Everybody jokes that they wish their baby came with an instruction manual. It's often tough for new parents to learn to decipher their infant's cues. "If you miss the mark on what he's trying to tell you, that's okay," says Katherine L. Rosenblum, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. "Just keep trying." To help you crack your baby's code, we asked experts about four situations that parents most often misread.
You think: My baby loves me!
What's actually going on: Before 6 weeks those grins most likely result from a pleasant physical sensation -- or they could just be an energy release. "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 advisor Ari Brown, M.D., coauthor of Baby 411. Even then, a baby will smile at anyone. At around 4 months, she develops what's called "selective social smiling," which means that she reserves her biggest grins for her favorite people (like you!).
You think: There's a problem.
What's actually going on: You guessed it; your little one's feeling distressed about something. For a tiny baby, an annoyance as small as a scratchy tag on his shirt can lead to nonstop wailing. Your baby may also be suffering from overstimulation. If you're playing with him and he starts to look away, turns his head to the side, or breaks eye contact, he may need a little downtime, so just let him rest in your arms. "Once an infant starts crying, he can't put the brakes on his emotions," says Linda Acredolo, Ph.D., coauthor of Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start. "You need to let him recharge before he gets too worked up."
You think: She's talking to me.
What's actually going on: Babies play with their vocal cords. There are two areas of the brain that control language: One is primitive and the other is 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 Dr. 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. Even though her early chatter isn't code for "Give me more milk," it's still important for language development. "Respond to your baby's babbling, and encourage her to keep making sounds to set the stage for verbal give-and-take," says Dr. Brown.
You think: He hates my cooking.
What's actually going on: 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 being curious. "Babies throw things to see what happens to them," explains Dr. Brown. If you need a break from the flinging, fill a tissue box with washcloths; then let your baby pull and throw to his heart's delight.
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of Parents magazine.