How Babies Communicate Through Actions and Sounds - Baby Chick
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How Babies Communicate Through Actions and Sounds

Your baby doesn't just cry to get your attention! Read on to learn how babies communicate through other more subtle actions and sounds.

Updated April 25, 2024

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist

Believe it or not, babies communicate with us from the moment they are born, and I’m not just referring to crying. Babies use sounds, facial expressions, and movements to tell us how they feel. Even two-pound premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit are beginning to communicate.

Of course, babies this young are not communicating with intention or using “intentional communication.” However, they are using “reflexive communication.”

Reflexive and Intentional Communication

Reflexive communication is involuntary movements, sounds, or facial expressions in response to pleasure or discomfort. To let us know when they need a break, babies typically show signs of overstimulation or stress in their body movements and bodily functions.

Signs of stress in a newborn baby include extending arms and splaying fingers, holding legs out straight, arching back, and turning their head away. Some more discreet signs of stress include excessive hiccupping, yawning, or sneezing. These are ways that babies tell us they need some time to re-group. Even if your baby is not crying, he may be trying to send you cues that he needs a break from all the action. If you see two or three of these signs at once, maybe swaddle your baby. Also, hold her close so she can feel safe and calm again like she felt in the womb.

By approximately six weeks, babies begin to smile in response to pleasure and connection with others. When younger babies seem to smile, it is usually just a grimace. However, babies can recognize pleasure and respond to it intentionally by six weeks. By three to four months, babies are typically laughing out loud. Try to make your baby laugh every day. Just like adults, laughing releases endorphins in babies, boosting their mood.

Usually, by six months, babies begin to babble, producing more complex sounds. This is the beginning of intentional communication. Parents must respond to baby’s communication to start the back and forth that is so important for early development. A recent study from Harvard and MIT found that the back-and-forth interactions between babies and caregivers are the strongest predictor of future language and academic skills, so keep those interactions going all day long.1

Be Responsive to Your Baby’s Communication

What is she looking at, reaching for, and showing interest in? Allow her to touch what interests her, then talk about it. Ask her what it feels like, explain what it is, and demonstrate how it is used. This will encourage her natural-born sense of curiosity and wonder and lay the foundation for new exploration, building those important brain cells.

By as early as five months, babies learn that their babbles elicit a response from their parents and caregivers. This is significant because they know that their sounds have a social effect. By six months, babies typically can follow mommy or daddy’s gaze and take an interest in whatever mommy or daddy is looking at. This is an important skill in communication, cognition, and behavior. Exercising this skill helps babies learn social referencing, which is the ability to look to parents for information on interpreting situations. Some studies have found that gaze following at ten months predicts children’s vocabularies at 2 years old.2

Simply by following your baby’s lead and showing interest in what she is interested in, you are helping her learn about her world and building important brain connections.

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Aimee Ketchum Pediatric Occupational Therapist
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Dr. Aimee Ketchum is an Academic Fieldwork Coordinator and Assistant Professor of early child development at Cedar Crest College Occupational Therapy Doctoral Program. She continues practicing her skills as a… Read more

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