What your baby is trying to tell you

Posted on 26 October 2017

Giggles and smiles are easy to decode – but when your baby cries, rubs his eyes or whimpers, what does it actually mean? A Mediclinic expert explains.

Babies communicate long before they are able to speak. Whether it’s rubbing their eyes, turning their heads, playing with their fingers or arching their backs, they are trying to tell you what they like, dislike and/or need.

‘Responding appropriately to your baby’s cues will enable him or her to form a secure attachment with you, which is important for later emotional development,’ says Dr Dominique Bunduki, a paediatrician at Mediclinic Medforum hospital.

‘If a baby isn’t soothed or when a baby’s attempts to communicate are ignored, they don’t get the opportunity to learn they can control their emotions,’ Dr Bunduki adds.

Of course, just like adults, every baby is unique and has a particular way of communicating. Paying attention to the subtle – and not-so-subtle – cues will heighten your understanding of when he’s hungry, tired, uncomfortable or playful.

Looking away:

A baby who turns his face away from you might just be telling you he’s trying to process information. Alternatively, he might be letting you know you’ve invaded his personal space. ‘From about two months onwards, a baby will disconnect briefly if they’re feeling overwhelmed or over-stimulated,’ says Dr Bunduki. Respect his need to chill and allow him to check out his surroundings or new toy in his own time. Yawning and frowning are other cues to show he needs to disengage for a bit.

Arching his back:

This is often a tell-tale sign that he’s in discomfort, says Dr Bunduki. ‘If it’s combined with crying, it might mean he needs to be burped or has reflux. Alternatively, he’s simply arching his back and turning away from the breast because he’s had his fill.’ Try picking him up and burping him or help him change position in his cot (move him onto his side or tummy if he has been lying on his back). If he’s in a carrier or car seat, hold him upright against your shoulder or let him wriggle around on the floor for a bit.

Rubbing his eyes:

Your baby is probably tired and is trying to relieve the soreness and tension in the muscles around his eyes. While newborn babies demonstrate tiredness in a different way (by fussing, grimacing or jerking their limbs) babies older than three months are likely to have greater control of their limbs and are more likely to rub their eyes or pull their ears or hair when they are tired. The more fatigued your baby gets, the more distressed he will become if he isn’t settled into a sleeping position.


As any new mom knows, there’s crying and there’s crying. ‘If your healthy baby cries for three (or more) hours for three (or more) nights a week and he is under three months old, he might be suffering from colic,’ says Dr Bunduki. Because the cause for colic is unknown, there isn’t a clear way to cure it. Your doctor will be able to make suggestions. While a rhythmic cry generally means hunger, a high-pitched shriek is likely to signal pain and/ or discomfort. A whiny, nasally cry means he’s probably tired.

Remember, learning to decode and pre-empt your baby’s unique non-verbal cues is part of the wonderful journey of parenthood.

Published in Babies

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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