How do baby’s show their distress?

By: Shelley Nortje (Clinical Psychologist)

For many years it was believed that babies did not have complex feelings or abilities to communicate until they were much older. However, over recent years of research it has been established that babies do in fact experience and express their feeling states and communicate these to their caregivers in quite specific ways.

A more obvious way that babies communicate is through their cries, however there are also more subtle ways that they are able to let us know what they need and how they are feeling. Babies do not have verbal abilities yet though and so they rely more on their bodies to express themselves.

Babies may become stressed when they are moving from one state to another (for example from sleep to wake), if they are tired, hungry, too hot or too cold, if they have been stimulated or played with too much, or if they experience something painful such as their immunization injections.

Here are a few signs that newborn babies give when they are stressed:

  • Constantly fussing and crying
  • Irregular breathing
  • Mottled skin or changes in skin colour
  • Frequent sneezing, hiccoughing, yawning, sighing
  • Spitting up or gagging
  • Frequent tremors and startles
  • Avoiding making eye-contact
  • Pushing their tongue out their mouth

Now that we know a bit more about how to read baby’s signals, it is also important to think about ways to help babies soothe and bring themselves back to a regulated state. Here are a few ways that babies can be soothed. Remember each baby is unique and may prefer different ways of being held or handled.

  • Take a ‘time out’ if the baby is overstimulated to give him or her time to recover
  • Change the way you are interacting with your baby (e.g.: lower your voice if the baby seems more sensitive to loud sounds)
  • Speak to a baby
  • Offer support to the baby in the form of swaddling, holding or sucking
  • Babies are also sometimes able to soothe themselves, and may even use their own body to soothe, for example in sucking their own hand

This brief outline emphasises that babies are capable and unique little people. With time and careful observations, caregivers can attend to these subtle signs and communications to learn to know their child better and to develop a more meaningful and responsive relationship with them.

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