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Nonverbal Communication in Infants

author image Lisa Vratny-Smith, MSW
Lisa Vratny-Smith, is a social worker, behavior consultant, and yoga instructor. She has worked with children and families for more than 20 years, providing expertise in child development and behavior management. Vratny-Smith writes the Mama Drama column for "Mile High Mamas" and the Laughing Yoga Mama blog.
Nonverbal Communication in Infants
A father and baby smiling at one another. Photo Credit: BananaStock/BananaStock/Getty Images

The first year of a child’s life is spent communicating entirely through nonverbal means. Infants use every part of their bodies to convey their wants and needs as their parents and caregivers respond to meet them. Dr. Bruce Perry states that this back and forth interaction is the beginning of human connection and communication.

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Newborn communication is primarily reflexive according to K. Eileen Allen and Lynn R. Marotz, authors of “By the Ages.” Infants turn their heads and open their mouths, or root, to indicate hunger. The Moro, or startle, reflex communicates being startled or scared as infants throw out their arms, then quickly draw them back toward their bodies. Infants also instinctively cry and fuss when they are uncomfortable.


Infants use crying, facial expression and whole-body movements to demonstrate their feelings. Alert eyes along with smiling and laughing indicate pleasure. Calm attention and relaxed muscles convey security and calmness. Turning the head or body away suggests discomfort or dislike. Tension throughout the body and frowning, along with fussing and crying, indicate fear, anxiety or uncertainty.


To indicate hunger, infants may root toward their caregiver’s breasts, smack their lips, suck on their hands, reach toward food or become fussy. When full, they turn away from what is offered, hold food in their mouths, spit food out or push food away. Suzanne Evans Morris, Ph.D., S.L.P., encourages parents and caregivers to observe infants with intention, reading their nonverbal signals to more effectively respond to their wants and needs.

Wants and Needs

Early wants and needs are conveyed through crying and fussing. Over time, parents learn to distinguish between different types of crying to meet the infant’s needs more effectively. As infants develop motor skills they are able to lift their arms when wanting to be picked up, point toward an object they want and push away unwanted touch or objects. Allen and Marotz describe excited older infants squealing and waving their arms when they see something or someone they want. Infants seek attention through crying, vocalizing, kicking and other whole-body movements to which their caregivers will respond. When their communication attempts are successful, infants learn to repeat that behavior to get their needs met.

Communicating Love

How infants’ wants and needs are met has a significant impact on their connection with parents and caregivers and their ability to trust and love, according to Dr. Perry. He marvels at the “somatosensory bath” of snuggling, rocking and gazing that parents lavish on their infants. These interactive touches, sounds and smells involved in caring for an infant are the foundation of communication.

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