Talk to the Hand

Last week, I finished Sing, Unburied, Sing, the novel by Jesmyn Ward, and today, I’ve been mulling over baby talk.

Sing, Unburied, Sing won the 2017 National Book Award — the author’s second, in only three novels! — along with heaps of critical acclaim. The story concerns racism, and its impact on three generations of a family. Racism forces the grandfather, River, to commit an unspeakable act against a child — out of love. It turns the mother, Leonie, into a junkie whose highs bring visions of her murdered brother. And it makes Jojo, Leonie’s equally vision-prone teenage son, the defacto father of his three year-old sister, Kayla.

To be honest, I didn’t love the book — Ward keeps the power and drama levels on the language consistently at eleven, which dilutes the narrative’s force somewhat. But only somewhat, I guess, because the characters have stayed with me — haunted me, even, just as their ghosts haunt them.

Anyways! Re: baby talk. In the book, Jojo can read the minds of those who cannot speak — animals, mostly, but also small children. The novel’s awfully short on levity, but the thoughts of snakes and dogs are, if not light, at least not completely bleak (what does it say about me that these are my favorite parts?). “So warm and scrumptious,” whines a mosquito. “I could leap over your head, boy, and oh, I would run and run and you would never see anything more than that. I could make you shake,” neighs River’s horse. “No more pain,” whimpers a drug dealer’s toddler (ok, so some of the thoughts are completely bleak). Because I am spending my days at home with a five week-old, the last part piqued my curiosity. On average, babies will say their first recognizable word by their first birthday; at eighteen months, they can engage in basic dialogue. My son is, needless to say, many, many moons away from dialog, but, I wondered, beyond the obvious hunger signals (fist sucking and rooting, for the baby-less), could it be that the seemingly random arm sweeps and knee bends and huffs and growls and babbles were in fact directives to be picked up, or told a more interesting story, or given the activity gym?

In a word, yes. Dr. Kathryn Barnard, founder of the Center on Infant Mental Health and Development at the University of Washington, says this collection of movement and sound are what babies use to communicate their desires. These “Baby Cues” come in two types, engagement and disengagement, and two flavors, potent and subtle. and Per Barnard, when my son exhibits engagement cues, he is ready to engage with his surroundings, whether through play (or “play” at five weeks), talking, eating, or listening to me tell him that the chewy thing he’s got in his mouth is called a fist. When he exhibits disengagement cues — which, Barnard notes, will be frequently — he needs his surroundings to cool their damn jets.

So what are these cues?


  • Engagement, potent: smiling, babbling, and reaching towards caregivers
  • Engagement, subtle: bright and wide eyes, open hands, raised eyebrows, and an overall alert-but-chill demeanor
  • Disengagement, potent: crawling away, crying, falling asleep
  • Disengagement, subtle: fast breathing, hands behind head, hand to ear, leg kicks, lip compression

Most of these are pretty intuitive, really — the only two that got me were fast breathing and leg kicks (I’d figured these, which my son employs often, meant excitement, but I wasn’t sure of the tenor).

According to career nurse Phllippa Murphy, there is another category of cues: the “Six-Wind-Cues,” aka the “burp me pls” cues. These, which are employed in the first, dizzying eight weeks of life, are as follows: controlled arm movements, gooing and cooing, windy stare, windy smile, rolling/fluttering eyes, and chewing motion with tongue poking out. Philippa notes that these cues do more than communicate a need to be burped — they also help develop vision, smiles, chewing, arm movement, and vocalization. (As I was writing the preceding sentence, my son, who had been cooing, hacked up a prodigious amount of curdy milk. The more you know!)

Okay, so baby “language” is a bit more elemental than what I’d initially, quaintly had in mind after reading Sing, Unburied, Sing — apart from burping or eating, my son isn’t going to tell me what he’d like to do, but rather, that he’d like to do something, or cease doing something. But these requests: eat/burp/do something besides eating and burping/cease doing, and their signals, the gestures and bright eyes and outstretched hands and gnawed fists, do constitute a language, one I will do my best to put my phone down and converse in.

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