6 Weird Things Babies Do and Why

Whether it's touching themselves "down there" or producing never-ending fake coughs, understand your little ones' most peculiar habits.

baby eating banana
Photo: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock

To clarify, we're not just talking about your baby—really, it's all of them. Cute as they are, they're quirky, too. They've got immature nervous systems, zero life experience, brains that are still developing and, let's face it, not a whole lot of social awareness. Add all that up, and it's no surprise they do things that make no sense to us.

So what kind of head-scratchers will you be dealing with? These six often pop up sometime in the first year or so of a baby's life. Now you'll be a lot less worried when your pride and joy lets his tiny little freak flag fly.

He's having an, um, touching experience

It's time for a diaper change, so you do what you usually do and take off his diaper. Except this time, your baby doesn't just lie there like he usually does; instead, his hands wander south, and stay there. Oh. My. Goodness. Is he copping a feel?

Yes and no. "It's very common to see babies start playing with their genitals around the five-to-seven-month mark," says DeAnn Davies, the director of child development at Scottsdale Healthcare, in Arizona. "It means something very different to them than it does to you, I promise!" Babies are driven to touch themselves out of simple curiosity, she explains: "They're such eager learners and explorers at that age—anything they can get their hands on is fair game."

Including themselves. "If you think about it, your child is also playing a lot with his hands and feet, but it doesn't attract your attention the way it does when he touches his genitals," adds Peter Vishton, Ph.D., head researcher at the Child Development Research Center at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, VA, and creator of the DVD What Babies Can Do: An Activity-Based Guide to Infant Development. Your baby may spend more time on his equipment than on other places because it feels good.

If it makes you squeamish, provide a distraction: Hand your child a toy when his clothes are off so he has something different to focus on. Or else just go with the flow. "Accept that touching themselves is something kids do, and it's just another way of learning about their bodies," Davies says.

He's a bird? He's a plane?

Long, long ago, women didn't just drive to Walmart when the pantry was running low on canned tuna and Kix. They were nomads, wandering to wherever the eatin' was good. Harsh! And, as you can imagine, BabyBjörns were kind of scarce then, too. Wee ones traveled in their mothers' arms, and a fall could be fatal. Yeah, harsh again.

Babies adapted by developing a defensive strategy against getting dropped—at least, that's how experts think an automatic behavior called the Moro reflex came to be. Whenever your infant has the sensation—rightly or wrongly—that he's falling or if he's startled, he may fling his arms out to either side, as though he were trying to fly. "If someone had lost her grip on a baby, it helped him literally hang on for dear life, and bought Mom a few seconds to catch him," says Davies.

While it's startling to see the Moro in action, it's actually a sign that your little one's nervous system is developing properly. Still, "it's stressful on the infant," says Vishton. "His breathing and heart rates will go up." And so will yours; you're guaranteed to feel guilty every time you accidentally set off his body alarm. But don't worry—the reflex usually subsides by about 3 months.

He's taken a stand

Around 10 months of age, your baby will hit a cool milestone: He'll grab on to a piece of furniture and pull himself up onto his feet. Which is all fine and good, except that he may not be able to figure out how to sit again! Lowering your butt back down takes practice and coordination. So get ready: "You may be awakened at night by a crying baby who's stranded upright, holding on to the side of his crib," Davies says.

It's okay to offer a helping hand, but don't rush to sweep him off his feet altogether. "Sitting is a skill he needs to learn for himself," Vishton explains. The chances he'll hurt himself are small, since babies have those cushy tushies (and diapers) for padding. During the day, put him next to a safe surface to pull up on (like the edge of a sturdy sofa), and put down a pillow. Soon he'll be sitting pretty.

She's all shook up

One minute, your baby's lying there calmly. The next, she's trembling the way you did when you got your nursery-furniture bill. What's going on?

That's a nervous-system blip, says Davies. "Neurologically, babies are just not very good at regulating their movement at first, and you may see a little jerkiness. It's just part of the maturation process," she explains.

Of course, check her hands to see if she feels cold. While you might shiver a little when you catch a chill, a newborn can quiver much harder, says Vishton. "Babies are born relatively thin, since they have to fit in their mothers' bodies," he explains. Your little one simply doesn't have much padding to help her regulate her body temperature. And she can't do the things you do when a breeze passes, like fold her arms across her chest or grab a sweatshirt. That's where trembling comes in handy: When muscles tense and relax rapidly, it generates heat. Give her an extra layer of clothing and see if it helps.

If your child trembles often, and cries along with it, that's worth a call to your pediatrician. But the occasional shiver? find something else to stress about (now where did that paci go?).

She's developing a coughy habit

You're just doing your own thing around the house when suddenly you hear your baby start hacking. You rush to see what's wrong, and the answer is: nothing. In fact, she's grinning naughtily as she loudly, and theatrically, coughs again, then waits for your reaction. She's a faker! A cute faker, but a faker! Should you keep a poker face, even though it's pretty darn funny?

Go ahead and laugh. She's too young to understand the story of the boy who cried wolf, and besides, her behavior is charming proof that she's growing more socially aware.

"Around six months, when the fake coughing first begins, babies are really starting to get how the world works," says Vishton. "Your child has noticed that when someone coughs, you're very solicitous, so she's doing it to get some attention." Give her the interaction she's craving—smile and even fake-cough back. "There's no harm," says Vishton. "It's just hilarious."

He's having a junior moment

Last week you cheered as your baby finally shook a rattle or rolled across the floor. Now you hand him his Wiggly Giggler and he just holds it with a "What do you want from my life?" look in his eyes, or lies sunny-side up without flipping onto his tummy. (Naturally, this occurs when you've gathered the in-laws to check out his new trick.) How could it have slipped his mind?

The same way you forget things you thought you knew, like how to program the DVR, says Vishton. "Sometimes, even after we've successfully performed a task several times, we have an incomplete memory of how we accomplished it," he explains. And a DVR to you is what a rattle is to your child. "Kids forget to do things that seem so simple to us because they're actually complex to them," he says.

Another possibility: A new setting—say, Grandma's house instead of yours—has made him a little disoriented. Or it isn't that your child has forgotten a new ability, it's just been back-burnered. "Sometimes it's a good thing when it seems like your child abruptly stopped doing something he's learned, even if he didn't learn it so long ago—it means he's moving on," Davies says.

And so will you—to wondering how the first puzzling but precious year blew by so fast.

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