Being Sensitive to Your Baby's Cues

If you know how to recognize your baby's cues, you'll be creating a secure attachment, which is necessary for their development!
Being Sensitive to Your Baby's Cues
María José Roldán

Written and verified by the psychopedagogue María José Roldán.

Last update: 27 December, 2022

If you’re a parent, then you’ve no doubt found yourself in a situation where your baby was crying and you weren’t sure why. Nothing you do works and your little one doesn’t seem to want to calm down. They don’t want a bottle, they don’t want to breastfeed. They won’t fall asleep, they have a clean diaper… so what’s going on? It’s at these times when you need to be sensitive to your baby’s cues, which leads to secure attachment.

As time goes on, your baby gets older and you get wiser, so reading those signals becomes more natural. These aren’t psychic abilities you develop, but rather a finely tuned sense for reading your baby’s cues. It’s not magic, it’s parenting.

Secure attachment thanks to sensitivity to your baby’s cues

According to one study, when you’re sensitive to your baby’s cues, it affects their development and the bond you’ll share with your child for years to come; you’re creating a solid foundation for neural growth and development.

If your baby is happy and feels a connection with you, this will likely improve the way they feel. According to the study, your level of sensitivity to your baby’s cues may be an important predictor of healthy parent-child attachment.

A mother breastfeeding her baby boy.

In particular, babies will form secure attachments with parents who are able to understand their needs frequently and accurately. A parent who understands their little one will know what toy they prefer, if they’re tired, or if something’s wrong. Babies who have strong bonds with their primary caregivers will be healthier and happier children in the future.

Children who feel securely attached are, among other things, better at regulating their emotions, have higher self-esteem, and exhibit fewer emotional and behavioral problems.

Your baby’s cues: it’s normal not to always understand the signs

It’s normal for parents to sometimes misread their children’s signals, and that’s okay. It may be due to stress, overestimation of your toddler’s skill set, or difficulty believing that a baby has negative feelings.

New parents may also have trouble understanding their baby’s signals due to postpartum depression, postnatal mood swings, birth trauma, and feeling overwhelmed by the new situation.

Some little ones aren’t very good at showing their own needs. A baby may indicate that they’re hungry when, in fact, they’re tired. Frustration on the part of the child is mainly due to the confused signal. Some new parents may overlook subtle earlier signals from their baby, such as breastfeeding because they’re hungry.

If you ignore your baby’s breastfeeding signal, then, it’ll progress to a little cry. And, if you don’t respond to that little cry, then your little one will start crying loudly. When crying doesn’t work, you’ll have to use a more desperate, louder cry.

When early cues are missed, babies escalate. And, if new parents are distracted or engaged in a different task, they may miss the early cue and, therefore, end up confused about the underlying need.

Improving understanding and secure attachment

So how can you get better at interpreting your baby’s thoughts and feelings more often? Ideally, you should observe your little one carefully every time you’re with them. Many new parents approach parenthood with the mindset that they should know everything about caring for their child.

But you can’t know everything, so these parents are only setting up for failure. If you approach your baby as a partner in communication, with curiosity, you can respond to a signal knowing that your curiosity will help you find the answer. It’s that simple.

Your baby’s cues: what if your baby is deaf?

If your baby is deaf or has hearing loss, then you can rely on nonverbal cues to express their wishes and feelings. These signals may include sticking out the tongue and other mouth movements, looking into their eyes, shaking their head, a tense stomach, clenched fists, different head and body positions, darkening of the skin under the eyebrows, and changes in breathing.

Parents should try to observe and then mirror their little one’s nonverbal cues. So, for example, if your baby is sticking his tongue out, stick your tongue out as well. It’ll let them know that you understand that they’re communicating with you and that you’re communicating back. Initially, they’ll respond with some curiosity and then engage you in their language. They’ll feel seen, heard, and connected.

Sometimes therapy may be needed to enhance secure attachment

In extreme cases, researchers suggest family therapy. Some situations that may require counseling include feeling overwhelmed, struggling with initial conditions, such as marital conflict, traumatic pregnancy or childbirth, or having difficulty bonding.

By attending therapy sessions focused on secure infant attachment, parents can change their behavior and have a better awareness and understanding of their little one’s needs. Psychological therapy can also help strengthen the bond with your baby, as well as to yourself, and promote healthy emotional and mental growth.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.