How to Read Your Baby's Mind

The secret to cracking the code when it comes to what baby wants, thinks, and feels may be easier than you think — if you know what to look for.
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January 30, 2017
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Maybe it’s the middle of the night when baby’s crying up a storm, and you can’t figure out what the little guy wants for the life of you. Or maybe he’s bouncing along happily in his ExerSaucer when your curiosity strikes: What’s going on in that little noggin? According to new research, quite a lot.

Understanding gestures & expressions

Even when babies are first born, they already know a few things about people, language, and their new world, according to Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkley, and author of The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. "At first glance, babies may not seem to do much,"she says. “They don’t talk, which is usually how we find out what someone thinks — but looking at what they do, where they look, what interests or bores them can tell you a lot.” That’s why some easily-mistaken expressions and gestures may not be hard to decode after all — as long as you can spot the signs.

The look: Scrunched-up face, accompanied by grunting noises
What it means: He’s probably uncomfortable, especially if he’s crying. The likely culprit? Gas. Try rubbing his belly gently to relieve it a bit. (Note: A scrunched face without the crying, plus some widening of the eyes, may just be baby’s “poop face.” You’ll get to know that look pretty well if you haven’t already.) Wait a bit for it to pass. If it doesn’t, call your doc.

The look: An intense, investigative stare at an object or in one general direction
What it means: Baby gets fascinated pretty easily and is particularly intrigued by things around him. “They track the way objects around them move and are especially interested in edges and contrasts,” explains Gopnik. Another point of fascination? Watching an object or person disappear. Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget notably claimed babies don’t understand that an object can still exist once it’s out of view, but recent studies have thrown this theory out the window. That’s why baby will continue to stare after mom has walked out the door: He’s looking for her to return.

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The look: Furrowed brows and a pouty lip
What it means: He’s most likely been overstimulated and on the brink of a meltdown. Place him in a swing for some rhythmic movement to chill him out and back away slowly. He needs some alone time and the comfort of his swing will probably do the trick.

The look: A series of unexplainable crying, yelling, or even object-throwing
What it means: If this behavior is accompanied by some ploys for your attention, then guess what? That’s what it is. Baby’s bored (hey, it happens) and probably wants some one-on-one time. Entertain him with a fun toy or sing a song he loves.

Decoding cries & sounds

Baby’s gestures and expressions aren’t the only things newbie moms and dads can look to when trying to figure out what baby wants. According to new theories, baby’s cries may offer some big clues too. And while there’s been a lot of controversy in recent years over whether or not a systematic “baby language” really does exist, as Australian mom (and creator of The Dunstan Baby Language) Priscilla Dunstan claims, these theories are not being completely ruled out by docs and researchers. If Dunstan’s claims are true, baby makes five distinct sounds during that crucial newborn phase:

The sound:“Eh”
What it means:“I have gas” (make that an “Eairh” and that means lower gas)

The sound:“Owh”
What it means:“I’m sleepy”

The sound:“Neh”
What it means:“I’m hungry”

The sound:“Heh”
What it means:“I’m uncomfortable”

Just how legitimate are these claims? According to Gopnik, there isn’t any scientific evidence out there to make them entirely official — yet; but there is definitely evidence to suggest adults can recognize the difference between, for example, cries of hunger and of pain. Dr. Robert Titzer, an infant researcher and creator of the language development series “Your Baby Can Read!” agrees, adding that: “It’s better to think of the Dunstan Baby Language system as a set of fairly universal words for babies, instead of thinking of it as a language where words are combined and used with more intention to communicate [as ours is].”

As for baby’s (sometimes maddening) cries, they of course differ slightly with every baby — but there are definitely some similarities all tots share. So the next time you’re pulling your hair out trying to decode baby’s cry, consult this list:

The cry: Rhythmic and repetitive
What it means: Baby’s probably hungry — especially if he’s rooting around for mom’s breast or sucking on his fingers.

The cry: A slow build-up of crying over several minutes
What it means: It’s time for a nap — your little guy’s tuckered out.

The cry: Periodic soft whimpers
What it means: If this carries on for a while, baby’s not feeling so good. It may be time to visit the doc.

The cry: Powerful screams
What it means: If baby’s wailing at the top of his lungs for any prolonged period, it’s time to consult your doc. It could be a variety of things, but the likely culprit? The dreaded colic.

The cry: Whiny and irritated
What it means: Your tot’s fussing is probably because he’s been overstimulated and getting stressed.

The sound:“Neh”
What it means:“I’m hungry”

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