Smiling is learning: Connecting with babies

It’s truly marvellous when we think about how vulnerable newborn babies are to also realise how actively they are learning from the moment they’re born. And the key to how they learn is all about the quality of the relationship and connection they have with their first primary care givers.

The importance of this connection can be seen, for example, when premature babies are nursed on their parents’ chests, skin to skin. They do better physically and go home from hospital sooner; they also do better at school than the infants who are cared for without this level of direct contact. Making relationships with babies—connecting with them—is the foundation for every part of their development: social development, brain development, health and education.

Newborn babies may seem helpless but it is surprising how much they can do and learn from birth.  They can hear from before birth and are beginning to get used to the sound of their parents’ voices. They can see, a bit blurry at first, especially things that are about 20 or 30 centimetres away. They can make contact by looking into your eyes and soon return a smile. Everything that happens to them is growing their brains.

One of the things they can’t do for the first few months is remember you when you are out of sight, so they don’t yet understand that there are people looking after them. They learn this gradually because when they cry someone comes, when they are hungry or thirsty someone comes, and when they are afraid someone comes. When this happens often and lovingly they start to learn there is a safe world to live in and explore.

They have feelings, but they can’t think things through. So if they cry it is in response to a feeling such as hunger or tiredness, not because they want you to come. They haven’t even worked out that they are separate individuals. If parents are tense or angry, their babies will feel tense or upset too.  Babies pick up on your feelings even if you try to hide them, and then it is their feelings too. If tenseness or anger goes on for a while, it is damaging to babies and parents should seek help. If you are calm and relaxed, this helps to calm and reassure your baby.

Growing your baby’s brain

Babies’ brains are growing faster than at any other time in their lives—literally millions of new connections and pathways are being laid down in the brain. These pathways become stronger as they are used. When they are cared for with love, the pathway for feeling safe and loved is being laid down and they are learning to expect the world to be like that. If no one comes when they cry it is like being abandoned on a strange planet—terrifying because they don’t know there is anyone to come. If this happens often the pathways for being fearful are laid down and even the growth of their brain is affected. Whenever you touch, cuddle, rock, sing, talk, smile or hold babies you are helping their brains grow in a positive way and preparing them for feeling good about themselves and expecting to have good relationships with other people.

Making relationships with babies takes time at first because they can’t tell you how they feel. You can learn about babies’ signals or cues (what they are telling you) from what scientists have found from watching lots of babies. You can learn most from being with and loving and getting to know your own baby. You will get it wrong lots of times at first but you are still giving the baby a message that even though you can’t stop them crying, you are holding them gently, talking to them lovingly and there is someone there for them. So even as they cry they are learning about the world and their place in it. Even as adults when we are upset our friends cannot always take away the pain, but it helps to know someone is there, caring.Making relationships with babies

Relationships with babies start from what is sometimes called ‘serve and return’, because it is a bit like playing tennis. The baby gives you a sign that they want to ‘converse’ with you, perhaps by smiling at you. This is the serve. You respond with a smile and perhaps say, ‘I can see you are smiling at me’ and this is the return. Then perhaps the baby smiles again and you respond again. This might not go on very long if the baby is young because young babies have a short attention span, but you can start responding from the baby’s birth.

To begin these ‘conversations’ with babies you need to be a good copier, because when you copy what babies do they see it as a sign that you have heard them and they respond and so it starts ‘serve and return’. You might copy a mouth movement, or poking out the tongue, or making a little sound—whatever the baby does to connect with you. This is the foundation for relationships, for conversations, for language and for becoming a confident human being. From such small things, happening over and over, the baby is becoming a healthy, capable person. Just looking into each others’ eyes is the beginning of love. 

Babies’ cues or messages to you—‘talking before they can talk’

Babies are very good at giving cues for what they want, but it sometimes takes parents a while to work them out. It is like learning to read their sign language.

You will get to know your baby’s cues for hunger—often this is crying; or sleep—may be crying or yawning, or getting tense or if very overtired getting very excitable and starey eyed. But remember that all babies are different and your baby might have different cues.

Here are some general clues about how babies communicate to help you.

Some cues for engagementwanting to relate with you:

  • smile
  • reach out
  • look at you hopefully
  • cry
  • hold up their arms
  • vocalise or call out
  • follow you (once they can crawl).

Sometimes babies don’t want to join in conversation, maybe they are tired, or it is a new person they are wary of, or perhaps they have just had enough and want a break because they can’t concentrate for very long. Then they give you a cue for disengagement, which says, ‘Stop now, I have had enough’. Or, ‘Let’s do something different’. Again, if you respond, it tells babies that they have been heard and are partners in the relationship.

Some cues for disengagement might be:

  • looking away
  • frowning
  • not responding
  • becoming tense
  • yawning
  • even going to sleep.


One of the results of relationship building is attachment. This is when the baby learns to know that one or more people will be there to keep them safe and help them. After the first few months babies learn to know that other people are separate from them and they look to their special ‘attachment’ people to support them when they are trying something new and to comfort them when they are frightened or sad. You will know this because your baby, who never really made a fuss at your coming and going, might cry when you leave the room, or crawl after you, or get upset at bedtime. They are learning that the world is a big and sometimes overwhelming place and while they want to explore it, they also want to know that their attachment person is somewhere near if they are needed. Babies usually choose the person who has done most of their caring to be their main attachment person but they also develop attachments to some other carers such as family members or an early childhood educator who cares for them. This helps them to know the world is safe and to develop confidence.

After the first few months if your baby cries when you leave and is very happy when you come back and then happy to go off and play, it is a sign that they have developed this special relationship called secure attachment. Children who have developed secure attachments as babies are likely to be happier, more confident and have better health and more positive relationships with others as they grow up. They have more resources to cope with the ups and downs of life.

Even babies who have not been cared for lovingly can become attached to their parents or carers. However, they become confused if the person they look to for support is often angry or rejecting or not there. These children don’t get the benefits of secure attachment and if it continues it can be very damaging.

More tips for building relationships with babies:

  • Talk to them. Talk about what you are doing, talk about what the baby is doing, talk about what you see or hear. Talk about anything. And listen.
  • Be predictable. Tell your baby about changes such as lifting them up or down, wiping their face, changing a nappy. Use the same words each time so the baby is learning about words and what they mean.
  • Share with your baby. Look at what the baby is looking at. Perhaps bring it to the baby or take the baby closer. Share the enjoyment.
  • Remember that babies pick up feelings from you so if you are relaxed and comfortable in a new situation and talk about it that way, your baby is learning that this is an OK situation to be in, even if it is a bit scary at first. This might be when a visitor comes, or you meet a dog on the footpath or any other situation that is new to the baby.
  • Read to your baby. Being lovingly held and shown pictures in a book is the start of learning to love reading, as well as nurturing your relationship with your baby.
  • Give your baby lots of smiles. Smiling is learning that the world is a safe and happy place.
  • Take care of yourself. All parents need support and a break sometimes. You do better for your children if you are in a good place yourself.