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How to Use Sherlock to Unlock and Understand Your Baby’s Cues

I’m not a LOL-at-shows kinda gal, but the series Psych leaves me guffawing like the Midwestern hick that I secretly am.

And for those of you who have no earthly idea what I’m talking about…

Psych is about a guy with Sherlock-shocking detective skills who pretends to be a psychic crime solver.

This week, during a marathon session of giggling goodness (we were watching it on Netflix as a family), I was struck with how awesome it would be to be Shawn Spencer.

To take a glance around the room and know EVERYTHING.

Like, for instance, why the dog is covered with a sticky pink substance that smells like nail polish.

…wait a second…

CRAP.

As I was saying, I think it would be very helpful as a parent to know what’s going on inside that little cranium(Really? Is it painting? Playing dog salon? Watch mommy hyperventilate? What?)

So it begins.  A study of all the baby cues and their meanings.

The Sherlock Method:
2 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Baby’s Cues

In order to break the “baby code” and decipher what in the WORLD your baby is trying to communicate, let’s learn from the detective MASTER, and lay our problem at the feet of the infamous Sherlock Holmes.

Let me boldly claim that there’s no reason why we can’t be just as observant and deduction-prone as he! He doesn’t have some secret psychic power (like Shawn Spencer tries to fake).

Sherlock just NOTICES THINGS. And if that’s his super power…well there’s no reason we can’t do the same thing. Starting with these two easy questions:

  • What is my baby doing?
  • When is my baby doing it?

That Loud Noise You’re
Hearing Means Something

The most active “cue” your baby will show off is his incredible vocal range.

My girls could hit pitches even dogs couldn’t hear.  (I  know that because our dogs didn’t bolt out the door howling in agony like I did.)

As you will see below, sometimes those cries can be correctly categorized as a “cue” for your attention.

But other times…they can’t.  Sometimes there is no reason, no cause.

As little humans-in-training, babies can get grumpy. Not every cry can be fixed. (Repeat that a few times.)

Yes, you should try to soothe and comfort him.

But knowing that you can’t always make it stop should relieve the pressure of “why can’t I get him to stop crying?”  (For more on this, check out What Your Crying Baby is Trying to Tell You.)

In those VERY stressful times, open the junk drawer and fish out those corded ear plugs. I’m telling you, they do a WORLD of good.  They take off the sharp ear-hurting edge of those screams, letting you calmly continue your shushing, rocking, and singing. (Why corded? Because the other ones are choking hazards!)

Do you have a newborn?  The Dunstan Baby Language was shown on Oprah and teaches parents how to distinguish between the different cries of a newborn.  Very interesting stuff!

Understanding the Hungry Baby Cues

The mistaken assumption many parents make is that crying always = hungry.

Not true.

Sometimes crying means “Feed me, Seymour!” sometimes it doesn’t.

Here’s when it DOES:

  • Listen for a short, low-pitched cry that lasts a second or so.  (Think whimpers.) Naturally, the longer it’s ignored, the louder and more intense it will become.
  • Does your baby turn his head towards you, like he’s rooting for lunch?
  • Is he bringing his fingers towards his mouth, and sucking on them?
  • Is he making little fists? (Open relaxed hands can mean full, while tight fists can mean hungry)
  • Did he recently wake up from a nap?
  • Is he “air sucking”?  Moving his lips and tongue up and down as if he’s dreaming of his next meal.
  • How long has it been since his he started his last meal? (Start from the beginning of the last feeding.  The chart below can help.)

Age of Baby

Average “Hungry Again” Time

0-12 weeks every 2.5 to 3 hours
13-24 weeks every 3.5 to 4 hours
25-40 weeks 4-6 times a day, three with solids
41-52 weeks 3 times a day with food, one before bed

Use that chart as a way of helping you spot cues, do NOT use it as a rule.  This means, if your 8 week old seems hungry, and it hasn’t been the average length of time since you fed him/her.  Feed her anyway.

Babies go through growth spurts that will chew up all those averages and leave them steaming on the carpet floor.  So use those numbers as suggestions only.

If your newborn is consistently feeding every hour throughout the day for more than 4-5 days, try to keep him awake longer to make sure he’s not snacking.  He needs to get full feedings.  This may mean stripping him to his diaper and wrapping him in a blanket, or blowing on that little nosie to keep him awake.  You want him to pull off the nipple and indicate “I’m full, thanks.”

Understanding the Ouchie Baby Cues

These are the cries that no parent really wants to hear.  They are the “Fix this Mom!” kind of cries, forcing you to go through a mental checklist of “what could it be” options.

Here are the baby cues that your baby is uncomfortable or in pain:

  • The cry is sudden and unexpected and lasts longer than the “hungry” cry.
  • His crying also doesn’t get louder and softer.  It’s a continuous waiiilll.
  • Consider the temperature of the room and your baby’s clothing.  Is he hot? cold?
  • Is he pulling at his ears?  This can be a sign of an ouchie ear infection or teething.
  • Have you checked the diaper lately?  I’m going to throw out a guess, but soggy poopy diapers probably aren’t too comfortable.
  • Is his bottom red with tiny bumps?  Time for a good bottom balm!
  • Is she being pinched by a car seat strap?
  • Is he arching his back while crying?  This could be a sign of acid reflux…or that your 4 month old is getting ready to roll over.
  • Are you upset?  Babies are very empathetic.  They easily reflect emotions and expressions.

Understanding the Sleepy Baby Cues

The sleepy cues are harder to spot in newborns.  I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that they’re always sleepy.

Still, newborns grow into babies…who figure out that emptying the cabinets is a lot more fun than snoozing.

Here are the baby cues that he’s getting plumb worn out and you need to get him to bed before the “sleepy window” closes.

  • Yawns (Kinda a gimmie)
  • Turns his face away from you, avoiding your attempts to interact
  • Rubs his eyes and ears with his hands
  • Wrinkles up his forehead like an old man
  • Is he sucking his thumb? or caressing a loved blanket or toy?
  • Is he starting to slow down from active play?
  • Eyes have glassed over and have started to lose focus, like he’s staring at nothing
  • Frowns frequently
  • Hiccups
  • Is your infant 3 weeks, 6 weeks, or 3 months old?  These are typical growth spurts.  Eating and sleeping habits may change.
  • Squirmier than usual (put me down and let me sleep!)
  • Is it a half hour (for newborns), 1 hour (3-9 month olds) or 2 hours (9-12 months) after he’s eaten?

Understanding the Playful Baby Cues

Babies are learning machines.  For example, just a few hours after birth, if you slowly stick out your tongue at your infant, he will work hard to copy it.

Incredible! Your first playtime!

Here are the infant cues that your baby is ready to do some brain-building.

  • He stops moving suddenly and watches or listens intently.
  • He reaches for you or turns his head towards you.
  • He rewards you with little smiles.
  • He starts mimicking the pitch and tone of your voice (between 2-3 months)
  • He’s babbling consonants (between 4-6 months)
  • He’s making raspberry sounds with his lips.
  • His eyes are wide and bright, with his attention completely focused on a face, a sound, or something he wants to suck on.
  • He raises his head to look around.

Surprise! There’s a Person In There!

When it comes to baby cues, it’s always important to remember that your baby is a person.

He has a personality.

Just because I have something listed as a sleepy cue, it doesn’t mean it’s your baby’s sleepy cue. Everyday you get to know him a little better. Each day you master a bit more of his “language”.

Just remember, some babies may show their baby cues a good 15-20 minutes before meltdown. Others, though, may only give you a few minutes to act fast before the Tear Factory kicked in. The more time you spend with your child, the easier these things will be to spot!

What are the hints that your baby throws your way when he’s hungry, sleepy, or playful?  It may be just the hint another mom is looking for!

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