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"My Baby Made Me Do It!"

Long before my friends and I had kids of our own, we swore we'd never sing those frightful lullabies we'd hear mothers croon. You know, the ones about babies falling from treetops and papas buying them everything from mockingbirds to diamond rings. ("How materialistic can you get?") Being rather late to motherhood, I also had ample opportunity to snigger when my college-educated buddies devolved into baby-talking simpletons within hours of becoming parents.

Of course, I got my comeuppance. Not only did I start cooing to my "suuuu-weeet baaay-beee" the moment I lifted her into my arms, I soon found myself singing every lullaby I'd ever berated, as well as one in German that mysteriously resurfaced from my own early childhood.

Then came the day we cracked open Eva's first jar of baby food. My husband pointed out that I gaped like an oxygen-starved guppy every time I offered her a spoonful. "Try it, buster. You'll see," I replied. Extend spoon, drop jaw: It's physically impossible to do one without the other.

Mercifully for those of us still clinging to some shred of dignity, researchers have begun to uncover what's behind much of our parental madness. And understanding why we do these things can help us maximize their positive impact. Likewise, it can be helpful to recognize when our well-meaning impulses become counterproductive.

Making faces
Of course, you don't have to turn on the volume to recognize a videotape of someone interacting with an infant. We open our mouths and contort our faces into wide-eyed expressions of surprise and delight, all within a few inches of a baby's face. Try this in-your-face mugging with anyone over 18 months and they'll think you're crazy, if not dangerous. Yet infants eat it up.

"Early on, babies have pretty crummy vision," says Colombo. "They start out very nearsighted." So getting up close and exaggerating your expressions can help an infant make out your features against the blur of the world.

Many researchers believe that cartoonish expressions help elicit what they call the mimicry response. "In our studies, we find we have to really exaggerate our facial expressions when we want babies to mimic something like opening their mouths or sticking out their tongues," says developmental psychologist Sybil Hart, Ph.D., of Texas Tech University, in Lubbock. This mimicry, in turn, may help babies learn to form sounds.

"A lot of the time that babies spend looking at our faces, they're actually focusing on our mouths and copying our expressions," she says. Which also explains why gaping like a fish encourages an infant to "open wide" for the next spoonful.

Contributing editor Jessica Snyder Sachs is working on a book about the body's beneficial bacteria.