Q. Why does my 1-month-old startle so easily?
Don't worry, you're not scaring him. Until he's 2 months old, he may respond to loud noises, sudden movement, or changes in temperature (such as when you remove his diaper) by throwing his hands out to the sides and his feet up in the air and opening his eyes wide. This normal response to a new or uncomfortable sensation is called the Moro reflex. You may notice that at well-baby checkups your pediatrician tries to provoke this reaction. "The Moro reflex tells us that a baby's nervous system is healthy and functioning normally," says Hank Shapiro, M.D., chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics's section on developmental and behavioral pediatrics.
Q. My 2-month-old coos constantly. Is she trying to talk already?
"Cooing is an automatic behavior," says Dr. Shapiro. Very quickly, though, a baby realizes that she can both make and hear noises and that this is even more fun when Mom or Dad gets in on the act. As you respond to her sweet sounds with smiles and words of encouragement, she'll begin to change the tone or length of her coos in an attempt to signal you. While she's not exactly trying to talk, she is learning about the turn-taking that's fundamental to language acquisition and conversation. "Babies will coo and babble until they're about six months old, even if they don't get a response," adds Dr. Shapiro. "But if no one reacts, or if they can't hear a response, they'll quit doing it."
Q. My 3-month-old waves his hands back and forth in front of his face, opens and closes his fingers, and sucks on his fist. Why?
Your baby's fascinated with his hands, and as far as he's concerned, they're toys. "He's also exploring and learning that his hands are a part of him," says Rachelle Tyler, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine. Incidentally, even if he sucks and chews on his fingers for long stretches, it's unlikely that he's teething this early. Rather, he's using his mouth, which contains millions of nerve endings and is the best investigative tool he has, to provide new and interesting sensations.
Q. At 4 months, my baby seems to be laughing and sometimes even squealing with happiness -- does she already have a sense of humor?
So, your baby appreciates even your weak little jokes, does she? Actually, everyone is born with the ability to express both pain and pleasure, and laughter is one way that infants signify the latter. She may squeal with delight when she gets a "kiss" from the family dog or her older brother or when you make funny faces for her benefit. She may even do it just because her own noises are entertaining. "Laughter accomplishes all four purposes of communication," says Lynn Wegner, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Morrisville, NC. "It attracts attention, regulates another person's behavior, creates a shared experience, and communicates satisfaction."
Q. Since he discovered he can blow "raspberries," my 5-month-old makes this noise incessantly. Why?
Bet you can't resist doing it back, at least occasionally. Once a baby learns to create this -- or any -- delightful sound, he'll do it over and over again. The technical term for raspberries is "bilabial trills," and it's one of our earliest language-development skills. "Before a baby can learn to form words, he has to master moving his mouth, tongue, and lips together," says Michael Schwartz, M.D., a pediatrician at Lehigh Valley Hospital, in Allentown, PA. Repeatedly blowing raspberries helps him coordinate this movement.
Q. My 6-month-old will stroke the tray of her high chair over and over again, pat her blanket, and rub my head. What's she trying to figure out?
She's realized that she can get information about objects by feeling them with her hands. You may notice that she's particularly interested in unusual textures -- a bumpy ball, the grit of a nail file, the plush ears of her favorite stuffed bunny. "She's patting, touching, and feeling, which elicit different sensations than grabbing does," says Dr. Wegner. "This increased sensory stimulation enhances development of the central nervous system."
Q. At 7 months, my baby seems to have a bit of a temper. He loves to bash his toys on the floor and throw them out of his crib. What should I do?
"Banging toys is fun, and it makes great noise," says Dr. Tyler. This behavior demonstrates curiosity more than temperament, so it's unlikely that he's doing it because he's mad about something or even because he wants your attention. You don't need to do anything about your baby's penchant for pitching toys, although you can cut down on noise by supplying him with stuffed animals and soft balls to throw.
Q. My 8-month-old says "mama," "dada," and "bye-bye!" Is she gifted?
Her future in MENSA isn't totally secure, but yes, some babies this age are capable of assigning words to objects. Remember, though, these three consonant sounds are among the easiest for infants to make, so at first many will accidentally stumble upon them. Then, when they see your enthusiastic response, they realize the sounds mean something important and start to say them intentionally. Don't be surprised if your baby also "talks" with her hands. She's learning to imitate the gestures you make, such as waving goodbye and blowing kisses.
Q. One day my 9-month-old picks up his food with his left hand, and the next day his right. Could he be ambidextrous?
It's more likely that he's just testing out both sides. "Hand preference doesn't typically develop until kids start learning to use simple tools, like a spoon or a crayon," says Dr. Shapiro. If by the time he's a toddler he still doesn't show a preference, don't pressure him to choose. Handedness is thought to be partly genetic, and pushing him to use one side or the other will just frustrate you both. At this point, if your baby demonstrates a strong preference for his left or right hand, mention it to your pediatrician; it may be an indication that one side of his body isn't functioning properly.
Q. At 10 months, my baby pulled herself up and started to cruise along the sofa. Shouldn't she crawl first?
Some babies are skipping the crawling stage -- an unintended consequence of putting infants to sleep on their back instead of their tummy to lower the risk of sudden infant death syndrome. "And some kids just don't like the way crawling feels," says Dr. Shapiro. "It's typical to crawl first, but it's not necessary to do it before cruising or walking." Some kids, by the way, crawl backward, some crawl like crabs, some scoot on their bottoms, and some do it "commando style," using their arms to pull their body forward. "As long as a baby seems to use both sides of her body equally, there's nothing to worry about," Dr. Shapiro says. Now that your baby's covering more ground, be sure to remove any unsafe items that she could get hold of in her travels.
Q. What's the big thrill in throwing food off the high-chair tray and then looking over the side to see what happened to it?
Maybe the mess will be easier to bear if you chalk it up to education. Your future Nolan Ryan is practicing his grasp and release skills, and he's learning about space, cause and effect, and object permanence. He knows that the food is in his hand one second and then gone the next. Where did it go? he wonders. Can I still see it? Can I get it back? How will Mom and Dad react if I do it again? Why does the dog come running as soon as I chuck the Cheerio onto the floor? Fascinating things to ponder -- at least for 10- to 15-month-olds. "Treat it as normal infant-toddler behavior and don't get too worked up about it," says Dr. Shapiro. In general, a baby who throws his food isn't interested in eating it, so pitching his peas may also be his way of telling you he's had enough.
Q. My 1-year-old never tires of taking pots and plastic containers in and out of the kitchen cupboards and pulling toys out of the toy box and books off shelves. What's the appeal?
During the past year, your baby has mastered many large motor skills: rolling over, sitting up, crawling, cruising, maybe even walking. Now she's starting to work on some fine motor movements, including grasping objects with one or both hands, examining things while holding on to them, and trying to manipulate objects. She's not redecorating; she's exploring.
As her world expands, the more safe opportunities you give her to check it out, the better. So while it's just Tupperware to you, it's a cupboard full of fun for her -- and just one more stop on the route to growing up.
Dana Sullivan's last article for Parenting was "The Contented Baby," in the Fall 2000 special issue.