Decode Your Baby's Body Language

Just because she can't talk doesn't mean your little one doesn't have important things she wants to tell you.

baby behavior
Photo: Sarah Kehoe

I'm a celebrity-magazine junkie, so I consider myself an expert when it comes to reading the body language of all those A-listers. I know that Angelina's tug on Brad's muscular shoulder is her way of telling the world that he's taken. And it's obvious to me that when J. Lo tilts her head

about 60 degrees while judging American Idol, that contestant is so not making it to the big time.

But when it comes to interpreting my own 3-month-old's body language, my skills aren't quite so sharp. Despite the fact that Addy is my third child, I'm often hopeless at reading her hiccups, head bobs, and odd hand positions. Yesterday, for example, I assumed that her intense sucking on her fists meant that she was hungry, so I fed her until she spit up all over her shirt and mine.

Tuning in to your child's gestures is crucial, especially before she can speak. "Baby behavior definitely conveys messages that tell you what your child needs," says J. Kevin Nugent, Ph.D., director of the Brazelton Institute, in Boston, and author of Your Baby Is Speaking to You. "Being able to read and respond will make your baby happier, as well as help you learn a lot about her personality and temperament." For the parents (like me) who get lost in translation, infant pros offer insight into interpreting some common baby moves. Use these tips to understand your own little VIP.

Communication Clue: Arching Back

A toddler may make this move as an act of rebellion, but when infants unleash the arch, it may be a reaction to pain. In that case, heartburn is the most likely culprit, says Parents advisor Ari Brown, M.D., and the author of Baby 411.

Your move

If your baby arches his back in the middle of feeding and he cries or spits up excessively, it could be a sign of reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GER D), a condition in which the backward flow of acid from the stomach irritates the esophagus. "As the stomach acid comes up into the esophagus in the middle of the chest, a baby will arch her back to try to relieve the discomfort," Dr. Brown explains. If it doesn't seem related to feeding, it might mean that he's frustrated and could use some comforting.

Communication Clue: Constant Kicking

You might have a future soccer player or Rockette, but what's behind the kiddie kick line right now? It depends on how she's acting otherwise. "If she seems happy and smiley, it's probably a sign that she wants to play," says Claire McCarthy, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School at Children's Hospital Boston. But if she's fussy or crying, it's likely an indication that something's bothering her.

Your move"It could be anything from gas to a dirty diaper to a cramped car seat, so do a quick once-over to see what might be bugging her," says Dr. McCarthy. However, some babies kick their legs simply because they can.

Communication Clue: Head-Banging

Seeing your 10-month-old using his head like a drumstick to methodically bang it on the hardwood floor or against the bars of his crib is alarming. But a lot of little ones do this routinely without appearing to cause themselves any pain. But, ouch, why? "Babies find the rhythmic back-and-forth motion soothing," says Catherine Nelson, M.D., a pediatrician at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California.

Your move

Don't completely ignore it. "If your baby bangs his head for long periods of time instead of engaging with others or playing with his toys, then you should bring it to your pediatrician's attention at a checkup," says Dr. Brown. Bear in mind, most kids give up this behavior by age 3.

Communication Clue: Grabbing Ears

Don't immediately assume that tugging equals an ear infection "Many parents jump to that conclusion, but most of the time your baby has just realized that she has ears," says Dr. Nelson. Indeed, research has shown that the children who had ear-pulling as their only symptom were not diagnosed with an ear infection. (The symptoms that you should watch for include fever, stuffy nose, and trouble sleeping at night.)

Your move

Cheer her on for locating this body part, but keep your eye on it. "Sometimes babies will pull on their ears when they're teething, particularly when the 1-year molars are coming in," says Dr. Brown. If that seems to be the case, bring on the frozen teething ring to help make her more comfortable.

Communication Clue: Clenched Fist

Does your baby seem ready to rumble? "Most newborns hold their hands in this position at rest," says Dr. Brown. Your infant isn't able to do much more yet, because finger and hand movement requires a more developed nervous system and more complex brain function. Babies usually start to open up their hands by 8 weeks and begin reaching and grabbing by 3 to 4 months. But clenched fists may sometimes be a sign of stress or even hunger, says S. Michelle Long, a certified baby nurse in New York City. "I find that when babies are very hungry they tense up all over."

Your move

If your child's tendency to clench his fists persists after 3 months, check with his doctor.

Communication Clue: Scrunched-Up Knees

No, your kid is not doing an ab workout. "This position is usually a sign of abdominal discomfort, either from having gas, passing a bowel movement, or being constipated," says Dr. Nelson. Not to give TMI, but your baby is most likely doing exactly what you do behind the closed door of the bathroom.

Your move

Try to ease the ouch. If gas seems to be the issue, make sure you burp your baby throughout a feeding. If you're breastfeeding, check your own diet for common gas culprits such as broccoli or beans. If you think constipation is a problem (which can occur when babies transition from breast milk to formula or when they start solids around 6 months), check with your pediatrician. She might suggest giving your baby 2 to 4 ounces of water per day or having her drink a bit of prune juice diluted with water.

Communication Clue: Arm Jerks

Here's the scene: My drowsy-yet-still-awake little one is perfectly primed for naptime. As I lower her gently into the crib, her arms flail out to the sides, startling her so she's wide-eyed -- and wide awake. Grrrr. "This is a typical reflex for newborns," says Dr. McCarthy. In fact, it even has a scientific name: the Moro reflex, which causes an infant to suddenly throw his arms out to the sides and then quickly bring them back toward the middle of the body whenever he has been startled by a noise, bright light, or sudden movement.

Your move

This reflex, which usually disappears after 3 or 4 months, is often a response to a sudden loss of support, often when an infant feels like he's falling, says Dr. Nelson. It's normal, but you can avoid the startle-to-wake reflex by swaddling him for naps and bedtime.

Originally published in the January 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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