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Understanding your baby's cries and cues through research

Decode your baby's signals can feel overwhelming, so we've provided guidance based on research to help you understand your baby's unique communication style. From recognising their cries to interpreting their gazes and gestures, we'll inform and empower you with knowledge and tools to build strong and positive connections with your baby, with emphasis on the importance of individualised care, knowing that every child is different and requires personalised attention.

Frowning baby laying down with adult comfort

What does my babies cry mean and how can I help them?

Babies talk through cries, each type meaning something specific. Dr. Priscilla Dunstan studied this and found that rhythmic cries may mean hunger, while fussier ones might signal tiredness. Responding quickly helps your baby feel secure.

If it's hunger, feeding right away builds trust. A tired cry means it's nap time or a soothing routine, and discomfort might need a diaper change or an outfit adjustment. Knowing these cues makes crying a meaningful conversation between you and your baby.

Hunger Cry

Tired Cry

Discomfort Cry

Attention Cry


Short, rhythmic, and repetitive cries

Fussy and less rhythmic cries, often with eye rubbing

Intense and high-pitched cries, accompanied by fussiness

Whimpering or soft cries, often with cooing sounds


Indicates the baby is hungry and needs feeding

Signals that the baby is tired and needs rest

Suggests the baby is uncomfortable, addressing needs like a wet diaper or tight clothing

Indicates the baby seeks attention, interaction, or simply wants to be held

If you ever find that your baby's cry is causing concern or they can't be settled with your usual responses, don't hesitate to reach out to your healthcare professional. Every baby is unique, and sometimes, their cries may indicate a need that requires professional attention. Your healthcare provider can offer guidance and ensure the well-being of both you and your little one. Remember, you're not alone on this journey, and seeking support is a sign of responsible and caring parenting.

Reference: Dunstan, P. (2007). The Dunstan Baby Language System

Nonverbal communication cues in babies

Babies also communicate through nonverbal means, such as facial expressions, body language such as arching their back or kicking their legs. Some of the reasons for these cues can include:

  • Smiling baby - can indicate joy or contentment

  • Frowning baby - may signal discomfort or distress

  • Baby arching their back - could suggest discomfort

  • Kicking legs - usually indicate's joy or interest

Dr. Andrew Meltzoff's research helps us understand how babies communicate through their eyes. In his study from Science (1977), he discovered that even very young babies can copy facial expressions and gestures. This is crucial for grasping early visual cues and expressing emotions.

Recognising and responding to your baby's eye signals strengthens your connection.

  • When your baby looks curious, it's an invitation for play or to show them something new.

  • If their eyes look tired, it's a sign they may need a soothing bedtime routine.

Quick responses to these visual cues not only deepen your bond but also aid in your baby's cognitive development, encouraging shared attention and experiences. Meltzoff's research highlights the unspoken yet significant conversation happening through the language of the eyes, allowing you to build a strong connection and contribute to a lifetime of shared understanding.

Reference: Meltzoff, A. N., & Moore, M. K. (1977). Imitation of facial and manual gestures by human neonates 

Connect with your baby's natural routines

Tools like Onoco can help you to gain a deeper understanding of your baby's natural routine and cues by tracking their needs. This valuable insight will enable you to create a nurturing environment that supports their growth and development. Onoco also has an AI nap predictor feature which takes out the uncertainty and guesswork of nap times, helping you plan and schedule naps with confidence before waiting for 'that cry'.

Onoco app showing AI Nap Predic

While we've explored some key communication cues, every baby is unique, and parents often intuitively pick up on subtle signals that may not be universally documented. Trust your instincts and embrace the individuality of your little one. Your daily interactions, observations, and the loving bond you share create a unique language that can go beyond any research findings!


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