August 27th, 2014

Talking (and listening) to baby

If you’re expecting your first baby you will have done a lot of preparation. You will have been to doctor’s check-ups and ante natal classes and you’ve probably been trying to eat healthily and take care of yourself physically. You may have been taking special supplements for mothers-to-be and no doubt you’ve been avoiding a long list of prohibited foods. You may also have just gone off some! So those are all the physical needs of pregnancy taken care of. No doubt you’ve had lots of advice on taking care of your baby’s physical needs too. You will have some idea already of how to feed and wind the baby, bathe it and change its nappy. 

But will you know how to communicate with your baby? What? Surely it’s not that hard? Anyway they can’t understand what you’re saying.



Well, they may not understand the exact meaning of the words but right from the beginning parents can use ways of touching and holding their baby, responding to its cries and other forms of communication, to help them become secure and trusting and to know that they are cared for, that they matter. Babies make bids to connect with others from the moment they are born and they communicate more than you might think.

Linguistic processes begin long before birth. Experts know that babies are able to hear noises in the womb - the ear and the auditory part of the brain that allow this are formed by around 23 weeks' gestation. Babies get familiar with their mother’s voice (and dad’s) while in the womb and are soothed by it from the minute they are born.

Your baby is ready to interact with you from the moment it is born.

How to talk to baby

When a baby is born it cannot focus very well more than 20cms away which is exactly the right distance to an adult’s face when feeding. It helps penetrate the double vision that exists until the eye muscles strengthen if we use the exaggerated expressions that seem to come naturally when talking to babies.

Babies are fully engaged in the moment, with their attention focused solely on the parent. Their favourite toy is you. They like it when adults change the way they speak to a higher tone with exaggerated words. It also helps babies decipher sounds if adults speak slowly, repetitively and in a sing-song way. A baby’s readiness to interact with you is dependent on its alertness so parents need to read the cues to judge whether baby is ready and able to interact.

There are 6 states of consciousness:

quiet alert –baby is attentive, breathing is regular, face looks bright. This is the best time to interact

active alert –baby is moving, fussy, sensitive to stimuli, her breathing is irregular –this signals a need for feeding, changing or repositioning.

crying –again a signal for change or cessation of activity.

quiet sleep –still and difficult to awaken. This is not good time to play or connect although new parents have been known to wake their baby to play with them. This phase doesn’t last long!

active sleep –moving, breathing irregular, may make faces or smile. Feeding in this state is often unsuccessful.

drowsy- delayed responsiveness, breathing irregular, eyes may open and close but appear glazed and heavy lidded. If left alone baby will return to sleep or gradually awaken.

To communicate well with your newborn recognise baby’s cues –learn what your baby is saying and help him to self soothe. Because a baby has an immature nervous system face to face play can occasionally overstimulate the baby so adults need to follow baby’s cues. It is important to recognise when your baby is overstimulated or upset and to help her to self soothe 

  • signs of overstimulation
  • looking away from you (to decrease stimulation, not because they are rejecting you). The baby may suck on a hand to regulate arousal/self soothe and the parent needs to allow this to happen or she may lose the ability to soothe herself and may show increasing signs of distress.
  • shielding face with hands
  • pushing away
  • wrinkling the forehead
  • arching the back
  • fussing
  • crying 

It is important to respond to baby’s cues so that she gets the message that what she does matter to her parents and that she can affect her world by letting people know how she feels.

If baby is overstimulated:

  • back off and let her calm down and give her a rest if she is showing the above signs, but is she is enjoying the game –keep going. Let the baby look away and soothe himself. If he can’t soothe himself give him something to suck or pick him up and rock him, making soothing noises. Nursing or feeding may help.
  • stay calm
  • soften your voice
  • sing to baby
  • maybe continue with play, action or song but in a softer, less stimulating way

Most of this will probably come naturally and hopefully both mums and dads will enjoy playing with, touching and communicating with their newborns. Just remember that it’s not one-way traffic and that your baby is trying to communicate with you too. Be open to what your child is saying from early on and you will have mastered one of the secrets to successful parenting –connectedness. 

Sometimes parents find themselves saying the most inane things to their babies –what’s the weirdest thing you’ve said to your baby/heard parents say to their babies?

If you’ve found these ideas interesting share this with other expectant or new parents and sigb up to our newsletter (click here) for other free ideas, suggestions and information. 

Happy parenting! 

Elaine and Melissa

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