Your infant may be sending you mixed signals about what's on his mind.

happy baby
Credit: Cheyenne Ellis

Figuring out your baby's wants and needs is never straightforward. "One of the toughest challenges for new parents is to learn how to decipher their infant's cues," says Katherine L. Rosenblum, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. "Sometimes you'll miss the mark. And that's okay, as long as you keep trying." Experts decode four commonly misread situations.

Your 3-week-old flashes you a smile.

You think: My baby loves me!What's actually going on: Before 6 weeks, smiles most likely result from a pleasant sensation (like a massage) -- or they could just be a release of pent-up energy. "It isn't until 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 advisor Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Baby 411. Even then, your baby will smile at everyone. Around 4 months, she'll develop what experts call "selective social smiling," which means she'll save her biggest grins for those with whom she feels close.

Your 2-month-old won't stop crying.

You think: He's not tired, hungry, or wet. Something is 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 can make him wail. Or your baby could be overstimulated. If you're playing with him and he starts to look away, turns his head to the side, or breaks eye contact, he might need a break. "Infants are like a runaway train: Once they start crying, they can't put the brakes on their emotions," says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., 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 talking to me.What's actually going on: Babbling at this age is really just gibberish. "Babies play with their vocal cords just like they play with their fingers and toes," says Dr. 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 try out a range of sounds and intonations that mimic adult conversation, which is an important part of language development. "Answer your baby's babble and encourage her to keep making sounds," says Dr. Brown. "This lays the groundwork for healthy verbal give-and-take as she gets older."

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

You think: He doesn't like this food.What's actually going on: Maybe you're not the next Rachael Ray, but the meal is probably fine. Your baby is just being curious and tossing things to see what happens to them; it's that simple. Whether he's throwing food on the floor or toys out of his crib, that doesn't mean he's attempting to tell you something. "Babies throw because it's fun, not because they're trying to be manipulative," says Dr. Acredolo. If you need a break from the flinging of messy food or hard toys, give him some cotton balls or a box of tissues to pull and throw to his heart's delight.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Parents magazine.

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