Understanding and reading Infant and Toddler Cues

I promised after my last blog about ‘self settling’ (or ‘not self settling’) of infants and toddlers, that I would talk about infant and toddler cues next as these are important for feeding and settling, as well as other aspects of parenting. So here goes.


How would you like to read your infant’s body language and make it easier to understand what their needs are? Actually, you probably read infant cues every day but often don’t think about it and that’s good. However, when you have a more difficult baby, (temperament, premature baby, sleep issues, medical issues) or mum and/or dad have depression or anxiety, it is sometimes harder to notice the cues and be able to tailor your care to this particular infant. Understanding and observing infant cues can make it easier to know when your infant wants to play, have time out, may cope with a massage, when to stop and start feeding and how and when to help them settle.


Infant cues are the primary non-verbal language of the infant and toddler. They indicate when they want you to approach them, when they want to interact and when they want to withdraw from contact. These cues are just like reading body language of adults, which we do every day but often don’t think about this in relation to our infants.

In infant and toddler care, there is what is termed, “Engagement” and “Disengagement” cues. After much engagement (play, interaction and learning) the baby or toddler can become “sensory overloaded” and needs to have time out. This is normal and healthy. This is when you will see subtle disengagement cues (time out cues) or distress, from the infant.


Lets focus on engagement cues first. Engagement cues are quite easy to read, and are usually quite noticeable; most people will know them. These cues are smiling, giggling, feeding sounds, mutual smiling, mutual gazing, smooth cyclic movement of the arms and legs. It also includes where the eyebrows are raised, eyes are wide and bright as well as facial brightening. There are also some subtle cues that you may not notice such as hands under the chin and hands together on the torso. All of these cues in a cluster indicate the infant wants to play or interact and is willing to be taught something by people. You then as the parent will have their full attention.


When your baby or toddler starts to want to have time out or needs a break, they will show subtle signs of disengagement that will cluster together and rapidly escalate to distress. Subtle disengagement signs include increased sucking noise or movement, fast breathing, dull looking face and eyes, lip compression or grimacing, turning head away, pouting, or a solemn face. Also, there may be increased foot movement, leg kicking, uncoordinated and jerky body movement, clasping clothing, head lowering, joining hands together, extending fingers, and putting a hand to ear may occur.


Distress occurs when subtle Disengagement Cues have been ignored or not noticed by the parent and the infant is needing time out and not getting their needs met. They will escalate. There will possibly be overhand beating of arms, turning the head right away from you, crying, whining, lateral head shake, halt hand (speak to the hand), and in older babies saying ‘No’ or shaking their head to indicate ‘No’. This may be a time to change the baby or toddler’s position, stroke and calm them and speak in a soft voice. We may need to pick the infant up, kiss them, be kind and supportive and talk them through what is wrong. After you have calmed them see if they are willing to have another go at whatever they were doing e.g settling, feeding, trying a new toy, or learning something. They will soon let you know if they are willing to try again. If not, give them a break from that activity for a while.


Some parents can find this interpretation of cues more difficult because of a combination of issues. This could be either a parent issue or a baby issue or a combination of both. Some parents have issues they are dealing with themselves which means they may be distracted (background, anxiety, depression, worry about their baby’s weight or feeding or some other aspect) and/or some babies are more difficult to read and interpret their cues, which can make it hard to understand what the infant’s needs are. I have found this is particularly so when babies have not been sleeping well for their day sleeps or night sleeps and are constantly yawning, tired and irritable. It means that the parents are always trying to put them to bed again when they may not be truly tired enough, or conversely if parents see one subtle cue, rather than a cluster of cues, they will pick them up and put the infant or toddler straight to bed without any change of position first, wind down time or warning. Both of these scenarios make it more difficult to settle the infant when they have become distressed.


In my role, I work with parents to decode these engagement and disengagement cues so that the parent and infant can interact together more enjoyably and deepen their attachment for one another, rather than miscueing each other and getting frustrated. For instance, premature babies are often sensory overloaded so will keep disengaging a lot. Parents can accidentally become intrusive trying to get them to interact more when what they need is more wrapping and help to contain and calm them.


Timing and sensitivity is key to managing infants and toddlers, but also being able to cuddle, repair or say sorry when we get it wrong as parents is just as important. It can be helpful to know that parents only have to get the cues right 50% of the time to be a ‘good enough parent’, which is ideal. In this way, the baby and toddler have to challenge themselves to cue you in a better way and that’s good for their development and confidence. Keeping in mind as a parent that engaging and disengaging is a normal regulating response from the infant and it doesn’t mean they don’t like you or whoever they are with – it just means they have had enough and that is the only way they can tell you. They will however want their primary care giver when they are in distress (significant disengagement cue) be this the dad or mum or other person.


Over time the infant tries to have a level of control in the relationship, which starts with feeding first. This is normal for the infant. For instance, when they are breast or bottle-feeding and feeling confident, they will suck, pause, then interact, pull off, suck again, pause, smile and it is important to let them have some control and independence over their feeding. This is the same with solid feeding. Going at the infant’s pace and not “hurrying them up” and making mealtimes enjoyable and fun are the goals.

Remember that parents still have to be “in charge” and be “Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind” (Circle of Security principles).


All babies and toddlers have periodic engagement and disengagement periods and most parents naturally monitor these behaviours, and change care accordingly.

Delighting in each other is the fun part of parenting, and having an idea of infant cues can help the baby’s first relationships to go more smoothly, and make parenting feel more enjoyable.

Next blog we will discuss strategies that work well to help babies express cues, engage and teach babies and help them when they are distressed in all instances. In the meantime see if you can notice your infant’s cluster of cues for engagement and disengagement.

If you would like to know more please contact me on my website www.newcastlebabysettling.com.au/
or Sherrian Price Newcastle Baby Settling Consultant (F)
or drop into Strachans New Lambton Day Night Chemist on Wednesday nights 5-8pm and have a chat for free with no appointment needed.


Since 2011 I have been accredited and re-accredited from the University of Washington, Boston to observe parent –infant interactions in order to help parents decode their infant cues and improve relationships. Re-certification and testing of skills occurs every 18 months to ensure reliability of the assessor. This is called NCAST Feeding and Teaching Assessments.

Sumner. G & Spietz. A. (1994). NCAST Caregiver/parent-child Feeding Manual, Seattle: NCAST Publications, University of Washington, School of Nursing.

Sumner. G & Spietz. A. (1994) NCAST Caregiver/parent-child Teaching Manual, Seattle: NCAST Publications, University of Washington, School of Nursing.

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