6 Weird Baby Behaviors Explained

Whether it's touching their genitals or producing never-ending fake coughs, here's your guide to understanding your little one's most peculiar habits.

baby eating banana
Photo: Alena Ozerova/Shutterstock

Cute as they are, babies can be quirky, too. They've got immature nervous systems, zero life experience, brains that are still developing, and, let's face it, not a lot of social awareness. Add all that up, and it's no surprise they do things that make no sense to adults.

So what kind of head-scratchers might you encounter? Read on to learn about six weird baby behaviors that pop up sometime in a baby's first year.

Touching Their Genitals

It's time for a diaper change, so you do what you usually do and take off your baby's diaper. Except this time, your baby doesn't just lie there; their hands wander south and stay there. What's going on? Are they copping a feel?

Yes and no. "It's very common to see babies start playing with their genitals around the 5 to 7 month mark," says DeAnn Davies, the director of child development at Honor Health (formerly 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."

Their natural curiosity includes themselves and their various body parts. "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, Virginia. Your baby may spend more time on their genitals than on other places simply because it feels good.

It's important to remember that genitals are just body parts like everything else, so avoid reactions that might induce shame. Instead, adopt a body-neutral approach. For example, if your little one reaches down during a diaper change, hand them a toy so they have something different to occupy their attention. 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.

Flailing Their Arms When Startled

Long ago, before the modern conveniences of BabyBjörns and bouncy seats, wee ones spent a lot of time in their parent's arms—from which a fall could be fatal. So, babies adapted by developing a defensive strategy against getting dropped. At least, that's how some experts think an automatic behavior called the Moro reflex came to be.

Whenever your infant has the sensation that they're falling or if they're startled, they may fling their arms out to either side as though they're 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 Dr. Vishton. "His breathing and heart rates will go up." But don't worry: The reflex usually subsides by about 3 months.

Standing but Unable to Sit Back Down

Around 10 months of age, your baby will hit a cool milestone: They'll grab onto a piece of furniture and pull themselves up onto their feet. Unfortunately, this exciting turn of events has a downside—they may be unable 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 OK to offer a helping hand, but don't rush to sweep them off their feet altogether. "Sitting is a skill he needs to learn for himself," Dr. Vishton explains. The chances they'll hurt themselves are small since babies have those cushy tushies (and diapers) for padding. During the day, put them next to a safe surface to pull up on (like the edge of a sturdy sofa) and put down a pillow. Soon they'll be sitting with confidence.

Getting the Shivers

One minute, your baby's lying there calmly. The next, they're trembling like 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 their hands to see if they feel cold. While you might shiver a little when you catch a chill, a newborn can quiver much harder, says Dr. Vishton. "Babies are born relatively thin since they have to fit in their mothers' bodies," he explains.

As a result, your newborn doesn't have much padding to help them regulate their body temperature. And they can't do the things you do when a breeze passes, like fold their arms across their chest or grab a sweatshirt. That's where trembling comes in handy: When muscles tense and relax rapidly, it generates heat. So, give them an extra layer of clothing and see if it helps.

If your child trembles often and it's accompanied by crying, that's worth a call to a health care provider. But the occasional shiver is usually not something to stress over.

Developing a Coughing Habit

You're just doing your own thing around the house when suddenly you hear your baby start hacking. Naturally, you rush to see what's wrong, and the answer is nothing. In fact, they're grinning mischievously as they loudly and theatrically cough again, then wait for your reaction. It turns out they're a faker! So, should you keep a poker face, even though it's pretty funny?

Go ahead and laugh. Babies are too young to understand the story of the boy who cried wolf, and besides, their behavior is charming proof that they're growing more socially aware.

"Around 6 months, when the fake coughing first begins, babies are really starting to get how the world works," says Dr. Vishton. "Your child has noticed that when someone coughs, you're very solicitous, so she's doing it to get some attention." So give them the interaction they're craving—smile and even fake-cough back. "There's no harm," says Dr. Vishton. "It's just hilarious."

Forgetting Their New Tricks

You may have cheered last week as your baby finally shook a rattle or rolled across the floor. So, why do they look at your quizzically when you hand them their Wiggly Giggler hoping they'll re-enact their new trick? How could it have slipped their mind?

The same way you forget things you thought you knew, like how to program the DVR, says Dr. 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 is that a new setting—say, Grandma's house instead of yours—could disorient them. Or it isn't that your child has forgotten a new ability; they just put it on the back-burner. "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.

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