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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…


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!

Have You Read These Yet?

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31 thoughts on “How to Use Sherlock to Unlock and Understand Your Baby’s Cues

  1. Hi just seeing this blog. My 8 week old daughter will get fussy when she is ready for a nap. At times she will full blown cry. Only thing that works at times is putting her in her swing. I have started to hold her in my arms and get her sleepy and then put her in the swing or rock and play and that seems to help. Any other suggestions? Also seems like some won’t fall asleep without knowing I’m there at night. Is that normal? When you put her in rock and play and she moves her head side to side and does the eh sound does that mean she is fighting sleeping

  2. I have a 10 day old baby boy , who though he may have some fussy nights getting to sleep, always sleeps hard throughout the night. I can guarantee if I didn’t wake him for feedings he’d sleep all night. Is that normal?

    1. Kelsi,
      It is a bit unusual, you should probably mention it to your doctor. However he might just be a heavy sleeper!

  3. Also, when I finally got her to sleep, as soon as I sit down, she would start rooting for my breast. I would give it to her as I would assume she’s hungry. But she gets so worked up from feeding that she wakes herself up. Should I not give it to her? Should I just continue rocking her?

  4. Hi Heather! I just found out about your lovely blog about 2 weeks ago. I really need your help. Ever since my daughter turned 2 months last week, I have been having problems in her day naps. Some days are just great, but most of the time it really isn’t. I can read her sleepy cues and usually rocks her to sleep if she won’t fall asleep in my breast. The thing is, every time I sit down after rocking her, she always wakes up and then becomes alert again. I love cuddling with her but its just exhausting sometimes. She’s quite heavy (13.9 lbs) and my back and arms are aching with all the swaying and rocking. Am I doing something wrong?

    1. Nova,

      Congrats on your new little one! Have you tried a swing? It sounds like you have a little mover and shaker so this might help! 🙂
      If the swing doesn’t help I recommend a baby carrier (this will help your back and arms by distributing her weight!). I love this one but also recommend this one, it’s works well without the higher price tag…
      Heather is working on a post right now about Infant Carriers. It should be coming out at the end of the month. If you haven’t yet subscribed to Incredible Infant I recommend you do so. Then this post will come straight to your e-mail!
      Another thought, Try to keep her awake when she feeds so she gets a FULL feeding. This may mean stripping her to her diaper and wrapping her in a blanket. It may mean gently blowing on her little cheeks to keep her focused on the “task” of eating. It may even mean using a warm washcloth (warm!) to dab her cheek every now and then. When she pulls away, you want to know she got a full feeding, however long that takes.
      I hope these ideas help you both find a better sleeping schedule! This is such an intense time but so precious too. Over before you know it!

  5. Hi, i have an 8 month old who is have always struggled with, with regards to naps, she is now very good at night, has bath, massage, pi’s, bottle, song and into bed wide awake, plays with teddy for 10-20mins and falls to sleep on own around 7:30 (regardless of naps). for naps i have tried between 2hrs and 4 hours awake time, used to do same thing play with teddy then sleep, now can cry when put down, then, play with teddy for an hour (no sleep) or pulling to side and crying hysterically! have tried twice today and gave up and took in car where passed out for 40mins, she has a cold at mo, could this be the problem? We stopped swaddling a week and a bit ago but she did have a few longer naps after this and was ok (haven’t swaddled at night for months), need help as stressing me out as getting no sleep during day. She stirs in night but puts herself back to sleep it is just the day is a disaster, i cannot spot any tired signs so just guess when to put her down!! She is not grizzly either, is dragging self round, happy sat with toys, etc. very alert and nosey until she will just suddenly have a massive meltdown which is what i try to avoid by putting her down for naps! Help Please!

    1. Amanda, some babies just have harder cues. That’s not a reflection at ALL on you. In those cases, I would try to pick out a pattern to her day. Take a few days to write down the times she’s doing things like eating, sleeping, playing, etc, and see if you notice any trends over 4-5 days. Also include notes on her temperament and then possible cues she may be giving you. Here’s a mock schedule for a 6-9 month old that may be handy. Don’t see it as what your baby “should” be doing, only see it as a possible framework to watch for. 🙂

      Regarding her daytime sleep, make SURE the sleeping room is as dark as you can get it. It sounds like she’s a very curious, stimulated, interested baby. You’ll need to make her room “The Most Boring Place on the Planet” to help her realize how tired she is and fall asleep. For my Elena, that meant blinds and TWO dark sheets hanging up on the window. (Not pretty, but it works.) I moved them aside during the non-napping time to show that it was “playtime” and then closed them to make the room dark for “naptime”.

      I would also encourage you to get a 24/7 noisemaker, if you don’t have one in there already. (Here’s one on Amazon.) The noisemaker drowns out sounds in the rest of the house (or neighborhood) and helps to keep easily-stimulated babies in a cocoon of boring hums.:-)

      Finally, I’m going to be teaching a webinar on everything you need to now about nap training. If you’re interested, this post has an email sign up form that will notify you when registration is open for the class. Hang in there Amanda! We can fix this! 🙂

  6. Hi, I’m having a hard time reading my baby’s sleep cues, so obviously I’m here, trying to read through as much as I can to help him sleep better.
    My 4 month old baby just shrieks and shreiks when it’s nap time and resists it like there is no tomorrow. We are putting him down for a nap after being awake for an hour, sometimes hour and a half. Don’t know if that is too soon. The only way he finallys falls off to sleep is with lot of rocking, bouncing and walking around the house to calm him down. And this gets only worse by evening so his last nap for the day, he fights it with all his might. Any suggestions on what we can do differently to help him soothe himself before he gets too the “terror” stage :). He is a breastfed baby who takes a bottle every 2 hours (expressed breast milk) and continues this feeding pattern through the night. He is about 14lbs right now.

    thanks for any suggestions you can provide.

    1. Menaka, I think you’re putting him down to early. At 4 months, he’s not going to be tired after only being up for an hour. Usually at 4 months it’s up for two hours, sleep for an hour and a half, repeated through out the day. Keep him up another hour and see if that helps! 🙂

  7. Hi there! I have a 3 week old baby that I am trying to understand! During the day I have been waking her up every 3 hours to eat and I usually try to keep her up for a little while (20- 30 minutes) before letting her go back to sleep. When she starts getting sleepy sometimes while drinking her bottle I put her down and let her go to sleep on her own but then after about 30 minutes of soundless sleep she starts whining moving arching her back and passing gas every 5-10 minutes! Like she starting to wake up but then goes back to sleep… Is funny because sometimes ill get up to check on her and she has her eyes close and stops whining…

    1. Jessica, the good news is that every parent feels a little lost with a three week old, no matter how many kids you have. It takes time to get to know this new little person! It sounds like she’s struggling with a gassy tummy. I would try infant gas drops, gripe water, or a different bottle (like Dr. Browns) or formula. If you’re breast feeding you may want to start a food journal so you can see if certain foods you are eating are making her gassy (bell peppers, salsa, and broccoli always made my babies gassy). Start there and we’ll see where things go!

  8. Hi there. My baby turned 8 weeks today. A few questions for you. First off, how can I get her to sleep in get pack and play? She only naps well when she is carried. I’m so desperate for get to nap that I just carry her during naps. E very now and then I out her down but of course, she’ll either wake up as soon as I out her down or she’ll nap but for a short period. I can do this now but when I go back to work, no one will have the time to carry her through naps nor should they have to. Secondly, lately my baby goes into crazy mode when she’s tired. I figured its bc she’s over tired but it’s usually under two hrs since waking and also she’s very interactive right before. It’s like she’s good one minute and the nxt, we missed the window to rock her for her nap. Ps: do babies actually nap on their own? I always have to rock/nurse mine to sleep! Thanks so much for your advice!

  9. I don’t remember how exactly I came across your blog but I did so last week. I’m a first time mom with a 4 week old baby boy. He’s generally great but as of recent I’m slowly being defeated by the mid afternoon nap. I can read his cues, he’s tired, he’s hungry, he’s sleepy, he’s none of the above. I don’t know where I’m going wrong. Except for the extra ling 7p playtime, his routine is almost identical to the one on your blog. But come 1-4ish he is all over the map. Any suggestions?

    1. Lila – first of all, I’m so glad you’re here! And that you took the first step to comment! (The first comment is always the hardest!) Maybe it’s because it’s getting late on a Saturday, but my brain is being very uncooperative with me today. Can you help me further understand the situation? When you say “he’s all over the map” between 1 and 4 – does that mean he’s crying and upset? Like he’s tired but just won’t go to bed? Or is the “all over the map” referring to his nap TIME? As in sometimes he sleeps at 1, and then the next day it’s closer to 4? I’d love to help you figure out a solution, I just need to make sure I have a clear understanding of the problem you’re struggling with. Is it the sleeping? or the crying? (or neither, and I should just give up for the night and go to bed, and re-read this in the morning…?) 🙂

  10. Psych is my favorite TV show! Isn’t it frustrating how short the seasons are?! My husband and I will often stay up late and sacrifice sleep to watch a new episode of Psych – now that’s love, right?

    1. I’m totally with you! Their little jokes have wormed their way into our secret family language. Of course, it certainly helps that I was a child of the eighties… LOL! Glad to share the fandom! *fistbump*

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