Reading Baby Cues Using the Genius of Psych

I’m not a LOL-at-shows kinda gal, but the series Psych leaves me guffawing like the Midwestern hick that I secretly am.

And for those of you who have no earthly idea what I’m talking about…

Learning baby cues with Psych

Let Shawn and Gus help you get to the bottom of these mysterious baby cues.

Psych is about a guy with Sherlock-shocking detective skills who pretends to be a psychic crime solver.



Think The Mentalist, only funny.


Great, now that we’re sort-of-not-really on the same page, let me tell you what all this has to do with baby cues.  (“Finally! The point!”)

This week, during a marathon session of giggling goodness, I was struck with how awesome it would be to be Shawn Spencer.

To take a glance around the room and know EVERYTHING.

Like, for instance, why the dog is covered with a sticky pink substance that smells like nail polish.

…wait a second…


*Two hours later*

As I was saying, I think it would be very helpful as a parent to know what’s going on inside that little cranium(Really? Is it painting? Playing dog salon? Watch mommy hyperventilate? What?)

So it begins.  A study of all the baby cues and their meanings.

The Simple Psychic: 2 Questions

The good psychics keep it simple.

Instead of saying, I’m sensing that you stubbed your big toe on the coffee table this morning… Say, I’m sensing you’ve been in pain recently.

Ehhh?  See how that works?

So, in the spirit of simplicity, let me urge you to approach your baby cues with two easy questions.

  • What is my baby doing?
  • When is my baby doing it?

That Loud Noise You’re Hearing

The most active “cue” your baby will show off is his incredible vocal range.

My girls could hit pitches even dogs couldn’t hear.  (I  know that because our dogs didn’t bolt out the door howling in agony like I did.)

As you will see below, sometimes those cries can be correctly categorized as a “cue” for your attention.

But other times…they can’t.  Sometimes there is no reason, no cause.

As little humans-in-training, babies can get grumpy. 

Not every cry can be fixed. (Repeat that a few times.)

Yes, you should try to soothe and comfort him.

But knowing that you can’t always make it stop should relieve the pressure of “why can’t I get him to stop crying?”  (For more on this, check out What Your Crying Baby is Trying to Tell You.)

In those VERY stressful times, open the junk drawer and fish out those ear plugs. I’m telling you, they do a WORLD of good.  They take off the sharp ear-hurting edge of those screams, letting you calmly continue your shushing, rocking, and singing.

Do you have a newborn?  The Dunstan Baby Language was shown on Oprah and teaches parents how to distinguish between the different cries of a newborn.  Very interesting stuff!

The Hunger Baby Cues

The mistaken assumption many parents make is that crying always = hungry.

Not true.

Sometimes crying means “Feed me, Seymour!” sometimes it doesn’t.

Here’s when it DOES:

  • Listen for a short, low-pitched cry that lasts a second or so.  (Think whimpers.) Naturally, the longer it’s ignored, the louder and more intense it will become.
  • Does your baby turn his head towards you, like he’s rooting for lunch?
  • Is he bringing his fingers towards his mouth, and sucking on them?
  • Is he making little fists? (Open relaxed hands can mean full, while tight fists can mean hungry)
  • Did he recently wake up from a nap?
  • Is he “air sucking”?  Moving his lips and tongue up and down as if he’s dreaming of his next meal.
  • How long has it been since his he started his last meal? (Start from the beginning of the last feeding.  The chart below can help.)

Age of Baby

Average “Hungry Again” Time

0-12 weeks every 2.5 to 3 hours
13-24 weeks every 3.5 to 4 hours
25-40 weeks 4-6 times a day, three with solids
41-52 weeks 3 times a day with food, one before bed

Use that chart as a way of helping you spot cues, do NOT use it as a rule.  This means, if your 8 week old seems hungry, and it hasn’t been the average length of time since you fed him/her.  Feed her anyway.

Babies go through growth spurts that will chew up all those averages and leave them steaming on the carpet floor.  So use those numbers as suggestions only.

If your newborn is consistently feeding every hour throughout the day for more than 4-5 days, try to keep him awake longer to make sure he’s not snacking.  He needs to get full feedings.  This may mean stripping him to his diaper and wrapping him in a blanket, or blowing on that little nosie to keep him awake.  You want him to pull off the nipple and indicate “I’m full, thanks.”

The Ouchie Infant Cues

These are the cries that no parent really wants to hear.  They are the “Fix this Mom!” kind of cries, forcing you to go through a mental checklist of “what could it be” options.

Here are the baby cues that your baby is uncomfortable or in pain:

  • The cry is sudden and unexpected and lasts longer than the “hungry” cry.
  • His crying also doesn’t get louder and softer.  It’s a continuous waiiilll.
  • Consider the temperature of the room and your baby’s clothing.  Is he hot? cold?
  • Is he pulling at his ears?  This can be a sign of an ouchie ear infection or teething.
  • Have you checked the diaper lately?  I’m going to throw out a guess, but soggy poopy diapers probably aren’t too comfortable.
  • Is his bottom red with tiny bumps?  Time for a good bottom balm!
  • Is she being pinched by a car seat strap?
  • Is he arching his back while crying?  This could be a sign of acid reflux…or that your 4 month old is getting ready to roll over.
  • Are you upset?  Babies are very empathetic.  They easily reflect emotions and expressions.

The Sleepy Baby Cues

The sleepy cues are harder to spot in newborns.  I suspect that it has something to do with the fact that they’re always sleepy.

Still, newborns grow into babies…who figure out that emptying the cabinets is a lot more fun than snoozing.

Here are the baby cues that he’s getting plumb worn out and you need to get him to bed before the “sleepy window” closes.

  • Yawns (Kinda a gimmie)
  • Turns his face away from you, avoiding your attempts to interact
  • Rubs his eyes and ears with his hands
  • Wrinkles up his forehead like an old man
  • Is he sucking his thumb? or caressing a loved blanket or toy?
  • Is he starting to slow down from active play?
  • Eyes have glassed over and have started to lose focus, like he’s staring at nothing
  • Frowns frequently
  • Hiccups
  • Is your infant 3 weeks, 6 weeks, or 3 months old?  These are typical growth spurts.  Eating and sleeping habits may change.
  • Squirmier than usual (put me down and let me sleep!)
  • Is it a half hour (for newborns), 1 hour (3-9 month olds) or 2 hours (9-12 months) after he’s eaten?

The Playful Infant Cues

Babies are learning machines.  For example, just a few hours after birth, if you slowly stick out your tongue at your infant, he will work hard to copy it.

Incredible! Your first playtime!

Here are the infant cues that your baby is ready to do some brain-building.

  • He stops moving suddenly and watches or listens intently.
  • He reaches for you or turns his head towards you.
  • He rewards you with little smiles.
  • He starts mimicking the pitch and tone of your voice (between 2-3 months)
  • He’s babbling consonants (between 4-6 months)
  • He’s making raspberry sounds with his lips.
  • His eyes are wide and bright, with his attention completely focused on a face, a sound, or something he wants to suck on.
  • He raises his head to look around.

There’s a Person In There

When it comes to baby cues, it’s always important to remember that your baby is a person.

He has a personality.

Just because I have something listed as a sleepy cue, it doesn’t mean it’s your baby’s sleepy cue.

You will eventually learn his language and understand him better than anyone.

What are the hints that your baby throws your way when he’s hungry, sleepy, or playful?  It may be just the hint another mom is looking for!


  1. Psych is my favorite TV show! Isn’t it frustrating how short the seasons are?! My husband and I will often stay up late and sacrifice sleep to watch a new episode of Psych – now that’s love, right?

    • I’m totally with you! Their little jokes have wormed their way into our secret family language. Of course, it certainly helps that I was a child of the eighties… LOL! Glad to share the fandom! *fistbump*

  2. I don’t remember how exactly I came across your blog but I did so last week. I’m a first time mom with a 4 week old baby boy. He’s generally great but as of recent I’m slowly being defeated by the mid afternoon nap. I can read his cues, he’s tired, he’s hungry, he’s sleepy, he’s none of the above. I don’t know where I’m going wrong. Except for the extra ling 7p playtime, his routine is almost identical to the one on your blog. But come 1-4ish he is all over the map. Any suggestions?

    • Lila – first of all, I’m so glad you’re here! And that you took the first step to comment! (The first comment is always the hardest!) Maybe it’s because it’s getting late on a Saturday, but my brain is being very uncooperative with me today. Can you help me further understand the situation? When you say “he’s all over the map” between 1 and 4 – does that mean he’s crying and upset? Like he’s tired but just won’t go to bed? Or is the “all over the map” referring to his nap TIME? As in sometimes he sleeps at 1, and then the next day it’s closer to 4? I’d love to help you figure out a solution, I just need to make sure I have a clear understanding of the problem you’re struggling with. Is it the sleeping? or the crying? (or neither, and I should just give up for the night and go to bed, and re-read this in the morning…?) 🙂

  3. Hi there. My baby turned 8 weeks today. A few questions for you. First off, how can I get her to sleep in get pack and play? She only naps well when she is carried. I’m so desperate for get to nap that I just carry her during naps. E very now and then I out her down but of course, she’ll either wake up as soon as I out her down or she’ll nap but for a short period. I can do this now but when I go back to work, no one will have the time to carry her through naps nor should they have to. Secondly, lately my baby goes into crazy mode when she’s tired. I figured its bc she’s over tired but it’s usually under two hrs since waking and also she’s very interactive right before. It’s like she’s good one minute and the nxt, we missed the window to rock her for her nap. Ps: do babies actually nap on their own? I always have to rock/nurse mine to sleep! Thanks so much for your advice!

  4. Hi there! I have a 3 week old baby that I am trying to understand! During the day I have been waking her up every 3 hours to eat and I usually try to keep her up for a little while (20- 30 minutes) before letting her go back to sleep. When she starts getting sleepy sometimes while drinking her bottle I put her down and let her go to sleep on her own but then after about 30 minutes of soundless sleep she starts whining moving arching her back and passing gas every 5-10 minutes! Like she starting to wake up but then goes back to sleep… Is funny because sometimes ill get up to check on her and she has her eyes close and stops whining…

    • Jessica, the good news is that every parent feels a little lost with a three week old, no matter how many kids you have. It takes time to get to know this new little person! It sounds like she’s struggling with a gassy tummy. I would try infant gas drops, gripe water, or a different bottle (like Dr. Browns) or formula. If you’re breast feeding you may want to start a food journal so you can see if certain foods you are eating are making her gassy (bell peppers, salsa, and broccoli always made my babies gassy). Start there and we’ll see where things go!

  5. Hi, I’m having a hard time reading my baby’s sleep cues, so obviously I’m here, trying to read through as much as I can to help him sleep better.
    My 4 month old baby just shrieks and shreiks when it’s nap time and resists it like there is no tomorrow. We are putting him down for a nap after being awake for an hour, sometimes hour and a half. Don’t know if that is too soon. The only way he finallys falls off to sleep is with lot of rocking, bouncing and walking around the house to calm him down. And this gets only worse by evening so his last nap for the day, he fights it with all his might. Any suggestions on what we can do differently to help him soothe himself before he gets too the “terror” stage :). He is a breastfed baby who takes a bottle every 2 hours (expressed breast milk) and continues this feeding pattern through the night. He is about 14lbs right now.

    thanks for any suggestions you can provide.

    • Menaka, I think you’re putting him down to early. At 4 months, he’s not going to be tired after only being up for an hour. Usually at 4 months it’s up for two hours, sleep for an hour and a half, repeated through out the day. Keep him up another hour and see if that helps! 🙂

  6. Hi, i have an 8 month old who is have always struggled with, with regards to naps, she is now very good at night, has bath, massage, pi’s, bottle, song and into bed wide awake, plays with teddy for 10-20mins and falls to sleep on own around 7:30 (regardless of naps). for naps i have tried between 2hrs and 4 hours awake time, used to do same thing play with teddy then sleep, now can cry when put down, then, play with teddy for an hour (no sleep) or pulling to side and crying hysterically! have tried twice today and gave up and took in car where passed out for 40mins, she has a cold at mo, could this be the problem? We stopped swaddling a week and a bit ago but she did have a few longer naps after this and was ok (haven’t swaddled at night for months), need help as stressing me out as getting no sleep during day. She stirs in night but puts herself back to sleep it is just the day is a disaster, i cannot spot any tired signs so just guess when to put her down!! She is not grizzly either, is dragging self round, happy sat with toys, etc. very alert and nosey until she will just suddenly have a massive meltdown which is what i try to avoid by putting her down for naps! Help Please!

    • Amanda, some babies just have harder cues. That’s not a reflection at ALL on you. In those cases, I would try to pick out a pattern to her day. Take a few days to write down the times she’s doing things like eating, sleeping, playing, etc, and see if you notice any trends over 4-5 days. Also include notes on her temperament and then possible cues she may be giving you. Here’s a mock schedule for a 6-9 month old that may be handy. Don’t see it as what your baby “should” be doing, only see it as a possible framework to watch for. 🙂

      Regarding her daytime sleep, make SURE the sleeping room is as dark as you can get it. It sounds like she’s a very curious, stimulated, interested baby. You’ll need to make her room “The Most Boring Place on the Planet” to help her realize how tired she is and fall asleep. For my Elena, that meant blinds and TWO dark sheets hanging up on the window. (Not pretty, but it works.) I moved them aside during the non-napping time to show that it was “playtime” and then closed them to make the room dark for “naptime”.

      I would also encourage you to get a 24/7 noisemaker, if you don’t have one in there already. (Here’s one on Amazon.) The noisemaker drowns out sounds in the rest of the house (or neighborhood) and helps to keep easily-stimulated babies in a cocoon of boring hums.:-)

      Finally, I’m going to be teaching a webinar on everything you need to now about nap training. If you’re interested, this post has an email sign up form that will notify you when registration is open for the class. Hang in there Amanda! We can fix this! 🙂

  7. Hi Heather! I just found out about your lovely blog about 2 weeks ago. I really need your help. Ever since my daughter turned 2 months last week, I have been having problems in her day naps. Some days are just great, but most of the time it really isn’t. I can read her sleepy cues and usually rocks her to sleep if she won’t fall asleep in my breast. The thing is, every time I sit down after rocking her, she always wakes up and then becomes alert again. I love cuddling with her but its just exhausting sometimes. She’s quite heavy (13.9 lbs) and my back and arms are aching with all the swaying and rocking. Am I doing something wrong?

    • Danielle Miller says:


      Congrats on your new little one! Have you tried a swing? It sounds like you have a little mover and shaker so this might help! 🙂
      If the swing doesn’t help I recommend a baby carrier (this will help your back and arms by distributing her weight!). I love this one but also recommend this one, it’s works well without the higher price tag…
      Heather is working on a post right now about Infant Carriers. It should be coming out at the end of the month. If you haven’t yet subscribed to Incredible Infant I recommend you do so. Then this post will come straight to your e-mail!
      Another thought, Try to keep her awake when she feeds so she gets a FULL feeding. This may mean stripping her to her diaper and wrapping her in a blanket. It may mean gently blowing on her little cheeks to keep her focused on the “task” of eating. It may even mean using a warm washcloth (warm!) to dab her cheek every now and then. When she pulls away, you want to know she got a full feeding, however long that takes.
      I hope these ideas help you both find a better sleeping schedule! This is such an intense time but so precious too. Over before you know it!

  8. Also, when I finally got her to sleep, as soon as I sit down, she would start rooting for my breast. I would give it to her as I would assume she’s hungry. But she gets so worked up from feeding that she wakes herself up. Should I not give it to her? Should I just continue rocking her?

  9. I have a 10 day old baby boy , who though he may have some fussy nights getting to sleep, always sleeps hard throughout the night. I can guarantee if I didn’t wake him for feedings he’d sleep all night. Is that normal?

    • Danielle Miller says:

      It is a bit unusual, you should probably mention it to your doctor. However he might just be a heavy sleeper!

  10. Very nice speech

  11. Nicole Brewer says:

    Hi just seeing this blog. My 8 week old daughter will get fussy when she is ready for a nap. At times she will full blown cry. Only thing that works at times is putting her in her swing. I have started to hold her in my arms and get her sleepy and then put her in the swing or rock and play and that seems to help. Any other suggestions? Also seems like some won’t fall asleep without knowing I’m there at night. Is that normal? When you put her in rock and play and she moves her head side to side and does the eh sound does that mean she is fighting sleeping

  12. Hi,

    I have a 9 week old and he hasn’t been a good napper since he was about 2 weeks old.  He doesn’t seem to have any cues so I always miss the window of getting him down awake but drowsy.  He goes from happy and smiling to completely wailing in the blink of an eye.  The longest nap I can get out of him is 30 minutes, whether it be in a swing, a rock n play, or his crib.  He is exclusively breastfed but does have reflux.  He never sleeps long enough to feed him right after waking, so I end up falling into the trap of sleep, play, eat instead, but I  make him stay awake during the feed to get full, but then he becomes cranky because he’s tired already again.  He had given us about 2 weeks of really great night sleep (6-8 hours for the first stretch, a feed and then 2-3 more hours) but lately he has regressed in that too.  He gets so fussy and inconsolable from 5-5:30pm that that’s when I’ve started his bedtime routine and his bedtime has become 6:30-7pm, which seems very early for his age.  Any help or suggestions would be SO appreciated!

    • Lindsay,

      The phrase “happy and smiling to completely wailing in a blink of an eye” – that’s your first personality clue! I’ve seen that with many babies, it means he’s a bit more “lively and interactive” than babies who are more laid back. You’ll definitely want to keep that tucked in the back of your mind in the months ahead – a slower bedtime routine will be a must for him, since he will need time to REALIZE that he’s actually tired to avoid missing his waketime window.

      As for the “longest nap is 30 minutes” – I was totally thinking “this sounds like a reflux baby”. I think that’s your main culprit. That’s because it can take about 20-30 minutes for reflux to kick in. I would try to keep him sitting up for 20 minutes after he finishes feeding, before laying him down. (And even then, you may want to let him sleep in a rock ‘n play, car seat, or some incline like the baby bean bag. We can always wean him off those things when he heals up later.

      Other ideas to help with the reflux: Probiotic drops have recently been shown to be helpful, if you’re using formula, ask your doctor about hypoallergenic types (examples of those here), or if you’re breastfeeding, try to avoid dairy for several weeks. Also, I’m assuming your doctor has him on Zantac. If things haven’t improved by 16 weeks, ask your doctor about switching to Prevacid for a few weeks. He can only be on it for a few weeks, but for tough cases, it can help you get through over the worst of it!

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