Infant emotional cues

Learn to read infant emotional cues.

Every expecting parent feels the excitement and anxiety of finally being able to see their child for the first time, to hold and connect with them and establish a bond with their child. Infants have a whole different language that parents gradually learn to understand. Communicating with infants and toddlers is a magical event since communication is based on reading non-verbal communication.

All communication, regardless of age, is mostly transmitted through non-verbal communication. Research indicates that 60 percent of communication is non-verbal; 30 percent from tone of voice and only 10 percent communication is from the actual words communicated. This is where the expression “people remember what they see more than what they hear” comes from. Knowing that communication stems from non-verbal communication is important so you can understand and read body cues, especially if caring for an infant.

Michigan State University Extension says that there are basic emotions that even an infant can feel and express beginning at birth. Some of these emotions are: Interest, happiness, distress and sadness. Interest is a feeling that comes when something or someone attracts attention or curiosity. To identify interest:

  • Children’s eyebrows will raise and might look furrowed
  • Their mouths might open in a round shape as they direct their attention
  • They spend more time gazing at interesting things

Happiness is a feeling of overall well-being and is expressed in the following ways:

  • Children will smile and giggle
  • Their eyes will be open and bright
  • Their cheeks will be lifted up a little bit, giving their face a joyful look
  • They may shift their attention more easily

Children have many different ways that they express happiness, from a clam feeling of contentment to a bouncy, energetic joy.

Distress in babies and young children is often (but not always) expressed through crying. When your baby is distressed and you don’t know why, it can de difficult for both parent/caregiver and the child. Distress can be brought on from pain, discomfort, overstimulation or boredom. For babies it might be hunger, gas or just that they need a break from noise and activity. Here are some ways babies and young children show distress:

  • Children’s forehead may wrinkle
  • They may scrunch up their eyes and frown or pout
  • Children may arch their backs
  • They may become whinny, fussy or clingy

Sadness is a feeling of unhappiness that comes when something pleasing is taken away or stopped, or when something doesn’t happen the way a child wants it to. Children show sadness in different ways. Here are some cues that a child may be feeling sad:

  • Children’s mouths may droop down at the corners
  • They stick out their lower lip
  • Child may sniffle or cry
  • Eyebrows may come up and together in the middle, forming a furrowed brow
  • Their posture may slump
  • Children’s tone of voice may lower and their rate of speaking may slow.
  • They may withdraw and be very quiet.

A child will provide subtle and potent cues for either engagement or disengagement. The engagement cue will tell you they are interested and the disengagement cues will tell you they need a break or they are confused. Disengagement cues are cues that tell you they are in need of a break or are confused. These subtle cues are:

  • Eyes turned away from caregiver or object for long period of time
  • Pouting or lower lip is pushed out
  • Arms are pulled to sides of body, with elbows tightly bent
  • Yawning
  • Lip compressions
  • Hands joined (usually over stomach) may also see finger movement
  • Grasping of own upper arms or any other grasping of body or clothing

Potent cues:

  • Turning head away, no eye contact
  • Arching the back

Engagement cues are cues that tell you they are interested. These cues are:

  • Mutual gaze – caregiver and infant look at one another’s face and into each other’s eyes for a long period of time
  • Reaching toward caregiver – one or both arms reaching toward caregiver
  • Smiling
  • Hunger posture - Arms are held close to the body with hands (fisted or open ) held under the chin. May be accompanied by sucking movements/sounds and turning toward caregiver or food. These signs are often seen at the beginning of feeding, signaling a readiness to eat.

Understanding these communication cues will help build understanding and establish trust with your new infant. Building trust is the first developmental milestone and the basis for continued development.

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