You are here

Decoding Baby Cues

Alli Jagoda

You probably wish your baby could unravel a bunch of mysteries for you: What do you find so funny about my jingling a set of keys in front of your face? Does that stroller wheel really taste better than your paci? And how come you treated me to 20 hours of labor, then came out looking like Dad?

No matter how puzzled you may be, it's still a drop in the ocean—well, baby bathtub—compared with all the questions your child surely has. Think of how weird the world must seem to her, from the mobile over her crib to that little thing you keep pulling out of your pocket and talking into (and just wait till she sees Lady Gaga). Knowing what's on her mind, even if she can't tell you yet, can help you be an even better parent by making you sensitive to her concerns. Here's what experts tell us babies are most curious about, and what they'd quiz you on if they could.

Peas Again?

“Heeeere comes the choo-choo!” you cheerfully say, guiding a spoonful of these roly-poly nutritional powerhouses toward your baby's lips. He doesn't open the station, though; in fact, he scrunches up his face instead and turns away fast.

What's going on: “He may be thinking, ‘My goodness, woman, haven't I given you the message that I don't care for peas?’—especially if this same scenario played itself out a little earlier in the week,” says psychologist Rahil D. Briggs, director of the Healthy Steps at Montefiore program at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the Bronx, NY. And who can blame your child for being frustrated? Usually, you manage to do your best to interpret his wishes and make them come true.

How to handle it: Keep pushing those peas! This is one of those times when Mom and Dad know best. When you introduce a new food to your baby, it may not be love at first taste—or second, third, or fourth taste, for that matter. In fact, experts recommend you offer it at least ten times before deciding he really doesn't like it. “He could still be getting used to the texture or the smell, or he may be more in the mood for a certain taste on some days than others,” Briggs explains. So continue the sampling (soft but whole foods, like peas, are okay to introduce at around 10 months) with the big picture in mind: “You're trying to encourage your baby to like a variety of foods, which can lead to better nutrition,” Briggs says.

To make things easier in the future: Set out a few washable toys on his food tray during feedings, to keep his hands busy (and prevent sudden spoon swats). Also try testing his upper lip a little with the spoon tip, to see if that doesn't coax him to open his mouth wide enough to slide in the good stuff. Before you know it, you may be the one who's thinking “peas again?” It could become one of his favorite foods!

Why Do I Need Tummy Time?

Your baby's been spending hour after hour on her back—in her stroller, the crib, and under her activity arch. So you turn her over, but yikes! The tears!

What's going on: It's no secret that babies are most comfortable hanging out on their backs—after all, it's what they're used to, and it's not like their chubby little arms and legs are built for push-ups.

How to handle it: It's tempting to put your baby right “back,” but don't. Regular “tummy time,” starting in infancy, is incredibly important. “There are motor skills that are encouraged only while your baby is on her stomach,” says Briggs. “If she never spends any time facedown, she won't learn to lift her head or rest on her forearms, for instance, both of which are forerunners to learning to crawl and then walk.” True 'nuff, but try whispering “You're learning some important precursors to ambulatory proficiency” in your fussy baby's ear and see where it gets you. Instead, to make it more pleasant, place her stomach to stomach with you at first, Briggs suggests. “She'll still be able to see you and smell your scent.” Keep it brief as well: five-minute sessions, once a day, in the beginning.

To make it easier in the future: As the weeks go on, build up to ten minutes daily, but don't make your baby go it alone. “Start putting her on the floor, on a soft mat with toys, and get down there with her,” Briggs recommends. Having your attention (and a couple of cool playthings) will provide some upside to facedown time.

Why Now?

Although your baby can't yet speak, he can kick up a major fuss when he's annoyed about an ill-timed (well, from his perspective, anyway) diaper change. 

What's going on: “Your child's asking himself—especially when he's busy playing or checking out something that interests him — ‘What, she needs to do a diaper swap this minute? I was doing just fine, thank you very much!’” says Briggs. Many babies, she explains, don't seem to mind sitting in a wet or dirty diaper, and with today's dipes designed to wick away moisture, some babies don't even sense that their bottom line is soggy.

How to handle it: Sure, you can let your child have an extra minute or two to enjoy what he's doing, if you have that kind of time, but an easier solution is to make the interruption a little less trying for both of you. Handing him a toy or singing him a song during changes can keep him amused.

To make it easier in the future: Go mobile! “You don't always have to leave the wonderful backyard and go all the way back into the house,” Briggs says. Assemble a little go-kit packed with a changing mat, wipes, ointment, a diaper, and a spare bag (for the dirty diaper), and keep it handy. (Include some hand sanitizer for yourself, too!)

You can also look into diapers that are designed to speed up swaps: Huggies's latest, for instance, are called Little Movers Slip-Ons and have stretchy sides instead of tear-aways. This feature makes them potentially easier to whip off or put on a standing or squirmy baby.

 

Was I That Dirty?

Got a baby? Then sooner or later (who are we kidding, just sooner) you're going to have a baby who's dumped spaghetti on her head. Time for a bath! Well, at least that's what you're thinking. She's lifting her legs away from the water.

What's going on: If she's accustomed to a morning or evening scrub-down, she's probably wondering what's gotten into you, bathing her at this crazy new time instead. “As a baby nears her first birthday, she can become very aware of the day's routines. If an event happens out of its normal sequence, she could feel unsettled,” says Cheryl Wu, M.D., a pediatrician with LaGuardia Place Pediatrics, in New York City. Your baby may not think she needs cleaning, either, adds Briggs: “You see a mess, but in her mind, she's just being a scientist. She dumped the spaghetti on her head to see what it would feel like and how you'd react.”

How to handle it: Try a simple explanation—“We're going to get you clean now, but you're not going to sleep yet!” Even if your baby can't talk, she may understand. “Babies are usually much more aware of things than we give them credit for,” notes Dr. Wu. Also monitor your mood: “You don't want to discourage your child from experimenting sometimes, even if she gets messy—feeling textures and manipulating objects is how she learns. So if you make the bath seem like an onerous chore, she'll pick up on it and be more inhibited,” Briggs warns.

To make things easier in the future:

Try to provide some structured messy-play time to cut down on the surprises; set her outside with water-filled, unbreakable toy pots and pans. And just know that meals may involve some cleanup till she stops being curious about how those mashed potatoes would feel in her ear.

 

Who's the New Guy?

Your baby was no picnic in those early months, between waking every two hours and…what, you need more? But when you were beat, you could pass her to whoever was around. At about 9 months, though, that changes: Try handing her to someone other than a member of her inner circle, and she'll cling to you like wet play dough on a carpet.

What's going on: It's called stranger anxiety. “Suddenly, your child resists being with anyone other than her primary caregivers,” Briggs says. It's a sign your baby has really bonded with you.

How to handle it: You both have to get used to spending time apart (sniffle!). Try scheduling some times when you can leave your little one briefly with someone you trust. “It might be that every Tuesday, you'll go to yoga while a reliable sitter watches your child,” Briggs suggests.

To make things easier in the future:

Keep to a few sitters your baby enjoys. Sure, she'll still be a bit nervous, “but this is ‘positive stress,’ meaning it will benefit her in the long run,” says Briggs. “She'll gradually realize ‘Hey, I can handle being away from Mommy.’” It'll help her become more adaptable, which will ease other separations down the road (did someone say “preschool”?).

comments