Mixed Signals

by Beth Kanter

Ever wish your baby came with an instruction manual? No doubt it would help, since trying to figure out his wants and needs is never straightforward.
“One of the toughest challenges for new parents is to learn to decipher their infant’s cues,” says Katherine L. Rosenblum, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “Sometimes you can figure out what he’s trying to tell you right away; other times, you completely miss the mark. And that’s OK as long as you keep trying.”
To help you get a handle on what’s going on in your baby’s brain, we asked our experts about four situations that parents most often misread. Here’s the scoop.

Your 3-week-old flashes you a smile.

You think: My baby loves me!
What’s actually going on: While those toothless grins can melt your heart, they don’t mean much at this stage. In fact, before 6 weeks, those sweet smiles most likely result from a pleasant sensation (like a light massage) – or they could just be a release of pent-up energy. “It isn’t until sometime between 6 and 12 weeks that infants begin to have social smiles – a responsive behavior in which you smile at your baby and she beams back at you,” says Parents adviser Dr. Ari Brown, coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby’s First Year. Even then, a baby doesn’t discriminate – she’ll smile at everyone. At around 4 months, she develops what experts call “selective social smiling,” which means that your baby reserves her biggest grins for her parents and anyone else with whom she’s formed a close relationship.

Your 2-month-old won’t stop crying.

You think: He’s not tired, he’s not wet, he’s not hungry. Something must be terribly wrong.
What’s actually going on: Most likely, your little one’s simply feeling a bit distressed. After all, for a tiny baby, an annoyance as small as a scratchy tag on his clothing, lights that are too bright, or music that’s overly loud can lead to nonstop wailing. Another possible cause of your baby’s tears: overstimulation. If you’re playing with your baby and he starts to look away, turns his head to the side or breaks eye contact, chances are he needs a little downtime. Stop playing and let him rest in your arms. “Infants are like runaway trains: Once they start crying, they can’t put the brakes on their emotions,” says Linda Acredolo, Parents adviser and coauthor of Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start. “That’s why you need to let them recharge before they get too worked up.”

Your 6-month-old is babbling up a storm.

You think: She’s trying to tell me something.
What’s actually going on: Babbling is just that: babble. “Babies play with their vocal cords like they play with their fingers and toes,” says Acredolo.
      There are two areas of the brain that control language, one primitive and one more mature. “At this age, the primitive skills are in full swing as your baby begins to make a range of sounds and try out a variety of intonations that mimic adult conversation,” explains Brown. When she’s closer to a year, her mature language skills will kick in and she’ll be able to associate words with objects. And even though her early chatter isn’t code for “give me more milk,” it’s still an important part of language development. “Answer your baby’s babble, and encourage her to keep making sounds,” says Brown. “You’re laying the groundwork for healthy verbal give-and-take as your child gets older.”

Your 9-month-old tosses his plate on the floor.

You think: He doesn’t like his food.
What’s actually going on: So maybe you’re not the next Rachael Ray. But unless your little one also sticks out his lower lip and tongue and spits out his food (both are ways a baby displays disgust), chances are your meal is just fine. Your baby is just exploring and being curious. “Babies throw things to see what happens to [the objects],” explains Brown. “It’s that simple.”
Parents also often misread this action – along with the throwing-toys-out- of-the-crib game – as their child’s way of testing limits. But that’s not it. “Babies throw because it’s fun, not because they’re being manipulative,” says Acredolo. If you need a break from the flinging, try filling a tissue box with old washcloths and hankies, then let your baby pull and throw to his heart’s delight.