What Your Baby Knows About You

by Denise Porretto

What Your Baby Knows About You

You’ll spend your baby’s first year and beyond learning all about him: what makes him laugh, what makes him cry, and what’ll finally get him to drift off to sleep.

At the same time, he’s doing just what you are — figuring out this mystery person he sees every day. Here, the discoveries he’ll be making as his first months go by:


Birth to 2 Months


Your baby learns:


  • What you sound like. Even before he was born (when you were around seven months pregnant), he started to hear your voice, filtered through fluids. So by the time you hold him in your arms and coo at him, he already recognizes your voice. When Jean Rapp’s son, Tommy, was born last year, he had to spend nearly a month in the NICU. One morning when Rapp came in, a nurse told her he’d had a terrible night and was crying inconsolably. “She said to me, ‘There’s a little boy in there who’s going to be so happy to see you,'” says the Ivoryton, Connecticut, mom. The nurse was right: The second Rapp held 3 1/2-week-old Tommy and began talking quietly to him, he stopped crying. “It was so good to know that even though I couldn’t spend every minute with him like I wanted to, he still knew who I was,” she says.


  • What you look like (in a blurry kind of way). A newborn’s eyesight is fuzzy, but in normal light he can see things that are 8 to 14 inches away pretty well — coincidentally, the distance your face is from his when you feed him.


  • What you smell like. Your baby will recognize your scent within days of birth. Researchers have found that 3-day-old infants are able to discriminate their mom’s milk from someone else’s by its smell. And not only does your baby know your scent, he loves it too. “A baby will snuggle his nose between your chin and shoulder,” says Alice Sterling Honig, Ph.D., professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. “He’s thinking, ‘Oh, you smell so good. You’re my mommy!'”


  • You feed him when he’s hungry. By the time he’s 6 weeks old, your baby’s had more than 200 feedings — plenty of chances to get familiar with the sequence of events. He feels a pang of hunger, he cries, then you feed him. And he’s learned he can trust you. Sometimes he’ll quiet down as soon as he can tell he’s about to eat. He won’t understand your words, but even when you say, “Okay, sweetheart, Mommy will feed you in a minute,” he knows you’re taking care of him. Your baby may also associate you so closely with feeding that he won’t let anyone else do it in your place. Amy Brozio-Andrews of Albany, New York, was hoping that her husband would be able to bottle-feed their daughter, Emma, starting when she was 6 weeks old. But Emma cried and would take the bottle only from her mom. “I was so surprised. It was like she knew that milk, whether from the bottle or breast, was supposed to come from Mommy,” says Brozio-Andrews. But dads needn’t despair: Spending time with the baby through such daily activities as bathing, rocking, and diaper changing will eventually give Dad the opportunity to win her over to feeding.


  • You comfort him when he’s upset. Have you noticed that when you pick up your baby, he usually melts into your arms? From his point of view, your body is an extension of his, so he can relax when you’re holding him.


2 to 6 Months


Your baby learns:


  • Some people look more like you than others. Not only does your baby recognize your face early on (and love looking at it), but by the time she’s just 10 to 12 weeks old, she’s able to figure out whether other people she meets are the same gender as you. In a series of studies, Paul Quinn, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Delaware, discovered that 3- to 4-month-old babies prefer to look at female faces. So does this mean that babies are programmed to prefer women? Not so fast. It turns out that the babies in these particular studies had mothers as their primary caregiver. In another study, Quinn found that babies whose fathers were their primary caregiver liked gazing at male faces best. “We think the baby uses the caregiver as a standard to compare others,” he says. In other words, your baby may look at a new person and wonder, “How much are you like the person who takes care of me?”


  • You sometimes get sad or distracted. Just as you comfort your baby when she’s distressed, she’ll do her best to cheer you up when you’re sad. Between 2 1/2 and 6 months, she can both discriminate different facial expressions and expect that gazing happily at your face will make you smile — and she may even get confused and upset if you don’t. Research has shown that when a mother has a blank expression, her baby will try very hard to inspire a smile by grinning and cooing. Since your baby can sense your emotions, don’t be surprised if she’s especially fussy when you’re stressed. “Tegan definitely got upset when I cried or was unhappy,” says Leslie Estrada of Kenner, Louisiana, whose daughter is now 1. “Even now, if I’m in a bad mood, she is too. She adapts so well to whatever I’m feeling that I have to be careful how I react to things.”


  • You’re funny. You make silly faces, blow raspberries, put diapers on your head — and get big laughs from your little audience. By 6 months, a baby is starting to develop a sense of humor, and what tickles her funny bone most is seeing or hearing something unexpected or incongruous. But not everybody can be a comedian. Part of the reason your baby laughs is that she knows what you really look and sound like and how you usually act. “If a baby saw me pick up a diaper and wiggle it in my teeth, she would probably be scared to death,” says Honig. But Mom can do the same thing and be funny — it comes down to the bond you’ve been building.


6 Months to 1 Year


Your baby learns:


  • You exist even when he can’t see you. Every mom occasionally needs to close the door to the bathroom or dash out, sans baby, for an errand or work. Before now, such separations have been “out of sight, out of mind.” Relatives and sitters probably found it fairly easy to comfort your crying baby while you were gone. When he’s about 8 months old, though, separations become harder for him to handle. He’s developing “object permanence,” which means he’s able to keep a mental picture of you when you’re not there. For the most part, this is a good developmental step — except for whoever’s left behind to stop the tears. Hang in there: Although it may take many wail-filled separations, your baby will eventually realize that you do always come back, even when you go off to the great unknown to switch a load of laundry.


  • You’ll be delighted by what delights him. As he gets more curious (and mobile), your baby will get a thrill out of discovering new things about himself — and everything else, from his toys to the dust bunnies on the floor. He’ll want to share what he’s learning with you — the way a toy truck rolls across the couch, for instance — because he knows you’ll be excited too. “Babies turn to the people they’re attached to to share their pleasure. It’s one way they show that person is special,” says Jean Gowen, Ph.D., coauthor of Enhancing Early Emotional Development: Guiding Parents of Young Children. Not everything that delights your little one will be as great for you, of course. “Greta entertains herself by taking all her blankies off the changing-table shelf or emptying her clothes out of her dresser drawers,” says Allison Guarneri of Farmingdale, New Jersey. “She also loves taking the Sunday paper apart.” While you can certainly say no to bad behavior, let your baby explore (with supervision) — making a mess is how he learns. Smiling at it is how you show you love him anyway.


  • You protect him. As a baby encounters new things, he also realizes that Mom can be a big help navigating it all. As he scoots across a neighbor’s kitchen floor, for instance, he may come upon something odd, like a dropped napkin or a flight of stairs. He’ll stop and turn back to you, as if to ask, “What should I do? Is this safe?” Experts call this “social referencing.” He’ll wait for a sign from you — a nod or a look of alarm — that’ll tell him how to proceed. Even when he’s in a comfortable environment, your baby likes to be reminded that you’re there for him. He reassures himself by taking an occasional break from playing to come over and hug your knee or pat your arm, just to touch base. Being available and responding to him speaks volumes: As he becomes a busy, social toddler, he’ll remember that he can always rely on you.


If it seems as if your baby’s getting smarter every day, you’re right! He’s taking in everything around him, especially you. And as time goes on, you may start to think that he knows you better than anyone else. Except, perhaps, your own mom.