The importance of non-verbal cues in infants
Communication is an intricate process. We read people by understanding not only their verbal cues but their non-verbal cues too. Non-verbal communication includes facial expressions, body language, voice tone and body movements. A lot of interpersonal relationships are highly dependent on people understanding these types of emotional cues. This is no truer than for a relationship between a caregiver and their baby or toddler. Prior to the development of language, research has shown that babies are highly attuned to a care-giver’s non-verbal forms of communication. In fact, research has found that from as early as 5 months old, babies are already beginning to develop and use facial processing parts of the brain. Other forms of non-verbal cues that are important to babies are:
- Eye contact
- Light touches, tickles and pats
- Vocal tone
- Body posture and appearance of care-givers
As a parent, it is important for us to be aware of our own non-verbal cues and what messages we are sending when connecting with our babies and toddlers. Being a caregiver to a baby can be extremely stressful at times, therefore it’s important to be consciously aware of what message we are wanting to send to our baby about us and the world around us. Equally, we must be very attuned and connected to our baby’s non-verbal cues and learn to understand their unique signals, messages and what they are needing. It is a mistake to think just because babies are not talking yet that they don’t understand the world around them. Infants are constantly communicating and in turn continually learning about the world and the people around them. For instance, when a light is too bright our baby turns their face away from it. This is our baby signalling they are overwhelmed, or they have had enough and no longer want to be in the light. Each infant and child is unique and therefore one response in one baby will mean another in another baby. For example, grabbing and squeezing for one infant may mean playtime, whilst in another, it could be a stress response. As a parent, we want to become connected and aware of the unique response in our own baby. What can parents do to be more aware and utilise the non-verbal connection from an early age:
1. Be aware of tone of voice: match and respond.
Attuning to a baby’s emotions is an important non-verbal tool we can use to deepen bonds, and support our infants feeling safe and loved. The easiest way to do this is through our tone. For example, if a baby is distressed and crying, matching this with our tone would be to use a soothing and sympathetic tone of voice, versus an overly-excited cheerful tone.
2. Eye-contact and positive/neutral facial expressions
A huge part of communication is sight, and eye-contact. It is really important to meet your child’s gaze when talking to them and engaging them in various activities, like bath-time, tummy-time, feeding and sleeping routines. As adults, we thrive on face-to-face communication and connection and this is no different to a child or infant.
In the first year of an infant’s life, they are heavily reliant on both touch and smell to understand the world and process their environment. Gentle soft-touch releases endorphins and oxytocin in a child.