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How To Communicate With Your Infant

Three Essential Methods of Communicating with A Newborn Infant Communication

Communication is essential for the newborn's development and two-way communication will increase their bonding with their parents. The communication between attuned infants and attentive adults is quite obvious. But on the other hand, when the attachment has been compromised due to a difficult start, an intentional focus on developing this communication will improve the bond between them.

Verbal Communication

Talking to Your Baby

Talk to Your Baby Although infants do not speak, they definitely respond to speech. It is interesting to listen to parents as they automatically change their voice inflection to a higher pitch when speaking with their infants. This is sometimes called infancy inflections and is often done without the person noticing it. By using the infancy inflection they are speaking in the decibel range babies hear best.

Parents should be encouraged to talk to their infant, and anyone who handles the infant should demonstrate that as well. For most, it is automatic, almost like a reflex. They pick up the baby and say in the infant inflection, “It’s time to change your diaper,” or “Would you like to go to Daddy?” Professionals who work with the baby, whether they are in the health care or day care profession should do the same. Everyone should make it a practice to speak to the infant before touching or handling him or her.

Granted, a newborn does not understand the actual words spoken; at least not in the first few months. However, in the first days and weeks she will begin to recognize the different inflections. There is a subtle difference in the inflections used when the caregiver is communicating, “Let me soothe you,” or “Let’s play together,” or “I’m sorry you don’t like the diaper change but I need to do it anyway.”

When a parent does not speak to their infant, or speaks in the same tone as they speak to an adult, it may indicate difficulty attaching to their infant. Some parents are particularly concerned about using “baby talk” and intentionally avoid it. This may be because they may have observed another parent who is still speaking with the infancy inflection to an older, school-aged child who is still treated as a baby. They understandably want to avoid this scenario in their family and may assume that not speaking with the higher inflection will prevent this from happening. The problem, however, is not the fact that the other parents spoke to their infant that way in infancy, but that they did not adjust to the developmental milestones as their child grew. It would be like fearing to use diapers, cribs, or stuffed animals because some children take longer to outgrow them.

Understanding Infant Cues

Recognize the Infant's Messages

Watch Infant Cues Communication between parent and infant is two way. It includes talking to the baby, but it also includes recognizing and responding to infant cues. From the first moments after birth, infants begin communicating. The closer the bond between parent and child in those early moments, the more adept they are at responding to the cues. But it is also true, that the parents with a delayed interaction can enhance the bond with their infant by making a cognitive effort to recognize and respond each time the infant attempts to communicate.

In fact, a cycle of communication will develop between the caregiver and infant. It may be either a positive or negative cycle. In a positive cycle, the infant gives a cue that he has a need, be it a need for comfort, food, or engagement. If he reaches out to the parent, and the parent in turn responds to him, the two will become engaged. Looking eye to eye, the parents will speak to the infant, who will respond with facial expressions and verbal sounds – the earliest forms of speech. The parent again responds to these actions of the infant and the positive cycle continues.

Much more is happening in this two way interaction than may be apparent on the surface. In addition to laying down the rudiments of speech, it is also the basis of human interaction. Neural connections are made in the brain stimulating thinking and intellectual development. The infant has learned that he can engage others and they are interested in him. He learns to trust others and gains confidence in his abilities to engage in social interaction.

The opposite happens when an infant’s cues are missed. After a “miss” the infant becomes fussy. After several misses, the child begins to cry. Crying is nature’s way of insuring that parents meet the needs of their young. But when a parent is convinced that the child’s basic need for food and warmth is met, they may become frustrated with this plea for attention. Frustrated parents become negative towards the infant’s behavior, look at the child less, and speak to him less. This leads to the child attempting self-comfort measures such as turning away, rocking, or thumb sucking. The child then develops less self-confidence in his ability to engage others. He develops less cues, often announcing hunger, frustration or boredom by crying, rather than the more subtle cues used by the infant in a positive bonding relationship. As he becomes fussier and more withdrawn, the parents become more frustrated with the infant and themselves and the negative cycle continues.

This negative cycle is more apt to occur with depressed mothers.1 These mothers were just as competent in caring for the basic physical needs of the infant, but did not look at or speak to the infants as often and were delayed in responding to their cries.

Fortunately, babies are adaptable and forgiving, and even parents in a negative cycle can begin to engage their infants in a positive way and enter the positive cycle.

Parents can be taught to recognize some of the universal cues that infants display. For instance, a hungry infant will move her mouth, smack her lips, suck her fingers, or begin wiggling or displaying other body movements. Parents can look for these signs and begin to feed the little one before the hunger howl erupts. Responding to the infant before the cry begins will reward both the parent and baby.

Common sleep signals include yawning, a glassy dull-eyed stare, or turning away from sights and sounds. This infant is ready to begin her sleep routine, and the parents will have an easier time getting her to sleep if they respond now rather than waiting for the cry of a tired baby.

Parents should also value the engagement cues that the infant projects in order to interact with the people around her. Such cues may be looking at someone’s face, smiling or cooing, or reaching arms towards the person. There is no value in leaving a child who longs for interaction and human companionship alone, bored and feeling that he is unable to establish interaction with others.

Parents should also be aware that babies give disengagement cues. This is the sign that tells others that the interaction has taken a lot of energy and a rest is now needed. Such signs include looking away, arching the back, or squirming unhappily.

Newborn Abilities

Infant's Know More Than Most People Expect

Note Their Ability To Engage Parents can become more attuned to their infants and their cues if they recognize some of the innate abilities of their newborn. As with other behaviors that enhance bonding, this is particularly valuable if separation after birth, depression, or other factors may have not fostered the Mother/Baby Rhythm. There are videos that demonstrate some of these abilities. A tool for parent-educators that summarizes these infant abilities for demonstrations with new parents has been developed by Barbara Hotelling.2

Look for these communication signs from an infant:
  • The ability to habituate (or shut out) light or sound when sleeping
  • The rooting reflex to find the breast
  • The ability to track a bright object or shaking rattle
  • The ability to turn towards the parent when placed between the parent and another person with both calling softly to the infant
  • Mimic facial expressions including smiling, frowning, opening the mouth or protruding the tongue

Learn More

Find out more about the abilities of newborns in the first few days of life. Learn the steps to infant massage which also increases communication and bonding with their caregiver.

Delayed Attachment describes parenting tasks that can improve early communication when mothers and babies have been separated or had a difficult start due to illness.

References Quoted On This Page

1. Miller AR, Barr RG, Eaton WO. Crying and motor behavior of six-week-old infants and postpartum maternal mood. Pediatrics. 1993 Oct;92(4):551-8.

2. Hotelling, BA. Tools for teaching – newborn capabilities: parent teaching is a necessity. Jour of Perinatal Education 2004 Fall;14(4):43-49.

By Karen Newell Copyright 2003 - 2012 Better Childbirth Outcomes - All Rights Reserved
Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, USA