Your baby wants to communicate with you! How do you read their cues?
Even though they can’t talk yet, your baby can still communicate their needs in different ways. To understand what they’re trying to tell you, you need to pay attention to the cues they send and the emotions they express.
Types of cues
Your baby can send you different cues to let you know what they need. They can also express different emotions, such as sadness, happiness, fear, and excitement.
It’s not always easy to understand what your baby is trying to tell you. But through trial and error, you’ll eventually learn to read their cues. Don’t get discouraged if it takes some time.
Here are some ways your baby may try to express a need or emotion:
- Crying when they’re hungry, tired, uncomfortable (e.g., they’re too hot or cold, need a diaper change, need to be burped), bored, or in pain, or because they need to be close to you or let out their emotions
- Vocalizing in different ways to signal that they want to play with you or to show that they’re happy or excited
- Changing their facial expression (e.g., pouting their lips, furrowing their eyebrows) because they’re scared, unhappy, or don’t like something
Over time, your baby will learn to communicate with you in different ways. For more age-specific information, check out our fact sheets on cognitive, language, and social development in our Development section
- Smiling back at you when they’re happy or want to interact with you
- Seeking eye contact when they want to get your attention or interact with you
- Avoiding eye contact when they’re tired or have lost interest in an activity
- Turning their head away when they’re full or don’t like how something smells
- Crying when they feel insecure around someone they don’t know
- Making different sounds to get your attention
- Reaching out their arms when they want to be picked up, from around 6 months
- Pointing to objects to express a desire, from around 9 months
Of course, babies communicate for other reasons, too. Sometimes, your baby may just want to play with you—for instance, if they try to imitate your facial expressions and the sounds you make.
When baby is upset
What to do if your baby is distressed:
Comfort them by holding them and talking to them in a soft, calm voice.
Try to eliminate potential sources of discomfort. For example, make sure their diaper is clean, their clothes aren’t too tight, they’re not hungry, and they’re not hurt.
Don’t blame yourself. As painful as it can be when nothing you do seems to calm your baby, sometimes it’s impossible to identify the cause of temporary distress.
If you think your baby is sick or they don’t seem themself:
Check if they have a fever.
Check their body for injuries.
Pay attention to the frequency and appearance of their urine and bowel movements.
Don’t hesitate to call Info-Santé (811) or consult a health professional (doctor, nurse clinician, or specialized nurse practitioner) if you’re concerned about your baby’s health.
How to enhance your interactions with your baby
Take the opportunity to interact with your baby as you care for them every day. Here are some examples of what you can do:
- When you’re feeding your baby, hold them in your arms, make sure they’re comfortable, and look them in the eye.
- While you’re changing your baby’s diaper and getting them dressed, talk, sing, smile at them, name the parts of their body, describe the clothes you’re putting on them, play games like peek-a-boo, etc.
When interacting with your baby, pay attention to their attempts to communicate and try to respond.
- Say their name often so they learn to recognize it.
- Repeat the sounds and vocalizations they make and listen to their response.
- Smile at your baby frequently. Soon, they’ll start smiling back at you.
- Use gestures with certain words, like waving bye-bye, or other facial expressions to convey certain emotions. For example, you can clap your hands to congratulate your baby.
- At bath time, name the parts of their body as you gently wash and dry them.
- Hold your baby in front of a mirror and encourage them to interact with their reflection. Your child will probably be interested in the other baby in the mirror. You can also make different facial expressions in the mirror (sad, surprised, happy, etc.). Your baby may try to imitate you, which will foster their development and their understanding of facial expressions.
- At bedtime, sing a lullaby, read a short story, or rock your child to sleep.
Caring for and playing with your baby are great opportunities to spend quality time together and help foster your little one’s development. For ideas on how to play with your little one, see our fact sheet on playing with baby
Things to keep in mind
Your baby expresses their emotions in many ways long before they say their first words.
Learning to read the cues your baby sends is a matter of trial and error.
The many tasks you do to care for your child every day are opportunities for you and your baby to learn to communicate with each other.
Scientific review: Marie-Ève Brouillette, perinatal nurse clinician and certified lactation consultant (IBCLC)
Research and copywriting: The Naître et grandir team
Updated: November 2023
Sources and references
Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.
Devouche, Emmanuel, and Joëlle Provasi. Le développement du bébé : de la vie foetale à la marche. Issy les Moulineaux, Éditions Elsevier Masson, 2019, 328 pp.
Ferland, Francine. Le développement de l’enfant au quotidien : de 0 à 6 ans. 2nd ed., Parlons Parents series, Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2018, 264 pp.
Ferland, Francine. Development charts in Le développement de l’enfant au quotidien de 0 à 6 ans. 2nd ed., Montreal, Éditions du CHU Sainte-Justine, 2014. cdn.editions-chu-sainte-justine.org
Gouvernement du Québec. “Développement global de l’enfant.” 2023. quebec.ca
Institut national de santé publique du Québec. “Stages of growth.” 2023. inspq.qc.ca
Ordre des orthophonistes et audiologistes du Québec. Développement de la communication chez l’enfant de 0 à 5 ans. 2020. ooaq.qc.ca
Canadian Paediatric Society. “Your child’s development: What to expect.” Caring for Kids. 2019. www.caringforkids.cps.ca
Canadian Paediatric Society. “Attachment: A connection for life.” Caring for Kids. 2018. caringforkids.cps.ca