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Disengagement cues are how infants tell caregivers, “I need something to be different.” Obvious disengagement cues are turning away, pushing or arching away, crying, choking, coughing, extending their fingers, holding their hands stiff, or falling asleep. Subtle cues include looking away, faster breathing, yawning, putting their hand to their ear, grimacing, or glazed looks.

It is important to remember that although babies can communicate that they need something to be different, they can’t be specific about what they need to change. For example, imagine a mom trying to nurse her baby while the family dog is barking nearby. If the baby turns away (a disengagement cue), the mother may think the baby is rejecting the breast, when really the baby just wants the dog to stop making noise. Therefore, parents sometimes need to be “detectives” to determine what the baby really needs to be different.

Click Play to watch a video of a baby giving disengagement cues.

At first this baby seems happy watching her sister. But soon she starts to frown and gets more tension in her body. She’s interested in her sister but she’s no longer relaxed and smiling. Sometimes babies need a moment away from interactions when they are distracted or tired. This baby’s sister continues to play with, her using peek-a-boo to keep her attention. But all this attention is overwhelming for the baby and her sister doesn’t understand her cues.