• Baby cues: What are they trying to say?

    Babies thrive on engaging with their families who support them to gradually learn about the world around them. This section contains tips on how to recognise when your baby is ready to engage, how to get the most out of your shared interactions, and how to tell when your baby is tired or disinterested and just needs to be settled again.

    What are baby cues?

    Babies 'talk' to their families all the time. Before they develop words, they use their voice, and movements to communicate. These sounds and movements are called baby cues.

    Baby cues are the way your baby shows you how they feel and how to work out what they want.

    Engagement cues

    Engagement cues are signals or body language the baby uses to show that they like what is going on around them.

    • Eyes become wide open and bright as the baby focuses on you
    • Turning eyes, head or body toward you or the person who is talking
    • Alert face
    • Healthy pink colour
    • Steady breathing
    • Hand-to-mouth activity, often accompanied by sucking movements
    • Hands clasped together
    • Grasping on to your finger or an object
    • Smooth hand, arm, and leg movement
    • Softly flexed posture (looks relaxed)
    Quiet Alert

    Disengagement cues

    Disengagement cues are signals or body language the baby uses to show that they do not like what is going on around them. They let you know when your baby is stressed and needs a break from what is happening.

    • Crying or fussing
    • Gagging, spitting out
    • Red eyebrows
    • Frowning, grimacing
    • Hiccoughing, yawning, sneezing
    • Becoming red, pale or mottled
    • Irregular breathing
    • Jittery or jerky movements
    • Agitated or thrashing movements
    • Falling asleep
    • Turning eyes, head or body away from you or the person who is talking
    • Salute, finger splay
    • Limp or stiff posture
    • Back arching

    What might affect my baby’s cues?

    There are four main factors that affect your baby’s cues:

    1. The environment
    2. Their 'behavioural' state
    3. Their motor (or movement) function
    4. Their physiological state


    Babies like calm predictable environments. Changes in the space around your baby, such as loud noises, bright lights, strong-smelling perfume, or cold hands may unsettle your baby. When this happens, your baby will communicate disengagement cues.

    Infant behavioural state:

    How alert your baby looks describes their 'state'. States are either asleep or awake and babies may move quickly from one to the other depending on how well or old they are and how they are coping with activities, such as nappy changes or feeds.

    Sleep is important for babies on Butterfly. It helps brain development, and allows babies to preserve their energy and catch up on their growth. You can assist staff in organising your baby’s daily care routine so that sleep times are protected and cares can be clustered when your baby is awake and alert. Don't forget about Safe Sleeping Guidelines.

    Learning about your baby’s behavioural states will give you clues about:

    • what they need
    • when to do their cares
    • when they learn best
    • when they need a break from what is happening around them
    Behavioural states

    Deep sleep

    Deep sleep

    Quiet sleep, regular breathing, your baby moves very little. Try to avoid waking baby as this is a really valuable time for brain development.

     If you must wake them, rouse them gently with your voice.

    Active sleep

    Active sleep

    Light sleep, rapid eye movements, breathing is faster and more irregular, more activity is seen with twitchy mouthing movements, smiling and whimpers.

    Babies spend a lot more time in this state compared to deep sleep. It is an important time for making new connections in the brain.

     If you must wake them, rouse them gently with your voice.



    Half-awake, eyes are closed but intermittently open and flickering, glazed expression, limp and quiet with some fussing. Babies can go one of two ways: either wake up or go to sleep. Drowsiness is part of their sleep cycle and you may need to help your baby go back to sleep by singing, using comfort touch or swaddling them.

    Quiet Alert

    Quiet alert

    Awake, quiet and paying attention, little movement and eyes bright and shiny, relaxed facial expression, sometimes frowning with effort.

    This is a great time to interact with your baby, it is when they are most sociable. This is their best "learning" state.

    Active awake

    Active awake

    More movement and fussing in this state, making sounds.

    Babies are more physically active in this state and may even fuss. Fussing can signal that your baby needs something to change or stop, such as making the room less bright or noisy.



    Loud fussing, rhythmical crying.

    Babies cry for different reasons. As they get older they will cry more and you will be able to understand the different cry signals, such as hunger or tiredness. They will need support to settle.

    Motor (movement) function

    This describes your baby’s muscle tone, posture and movement patterns. Motor movements form part of the cues your baby uses to tell you what they need. A bend at the elbows and knees (flexed posture) and smooth, controlled movements tell you that your baby is coping and is happy to continue with their activity. Limp, floppy or tense muscle tone and flailing movements tell you your baby is not coping and needs a break from what is happening around them.

    Physiological state

    This describes your baby’s heart rate, breathing rate, their colour and how comfortable they are. It relates to how their breathing, circulation and digestion is working. Changes in physiological states often trigger baby cues as your baby tries to get back to, or maintain, stability.

    How can you help your baby stay calm on Butterfly?

    The ward can be a stressful environment for babies to develop and grow in. Butterfly staff are available to teach you strategies to help your baby stay calm and better able to cope with the activities around them.

    Your baby will cry and this is normal. They cry to communicate with us.

    There are many different ways you can respond to their cry, which include:

    • Talking to and reassuring them while watching and responding to their cues.
    • Positive touch (hand hug) or skin-to-skin.
    • Giving them a dummy to suck or feeding them.
    • Positioning or swaddling them so they feel secure.
    • Changing the environment - reducing environmental noise or dimming the lights.
    • Singing, talking or playing music to them - ask for a music therapy referral.

    You can find more information about many of these techniques by talking to the nursing and allied health therapists working with you and your baby.