Communicating with babies

Mum looks into infant's eyes

How you communicate with your baby is really important, particularly when you're unwell.

Your baby's understanding

Babies are very sensitive to their parent's emotional states. They focus on your facial expressions and tune in to the tone of your voice to ‘read’ how you're feeling and react to it.  So much of the communication with them is non-verbal.

Your baby's response to you can be observed. They will often respond to the sound of your voice by getting quiet and concentrating on you, or getting excited, or using their own sounds. They will also smile at you and wait for your response, and respond to your expressions with their own. Their arms and legs will move about, and they might even mimic your facial expressions, in a back and forth ‘conversation’.

Thinking about your symptoms

Where you're unwell, it's important to be aware of how your behaviour, facial expressions and tone-of-voice affect your baby.

To help you reflect on this, consider the following questions:

  • What might your baby see in your face and hear in your voice when you experience specific symptoms of mental illness?
  • What might your baby be feeling about their world based on this?
  • How do they respond to your symptoms?
  • What do you notice about their behaviour?

Communicating when you're unwell

Father holding infant

If you are unwell with the symptoms of mental illness, distressed, tired or in a low mood, you may find it hard being with or interacting with your baby.

Where possible, attend to your own feelings first, before interacting with your baby. You could even ask someone you trust to be with your baby while you rest until you’re able to interact with them.

When you're ready, you can try reassuring your baby by saying something with a calm, soothing voice and gentle face, such as: 'Mummy/Daddy is feeling sad right now, but I love looking at you and seeing you look back at me.'

You can show your baby you care, and help them feel protected and safe by doing the following:

  • Maintaining eye contact until they look away
  • Smiling when you look at them
  • Using a warm, calm, sing-song voice when you speak to them
  • Smiling and nodding as they grow and make sounds
  • Reacting to them positively (e.g. encouraging their little noises)
  • Repeating their sounds back to them when they finish their ‘sentence’ to create your own two-way 'conversation’.

Sometimes, when you're overwhelmed or distressed, you might be tempted to seek comfort from your baby. But disturbing a baby that’s quietly exploring or self-occupied with play, or patting a baby that’s not upset can confuse or unsettle them.

Alternatively, you might feel a strain in the relationship with your baby or find it hard to feel love for them. If this is true for you, speak to a health worker. In this situation, it’s important you persist to get the support you need. Your relationship with your baby can improve with the right help.

Other age groups below:


Videos for young people

Young people explain to others what mental illness is and how to understand symptoms a parent may experience.