Research has found that how we engage (= talk/connect/communicate) with our children is one of multiple factors that can have an effect on their development and well-being

 

 This newborn baby is in a 'quiet-alert' state, ready to interact with the world. His eyes are open with a bright look. His state is calm; he is relaxed, with minimal movement. He responds to stimuli (such as your face) with changes in his own facial expressions.

This newborn baby is in a 'quiet-alert' state, ready to interact with the world. His eyes are open with a bright look. His state is calm; he is relaxed, with minimal movement. He responds to stimuli (such as your face) with changes in his own facial expressions.

Behavioural Cues = Body Language

Our body language says so much. We can express a whole gamut of emotions through facial expression, body posture and movement without uttering a sound. Not surprisingly, for babies it is no different. Without the luxury of words though, decoding an infant’s non-verbal cues can seem quite daunting. And yet, understanding these different infant and childhood behaviours is the key to developing positive interactions with our children.

 This sleeping baby splays his fingers in response to being disturbed, providing a subtle warning cue to suggest that he may need the disturbance removed, if he is to remain asleep.

This sleeping baby splays his fingers in response to being disturbed, providing a subtle warning cue to suggest that he may need the disturbance removed, if he is to remain asleep.

Whilst the most obvious form of communication used by a baby is crying, there are also many other more subtle forms of communication that we can “read” from a baby through their body language. This body language in many ways is just like the unspoken body language we read from people of all ages; however, in some senses, babies' body language is more simplistic and reliable, as little babies do not know about having hidden agendas (what you see is what you get, an upset face equals an upset baby).

Subtle behavioural cues will generally precede a more dramatic crying episode. Thus, if we can identify and respond to these earlier cues, we may be able to avoid having a more upset and distressed baby. This is not to say that there wont be occasional times that a baby appears to become upset with little warning. However, more often than not, if we pay close attention to a baby’s body language, we can help them to avoid reaching a very distressed state. Again like adults, babies' best learning is done when they are in a calm (well regulated) state, ready to take in the world. A distressed baby needs comforting rather than "teaching".

 

Supporting Development by Reading Behavioural Cues

An understanding of early behavioural cues enables us to support development and learning potential from the very beginning of our child’s life, in a sensitive and responsive way. Being a responsive parent helps our infants to feel secure. Infants are also likely to experience less stress in their day if we respond to their needs, and in-turn, this can create less stress for parents too.

This is not to say that we shouldn't provide opportunities for babies to learn about self-regulating (self-soothing/self-calming) behaviours. On the contrary, a baby is more likely to be able to have success with self-soothing if their environment (including carers) provides them with a certain amount of support, enough to encourage them to attempt self-soothing in the first place. In other words, reading subtle behavioural cues enables us to provide (often subtle) support to babies before they have reached the point of being over-whelmed,  over-tired or distressed.

For example, a baby is more likely to succeed with settling them-self to sleep if you can recognise and respond to their subtle signs of tiring. These subtle signs may be, for example, that they avert your gaze, that their movements becoming disorganised or a little 'all-over-the-place', or that they use extended postures and splay their fingers. Recognising these subtle signs then gives you enough time to get your baby ready for bed before they are overwrought. This creates the opportunity to be able to put them down tired and sleepy, but calm enough that they can attempt to quieten their movements and find a comforting posture to support their transition into a sleep state. Babies are individuals though, and just because your baby may need more support than another baby, does not mean that you are doing anything wrong!

You are not spoiling your newborn baby by responding to their behavioural cues. Young babies do not have the mental processes to “manipulate” you; they are simply expressing how they are feeling at that moment. Contrary to popular belief, research has shown that infants whose parents respond to, and support their behaviour are actually independent (self-contented) earlier than other infants.

 

A greater understanding of infant behaviours (that may at times appear a little mysterious!) can help in the development of positive interactions with our babies and growing children. Appreciating your child’s ability to interact can also provide great encouragement to parents (and we all need that at times!)