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10 Baby Mysteries -- Explained

Sylvia, my 10-month-old, is clapping. At what is not clear: the Cheerio on her high-chair tray? Her mother's brilliant way of slicing an avocado? It doesn't really matter. "Yay!" I say, and applaud along with her. She beams a scrunched-up smile I've never seen before, and claps more.

My daughter is doing new things, like applauding to get my attention and making funny grins, every day. Her accomplishments sneak up on me. I continually find myself turning to my husband in amazement, asking stuff like "Has she always laughed that way?" or "When did she learn how to bop up and down like that?"

But now that two close friends have even younger babies -- Lydia's boy, Myles, is 4 months old, and Amy's son, Oscar, just hit the 1-month mark -- I realize that most major milestones don't just pop up out of nowhere. A child works toward them each day -- and in the process may act in surprising, baffling, or even worrisome ways.

Need proof? I jotted down some notes about the past couple of days with Sylvia, recording each time she did something I just didn't get. Then, with the help of baby-development experts, I tried to make sense of it all. What I found out surprised and pleased me.

Emily Bloch has written for Marie Claire, Glamour, and Prevention, and also writes fiction  -- her most recent story was published in The Colorado Review.


12:00 P.M. What's with the crazy crawl?
Sylvia and I are visiting Lydia. Myles is propped up in his bouncy seat, being entertained by his big brother, Grant, and Grant's friend, Catie, both 2. When Catie does a staccato toddler run around the house, Sylvia crawls after her in her own unique way. Her hands and knees slap the floor, but she drags her long, lean legs behind her. Why doesn't she lift them off the ground -- is something wrong?
Mystery solved "Crawling is a technical feat, and there's no one right way to do it," says Alison Gopnik, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib. "Some babies creep on their stomachs; some go backward. And some never crawl -- they go from sitting to walking."
In Sylvia's case, her long legs may be part of the reason she moves the way she does, Gopnik says. "Heavier babies take longer to learn to crawl than thin ones, for instance. So her body shape could influence her crawling style."

12:30 P.M. Why does she stop at borders?
Sylvia crawls to the edge of Lydia's kitchen and stalls out. She looks down at where the kitchen tile suddenly gives way to the wooden living-room floor, then up at me, quizzically. "It's okay, go ahead," I say. She warily swings her right arm over the tile and places her hand on the wood. She does the same with her left foot and left hand, then finally her right foot, careful not to actually touch the line separating the rooms. Lydia and I laugh. "Don't worry, Syl, you don't need to have a passport," I reassure her.
Mystery solved It's funny when your child starts to zoom in on (and, often, initially overreact to) contrasts. But it's also a good thing. "It's a sign that a baby's becoming more mature and able to discriminate between differences," says Stefanie Powers, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, in Washington, D.C. Your baby may first notice contrasts on or near the ground, at her eye level.

1:15 P.M. Is she actually socializing?
I brought Sylvia over to spend time with Myles, but that's not happening (at the moment, he's fast asleep on Lydia's chest). Sylvia occasionally looks over at him, but it's Catie who's got her attention. When she takes a bite of a cookie, Sylvia gasps in admiration. I thought babies didn't really notice other kids. What about parallel play?
Mystery solved "Babies don't get as much credit as they deserve for being aware of other children," says Powers. Also, she says, there's the allure of a quickly moving person at your little one's eye level. "Babies are usually drawn to children who are down on the floor with them and acting playful, as opposed to adults quietly sitting in chairs."

2:30 P.M. Why does Sylvia keep taking a stand?
Myles woke up, and now he's having tummy time. Suddenly he rolls over. Sylvia, who's watching him, shrieks with enthusiasm, then crawls over to a chair and pulls herself up to standing position. It's as if she's saying, "Oh, yeah, Mr. Big Shot, can you do this?" But she doesn't do it just once. She sits. Stands. Sits. Stands. Okay, we get it. Why doesn't she stop before she tires herself out?
Mystery solved "Babies learn through practice," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., author of What's Going On in There? How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. Repeating a task a bunch of times does a couple of great things for her: It strengthens her muscles and builds new pathways in her brain, so she gets better at making precise movements. All of this adds up to good motor skills.

3:30 P.M. If she's tired, why won't she sleep?
We're back home, and Sylvia's twisting and writhing and exploring my mouth with her sharp little fingernails. (Whose job is it to clip them? Apparently, not mine.) "Oooh!" she says, not sounding sleepy at all. But she's exhausted -- I can tell from the manic way she's kicking, and from how she's ready to laugh at nothing, then cry at everything. I ease her into her crib and slink guiltily out of the room as she sobs, hoping that one day she'll forgive me. Within minutes, she's asleep. I'm not surprised -- she fights her nap all the time. But if she's tired, why isn't she happy to go to sleep?
Mystery solved "The younger babies are, the harder it is for them to move from one state of arousal to another," says Gopnik. While an adult might gradually drift into drowsiness, babies often go from alert and happy to overtired in the blink of an eye. They may end up having a meltdown due to this sudden change and need soothing from an adult in order to chill out again.
And what about Sylvia's other odd behaviors, like scraping the plaque from my teeth? "It's part of being snuggly with you. She's trying to soothe herself, which is an important skill to master as she grows from a baby into a toddler," Powers says.

8:30 P.M. What are those weird sounds?
Aron, my husband, says that when he was giving Sylvia her evening bath, she growled. This gets us talking about some other funny sounds she makes, like when she fake-coughs to get us to turn around. Sometimes she also points at an object and says "Di-dah!" which I'm guessing is her way of asking, "What's this thing?" But the truth is, we're not really sure what either that or her growling means.
Mystery solved These sounds are a form of vocal play, which is part of learning to talk. "A baby may make these noises accidentally at first, but if his parents encourage him, he'll try it again," says Powers. The more kinds of sounds your baby makes, the better -- it's preparation for stringing vowels and consonants together to form words.
Even the way Sylvia gestures at stuff and says "Di-dah!" is a milestone. "At first, when babies interact with you, they're happy just to exchange smiles and coos. Then, around nine months, they start wanting to find out how you feel about something or someone else, which is a step toward becoming more socially aware," Gopnik says. When a child points at something and makes a noise, it's a way of alerting you to the fact that he's aware of it, and asking you to share what you think about it.


5:30 A.M. Why can't she keep her hands to herself?
During an early-morning breastfeeding, Sylvia reaches under my nightgown and goes for the breast she's not nursing on. I gently move her hand away and hold the nightgown tight against my skin. A couple of months ago, when this charming habit first began, I could distract her easily by covering up. But this morning, she pushes back. I hold my ground, but just barely.
Mystery solved You know how a lot of moms are natural-born multitaskers? Well, so are some kids. Fidgety babies may need another activity to entertain them while they nurse (I'll try telling Syl a story). And the fact that my daughter has become harder to distract is a sign that her mind is developing fast, says Eliot. Before, if I moved Sylvia's hand away or adjusted my nightgown, she forgot the other breast was there. But now she's demonstrating "object permanence," which means she realizes that things continue to exist even when they're out of sight. Ah, the mixed blessings of parenthood.

11:00 A.M. Does she know her hands belong to her?
We're visiting my friend Amy, her partner, Peter, and their baby, Oscar. Peter lets us into their building and Sylvia shyly waves at him in her baby way, opening and closing her fist, palm facing inward, then stares at her hand. "How's it doing that?" her quizzical expression says.
Mystery solved That's exactly what Sylvia's wondering! "She's becoming more purposeful in her movements, but she's still not always aware that she's the one making her limbs move," says Powers. "So she looks at her hand and thinks, 'You mean it isn't just doing that by itself?'"

12:15 P.M. What's so funny?
Sylvia giggles like crazy when Amy puts on a pair of sunglasses, and cracks up again when Peter lifts her up on his shoulders. I think I've been left out of the joke.
Mystery solved Sylvia knows who's under the sunglasses, so she catches on that they're a playful disguise. As for the hilarious shoulder ride, well, it's not something her dad usually does with Syl, so it delights her. "The unexpected can be funny," says Eliot.

12:45 P.M. Why can't she take her eyes off the fan?
We take the kids to a restaurant, where Syl's mesmerized by the ceiling fan. She looks at me, and waves at it with an expression of somber love. "Yes," I say softly. "Hi, Mr. Ceiling Fan."
Mystery solved "Babies are fascinated by movement, and from an evolutionary perspective it makes sense," says Eliot. "Our brains are wired for it -- we're looking for predators, or prey."

As we sit in the café, my little (predator? prey?) keeps gazing at the fan. Then Oscar opens his eyes, and he starts staring at it, too. Seeing their upturned faces side by side makes me smile. It was just yesterday that Sylvia was as small as Oscar. And it'll only be an instant until Myles is Sylvia's age and Sylvia is a preschooler like Grant and Catie. But as I've seen already, Sylvia will always be herself.