Crack the newborn code 

Posted on 15 January 2018

Crying, wriggling, sighing and turning – sometimes it takes all your detective skills to figure out what your baby’s trying to tell you. This body language guide deciphers common signals.

Turning their heads

Body language is all you have – at least for the first year. While some moms and dads are masters at decoding newborn signals, others struggle. Yet there are tried and tested explanations for some common actions. Dr Elna Gibson, a paediatrician at Mediclinic Emfuleni, provides possible explanations for the following common baby behaviours.

If your baby is turning her head away from you, she’s disengaging. This means she most likely needs a break from play time or might be overtired. Give her some quiet time lying on her side or back. If she’s feeding and turns her head, she’s probably had enough – sit her up as she may need a burp. Not working? “She might have pain in the ear or mouth,” says Dr Gibson, and in that case, you should see your paediatrician.


No matter how they move, sometimes little ones can’t seem to find the right position and their squirming becomes increasingly persistent. “If he’s wriggling a lot, your baby might be uncomfortable, in pain, hungry, tired or overstimulated,” says Dr Gibson. You may want to feed him, or, if you’re playing with him, stop and put him down for a nap. If the wriggling continues, give him a burp or see what else (a wet nappy, for example) could be causing the discomfort.


The classic baby cue, crying could mean all manner of things. “Newborn babies can cry a lot!” says Dr Gibson. “A cry could mean hunger, discomfort, pain, or simply being upset about something.”

As parents get to know their newborns, they get better at deciphering their different cries… and babies get better at identifying and gaining comfort from their parents. “The first signs of communication occur when an infant learns that a cry will bring food, comfort and companionship,” reports the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). “Newborns also begin to recognise sounds in their environment, such as the voice of their mother or primary caretaker.”

Sucking their hands

When your baby puts her little fist in her mouth, it often means she’s hungry. “In older babies, however, hand sucking is a normal, natural part of exploring and development,” says Dr Gibson. “It does not necessarily mean the baby is teething, and it’s nothing to worry about.”

Sighing and grunting

Babies’ little sounds also provide important cues. “Sighing is normal and can indicate satisfaction or tiredness,” says Dr Gibson. “Grunting could be a sign of a nappy in progress, or some sort of discomfort.”



Published in Magazine

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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