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Baby Health Quirks That Are Normal

baby check-up

Lara Robby

Health pros say it's totally normal for new moms to question their infant's every spot and twitch, but wouldn't it be nice not to? To keep you from having a conniption over each errant sneeze or mysterious expression, we asked experts for the lowdown on eight seemingly alarming curiosities that are actually quite common. Read, exhale, rejoice!

A Real Head-Turner
Kristi Valentini, of Northville, Michigan, freaked when she noticed that the soft spot on her baby Marissa's head was throbbing. What she was seeing was blood flowing to her brain, says NYC pediatrician Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D. The soft spots, known as fontanels, allow your baby's head to grow, and they're surprisingly tough. Pulsing will stop when the skull bones fuse (at 4 to 8 weeks for the one at the back of the head, and 9 months to 2 years for the soft spot on top).

CALL THE DOC
If Baby's fontanel is sunken, she may be dehydrated. A bulging fontanel, along with irritability, fever, lethargy, or appetite changes, may be a sign of a serious illness like meningitis.

During your pregnancy, you may have wondered if your baby would have a thick mop of hair or be full-on Bruce Willis-bald. But you probably didn't expect body hair. When Jessica Katz, of Santa Monica, California, noticed clumps of white fuzz on her newborn's ears, she worried that Ila had inherited her daddy's hairiness. (Pops has a healthy pelt on his back.) Not to worry: "In the womb, babies are covered with a layer of soft, fine hair called lanugo, which they usually shed during the last months of pregnancy or shortly after birth," says Brandi Kenner-Bell, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist for Children's Memorial at Central DuPage Hospital, in Winfield, Illinois. Still, it often sticks around for a few months, especially on the back, shoulders, forehead, ears, and face. The fur that gave Ila "80-year-old-man ears," as Katz lovingly remembers, was gone by 5 months. However, Katz was right that genetics play a role, Dr. Kenner-Bell says. Some ethnicities tend to be hairy, and if a parent is furry, Baby may be too. Hair growth, density, and patterns may change, though, as a child ages.

CALL THE DOC
Hair that's thick, dark, and coarse, or sprouting in the genital or underarm area, could signal hormonal abnormalities.

If your kid is a sneezer, don't worry. Babies' nasal passages are tiny, so they get congested easily. And because tots haven't yet learned how to blow their nose, sneezing helps to clear the goop. What's more, infants breathe mainly through their nose, and irritants such as dust, smoke, and perfumes can trigger sneezing. Once your baby begins breathing through both his mouth and nose (after the first few months of life), sneezing should decrease. Until then, saline drops and suction bulbs can help.

CALL THE DOC
If your baby always seems congested, or if he's having difficulty eating or breathing, have him checked for a viral infection. Nasal irritation from acid reflux can also cause respiratory symptoms like sneezing, so see about a screening.

Contrary to popular belief, not all babies smell perpetually "baby fresh," as Philadelphia mom Kiyana Butler learned while playing "This Little Piggy" with her then 1-month-old daughter, Sundiata. "As I sang the 'wee wee wee' part, I brushed her toes across my nose and discovered funky feet!" It happens. Sweat, dirt, or milk trapped in warm spots or in a baby's many rolls can get pungent. "Remember to clean in the neck creases where formula, breast milk, or spit-up can hide, as well as in all the nooks and crannies of the thigh and diaper area," says Jennifer Trachtenberg, M.D., author of The Smart Parent's Guide to Getting Your Kids Through Checkups, Illnesses, and Accidents. In an older baby, food tucked in a nostril or ear may cause odor. But even if she's clean, what your child eats can affect her odor. So, if your toddler had asparagus, don't be surprised if her body and urine emit the evidence!

CALL THE DOC
Strong-smelling urine may mean a urinary tract infection; vaginal odor could be caused by a bacterial infection; and if poop smells especially foul, your tot could have an intestinal infection or disorder, or celiac disease. If her breath smells fruity (and she hasn't had fruit to eat), it can signal dehydration, diabetes, or that she's not eating well.

Jessica Hamilton, of Houston, was surprised when she first changed her daughter, Da'Tayvia. "Her vaginal area was puffed up like a balloon," says the mom of three. Before they left the hospital, she asked the doctor twice if something was wrong. Nope. Mom's hormones are still circulating through Baby's body in the first days, and this can cause swelling in boys' testicles, girls' labia, and breast tissue in both sexes. Genital puffiness subsides in a few days, and enlarged breasts shrink within a couple of months as maternal hormones in the body decrease, says Ramzan Shahid, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola University, in Maywood, Illinois.

CALL THE DOC
If your baby's breasts look red or tender or if genital swelling doesn't go down in a few days, it could be a sign of infection.

The first time Conor broke into a wide grin while sleeping, his mom, Leslie Lauten, of Los Angeles, was delighted. Since then, the 2-month-old's sleep has been filled with silly faces and grimaces. Is he having an intense dream? Unlikely. "Babies' immature nervous systems can cause twitches, jerks, and expressions while sleeping," Dr. Shahid says. By 6 months, most infants give up the grinning, so capture the funny faces with your camera now!

CALL THE DOC
If your baby has trouble breathing, or if his face or body twitches uncontrollably, he could be having a seizure. Get emergency assistance immediately.

While on vacation, Jody Kilpatrick noticed a spot of blood in her 7-month-old daughter's diaper. "Shauni had been straining to have a bowel movement," recalls the mom from Bechtelsville, Pennsylvania, "so I suspected it was related, but still, the sight of blood was scary." A call to the pediatrician eased her mind. Tiny cuts in the rectal area due to constipation and straining can leave blood in the diaper or even stool, Dr. Shahid says. Also, during the first few days of life, many girls will have some vaginal bleeding as the mother's hormones leave their body.

CALL THE DOC
A large amount of blood in your baby's diaper, a fever, severe pain, and watery, bloody stool could signal serious intestinal problems. Loose, bloody stools, along with skin rashes, vomiting, and a refusal to eat, may be signs of a milk-protein allergy, so check in with your M.D.

When Khalil Hymore and his husband adopted their weeks-old daughter Norah, her eyes made them worry. "Her eyeballs would drift in opposite directions for no apparent reason," Hymore says. The New York City couple tore through a stack of baby books, only to find that crossed or wandering eyes were common in babies this age. But why? A newborn's eyesight is weak, and she doesn't yet have the muscle control required to focus, Dr. Shahid says. Usually by 4 months, babies' eyes are able to zero in on your face and other points of interest without wandering.

CALL THE DOC
Be sure to see your pediatrician if your baby is continuing to cross his eyes after 6 months. Strabismus (crossed eyes) occurs when the eyes aren't aligning properly.

Originally published in the July 2011 issue of American Baby magazine.

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