Raise Happy, Emotionally Balanced Children. DK, 2016, 304 pp.