Interpreting Non-Verbal Cues in Babies and Toddlers. Nope, sorry I can’t.

When it comes to giving birth I am a huge advocate of listening to your body so it makes sense that when it comes to babies and children I think it’s important to follow their lead. Except despite being an 'experienced' mum (that’s what comes from having multiple children) at least half the time I have no clue what they want (just like Ryan Reynolds in this scene from The Notebook).

A toddler looking at the camera with an unreadable expression on his face, I have no idea what he wants
What does my toddler want?


Take the other morning as an example. My 20 month old had been pretty grizzly on and off for the 3 1/2 hours since he got up. I tried giving him food, drink, cuddles, playing with him and then I attempted an early nap because I didn’t know what was wrong. I was pretty confident he wasn’t going to nap (and I was right, but it was worth a try).

I guess one of the issues is that small children often don’t know what is wrong themselves. I think they feel they are out of balance, that they need something, but they haven’t yet learnt to pin point: pain, hunger, tiredness etc.

They must get taught to associate the feelings with the causes over time and I’m sure it helps if their intuitive parents say “Oh you are tired? Let's put you down for a nap”, but my children have to learn the hard way.

You hear parents proclaiming online “I can tell by his cry whether he’s hungry or tired” etc and yes of course there are times I can tell the difference between their cries. When they are in proper pain the cry is very different to a grizzle for instance, but their standard cries? Nope. I’m not even sure I would be able to spot my child’s cry in a blind test. I know I’m not alone though, have you ever been at soft play and there is suddenly some loud crying? The mother’s ears all perk up and listen carefully to try and work out if it’s their kid or not. You can see some going back to their conversations earlier than others.

When it comes to interpreting how adults are feeling I’m not very good at that either so it’s probably just a general failure on my part to pick up on subtle cues. If children can be taught to understand how they are feeling at an early age by adults then maybe there are people out there who could teach me? What I need is the Derren Brown of the toddler world. 

I know that ear pulling is often an indicator of tiredness and I saw this in my nephew when he was younger, but my children have only done that when they have earache. Yawning should be a big giveaway of tiredness, but I can scoop my son up after several yawns, try and settle him down for a nap only for him to toddle off 5 minutes later wider awake than ever. My children don’t really like to go to sleep though.

Unsurprisingly as they are my children, the biggest indicator that they are particularly tired or hungry is they turn into angry banshees. I can see my 4 year old is tired, point it out to her and she will shout back “I am not tired”. My son who has a much more limited vocabulary tends to get violent when he is really tired, pulling our hair and hitting us with toys. These, not so subtle cues I can interpret, but isn’t it a bit late by the time I’m being hit round the head with a (now confiscated) wooden frying pan?

So Nanny Derren, please teach me. Or even better, come teach my children to understand themselves and how to ask for help nicely. I would probably pay at least £42 and a bar of chocolate if someone taught them when they were tired and to ask “please can I go to bed now?” followed by them taking themselves off to their bed and going to sleep. Who am I kidding, if someone could wave a magic wand and make it happen tomorrow I would give them at least 2 bars of chocolate. Any takers?

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