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Baby Surprises and Shockers
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After my first kid was born, I figured my big shocker of the year was that I'd survived labor without screaming like I was in a Wes Craven movie. I didn't realize my baby had plenty of other surprises up his tiny sleeve. The first came when Davey, who'd been sleeping almost continuously, was just 1 week old: He woke up and gave me a look that said "Okay, lady, I'm through with acting like a tree sloth," and boy, was he ever. Suddenly, the drowsy, low-maintenance lump I'd known in the hospital was alert for long (and often needy) stretches. Was this normal?
Absolutely, it turns out -- and so were the other unforeseen moments Davey treated me to in his first 12 months, ranging from the delightful to the annoying to the slightly scary. For a peek at what your baby may have in store for you, and how best to handle it, read on.
Jaw-dropper: Your baby (like mine) may snooze an awful lot just after birth. But within days, she's liable to roar to life and say adiós to Ms. Mellow.
What it means: She's getting used to the world. Right after birth, your newborn is busy adjusting to the bright, stimulating environment outside your body -- a challenge that might make her super sleepy, says Linda Burk, M.D., a pediatrician in Blacksburg, Virginia. But after a few days with no placenta to nourish her, she'll grow too hungry to sleep so much. Plus, Dr. Burk adds, "you're probably helping her come out of her shell just by interacting with her."
Where do you go from here? Unless your baby is inconsolable, don't be alarmed. "After a while, you become tuned in to what she's demanding," says Richard Judelsohn, M.D., a pediatrician in Buffalo. "It's trial and error. If you feed her and she quiets down, you know that's her 'I'm hungry' noise." Soon you may also recognize her noises for "I'm tired," "I'm wet," and "I'm sick of being passed around like a bag of chips." Squalling is the price you pay to get in sync with her needs.
Jaw-dropper: When your baby looks into your face and bestows his first "social smile" (one that's not accidental -- say, because he's gassy or test-driving his lips), it's a delicious revelation. "You forget every diaper you've changed," says Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D., a mom of two who founded and directs the Infant Language Project at the University of Delaware, in Newark.
What it means: As you guessed, it sure doesn't mean anything bad! "It's a way of saying 'I like that, I'm here!' " says Golinkoff. What's nicer, she adds, is that "it's also a sign of pleasure, usually in interacting with you."
Where do you go from here? Do what comes naturally. "Touching and talking to your baby, and smiling at him, gets him going," Golinkoff says.
Jaw-dropper: Every morning, you've leaned over your baby's crib and there her face has been, right where you last saw it the night before. Then one day, you see the back of her head instead -- and you're as flabbergasted as if a potted plant had switched windowsills. Bingo: She's learned how to flip over, or onto her side. (For some babies, this happens closer to 4 months of age.)
What it means: This skill seems to come out of the blue because you've rarely seen your baby working on it. By day, she probably spends lots of time in someone's arms or in a seat. "But in the open space of the crib, there's plenty of room for movement," Dr. Judelsohn says. Once your baby reaches 5 or 6 months, that movement may add up to major relocation. "One morning, I didn't see my son Tyler in the crib at all at first," says Megan Colburn, a mom of two in Crown Point, Indiana. "He had inched his way across the entire crib and was hidden in a corner. My heart skipped a beat!"
Where do you go from here? To encourage your baby, try putting a toy just outside her reach when she's on the floor. But also be careful (very!) not to leave her alone on a bed or changing table.
Jaw-dropper: Back when your baby was a newborn, you were probably amazed to discover that no matter how hard he cried, hardly any tears came out. Now the waterworks have arrived -- big, fat, rolling tears that just might make you cry, too. "I thought, 'Wow, she's not just doing the whine, there's tears! She must be really upset!'" Christine Rodriguez of Old Greenwich, Connecticut, says of her daughter, Arden.
What it means: Actually, babies are no sadder when they make lots of tears than when they don't. "The tear ducts simply increase their production around this age," Dr. Judelsohn says. No one knows why tears kick in just about now, but it may offer babies extra protection against the dust, sand, and other eye irritants they'll face once they begin to venture out into the wider world.
Where do you go from here? Grab a tissue! "You don't want to leave your baby's skin wet for very long because it will get irritated," Dr. Judelsohn says. "So if there are tears on his cheeks, gently wipe them away."
Jaw-dropper: You press a rattle into your little one's hand, and she drops it. So it goes for about five months until ("Honey, look at the baby!") it doesn't. At which point, like me, you may feel like giving your kid a medal.
What it means: She hasn't learned a new skill -- she's lost an infant reflex. "Early on, when you press your baby's palm, her fingers automatically spread," explains Carolyn Rovee-Collier, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, in Piscataway, New Jersey, who researches infant development. "Once that reflex goes, your baby won't instantly open her hand anymore."
Where do you go from here? Exploit your baby's dexterity. I always gave my kids a rattle during diaper changes to keep their hands busy. In fact, a whole realm of fun with toys opens up at this point... until your baby's 8 or 9 months old and starts purposely dropping them out of her stroller.
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Jaw-dropper: You imitate your gravel-voiced Aunt Ellen for your husband -- and your baby laughs like crazy. You do a double take. Sure, he's known how to laugh for a good two months now. But it was always in response to physical thrills like getting tickled, not because of something he saw or heard. Now he has a sense of humor!
What it means: Your baby has gotten to know you and expects you to sound and act in certain ways. "If you violate those expectations, depending on the context, it can frighten him or crack him up," Golinkoff says. Like many babies, Davey loved rude noises, goofy faces, and that time-honored classic "I'm gonna eat your hand." But his dad and I didn't hog the spotlight long, thanks to another fun surprise: Between 9 and 12 months, babies start making jokes. They may, for instance, use an object in a silly way (a sock as a hat).
Where do you go from here? You'll probably knock yourself out trying to make your baby laugh like that again, but don't be surprised if his funny bone is sometimes hard to tickle. Every kid is different, and you'll learn what works.
Jaw-dropper: Ah, the sweet sounds of babyhood: the coos, the sighs...the phony coughs. It's true -- just about now, your baby may discover her inner Meryl Streep and start making noises purely for effect. "One day in her Exersaucer, Arden looked at me and went 'Eh-eh-eh,' and got this furrowed brow," Rodriguez says. "It was her way of saying, 'I want attention.'"
What it means: "Babies this age are starting to recognize that the sounds they make can make things happen in the world," Golinkoff says. Unfortunately for parents, infants' attention-getting noises may be less than subtle. "Tyler's is more of a scream," Colburn says.
Where do you go from here? If your baby's "Look at me" sound is enjoyable, go ahead and respond and the sounds will become more frequent. "I used to cough back," says Rovee-Collier, who has five grown children and stepchildren. If the sound drives you crazy, though, ignore your baby while she's making it, so she'll see it isn't an effective way to get your attention. (Instead, give her plenty of attention when she isn't making the noise.)
Jaw-dropper: You give your baby a cool toy that you know will fascinate him. He plays with it for three minutes, then rolls across the room and starts examining the cat's dish instead.
What it means: At 7 or 8 months, your child's sight, hearing, emotions, and thought processes are all developing at lightning speed, Dr. Judelsohn says. As a result, he is more aware than ever of what's going on around him. Unlike a younger baby, an 8-month-old constantly gets distracted by his surroundings -- something that often continues until he's in kindergarten.
Where do you go from here? Instead of letting your kid play with a toy until he gets bored, put it away for a while and bring out something else. If you do this on a regular basis, and don't have too many playthings out at the same time, he's more likely to focus on the selection at hand. "I have tubs in the basement, and we've been rotating toys in and out of them," says Charity Cyr, a mom of two in Thomaston, Maine. She says this technique has worked for months with daughter Olivia (who's now 11 months) and also with Olivia's older sister, Isabel, 4. "When I bring old toys back out, they think of new ways to play with them," she says.
Jaw-dropper: "Walking by one year, talking by two." You've heard this rule of baby development so often that when your 9-month-old looks at his father and says, "Dada," you're floored. (Not every baby says his first word so early -- some wait till as late as 24 months -- but it's common between 9 and 12 months.)
What it means: Your baby now has the vocal maturity to imitate a sound that's associated with something familiar in his life. Among typical first words: immediate family members' names, pets' names, "ball," "truck," "doll," "uh-oh," "bye," and "up."
Where do you go from here? "Expand on what your baby just said -- 'Oh, you want to get up, you want to get out of your high chair!' " Golinkoff says. "The key is to narrate some of your daily activities for your child and give him a chance to respond. A baby needs to hear language to learn language."
Jaw-dropper: If it hasn't happened before now, it probably will soon: Your baby will inexplicably seem to forget a skill she has mastered. Crawling is a common one -- or its predecessor, creeping. "My daughter, Amelia, seems to have forgotten she can roll," says Melissa Haak, a mom of two in Evanston, Illinois. "I'm like, 'You can roll over, you know how to do it!' She just gets stuck on her stomach and we have to flip her over."
What it means: "Children this age don't actually forget skills they've learned," Rovee-Collier reassures. "They're just busy working on another problem" -- most likely the matter of how to get around even more efficiently. So your "forgetful" baby may surprise you again, very soon, by pulling herself up to standing after crawling to a chair.
Where do you go from here? Step up your babyproofing efforts, Dr. Judelsohn says, since her growing mobility could lead to injuries. Pay careful attention to areas like stairs and slippery floors.
Jaw-dropper: Your baby tries to feed or dress you -- or maybe one of his dolls. "I remember when my son, August, started trying to feed graham crackers to his little giraffe," Haak says. "He's always been a very 'boy' boy -- trucks, trains -- so to see that calmer, caring side was surprising."
What it means: "Babies around this age are realizing they are able to give, too," Golinkoff says. "They're recognizing their own presence and abilities in the world."
Where do you go from here? Anything you can do to help your baby become a sharing, caring person is worth it. So when he pokes a spoon at your mouth, pretend he really is feeding you. Taking his efforts seriously will help him feel important -- and besides, it's fun.
Jaw-dropper: The terrible twos are a long way off, yet your once easygoing baby is suddenly saying "no" all the time -- if not with the actual word, then with body language or noises. She may refuse certain foods or clothes, or, like Olivia Cyr, shout and clap indignantly at an older sibling. (Her mom thinks this was Olivia's way of saying, "Stop playing with my toys.")
What it means: Your baby is grasping for power the only way she knows how. "As they enter toddlerhood, babies want to be in control, and they get angry when someone else is," Dr. Judelsohn says.
Where do you go from here? To help your baby feel powerful and curb the no-no-no's, give her as much say as possible. "I'll put several things to eat on Olivia's tray and let her choose," Charity Cyr says. "At bedtime, I put a couple of books in front of her and she'll reach for the one she wants." If your kid is anything like mine, offering choices should help smooth the waters through at least third grade ("Do you want to ride your bike or your scooter?"). And that's a good thing because then you'll have more energy to handle the surprises yet to come.
Parenting contributing editor Melissa Balmain is a freelance writer, poet, and mother of two in Blacksburg, Virginia.