Happy? Sad? Chatty? Mad?


Ever wish your baby came with an instruction manual? No doubt it would help, since trying to figure out his wants and needs is never straightforward.

“One of the toughest challenges for new parents is to learn to decipher their infant’s cues,” says Katherine L. Rosenblum, PhD, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. “Sometimes you can figure out what he’s trying to tell you right away; other times you completely miss the mark. And that’s okay as long as you keep trying.”

To help you get a handle on what’s going on in your baby’s brain, we asked experts about four situations that parents most often misread.


Your 3-week-old flashes you a smile.

You think: My baby loves me!

What’s actually going on: While those toothless grins can melt your heart, they don’t mean much at this stage. In fact, before 6 weeks, those sweet smiles most likely result from a pleasant sensation (like a light massage) — or they could just be a release of pent-up energy.

“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 at you,” says Ari Brown, MD, coauthor of Baby 411: Clear Answers and Smart Advice for Your Baby’s First Year (Windsor Peak Press, $12.95).

Even then, a baby doesn’t discriminate — she’ll smile at everyone. At around 4 months, she develops what experts call “selective social smiling,” which means that your baby reserves her biggest grins for her parents and anyone else with whom she’s formed a close relationship.

Your 2-month-old won’t stop crying.

You think: He’s not tired, he’s not wet, he’s not hungry. Something must be terribly 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, lights that are too bright or music that’s overly loud can lead to nonstop wailing.

Another possible cause of your baby’s tears: overstimulation. If you’re playing with your baby and he starts to look away, turns his head to the side or breaks eye contact, chances are he needs a little downtime. Stop playing and let him rest in your arms.

“Infants are like runaway trains: Once they start crying, they can’t put the brakes on their emotions,” says Linda Acredolo, PhD, coauthor of Baby Hearts: A Guide to Giving Your Child an Emotional Head Start (Bantam Books, $14). “That’s why you need to let them recharge before they get too worked up.”

At 3-4 Months, Expect Baby’s First Laugh

At around 3 or 4 months, your baby will do something amazing: He’ll laugh. Whether it’s a lighthearted giggle or a full-blown guffaw, you should take great pleasure in this happy emotion.

“Your child’s first laugh means he’s started to develop a sense of humor,” says Dr. Acredolo. “This is a huge emotional milestone. It signifies that your baby is happy and feels secure.”

In the beginning, touch is most likely to bring about laughter, so try lightly tickling your baby — especially at the end of songs and rhymes.

As your baby gets older, he’ll be able to tell when you’re actually trying to be funny, whether it’s by making wacky faces, blowing raspberries or playing games like peekaboo.

Feeling silly doing this stuff? Don’t! “Sharing a sense of humor with your baby is key to a healthy bond,” says Dr. Acredolo. “After all, babies fall in love not just with the people who feed and change them, but also with the people who make them laugh.”

Your 6-month-old babbles up a storm.

You think: She’s trying to tell me something.

What’s actually going on: Babbling is just that: babble. “Babies play with their vocal cords 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 make a range of sounds and tries out a variety of intonations that mimic adult conversation,” explains Dr. Brown.

When she’s closer to a year old, her mature language skills will kick in and she’ll be able to associate words with objects. And even though her early chatter isn’t code for “Give me more milk,” it’s still an important part of language development.

“Answer your baby’s babble, and encourage her to keep making sounds,” says Dr. Brown.
“You’re laying the groundwork for healthy verbal give-and-take as your child gets older.”

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

You think: He doesn’t like what I’m feeding him.

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), your meal is probably fine. Your baby is just curious and exploring. “Babies throw things to see what happens to them,” explains Dr. Brown. “It’s that simple.”

Some parents misread this action, along with the throw-toys-out-of-the-crib game, as testing limits. But that’s not it. “Babies throw because it’s fun, not because they’re being manipulative,” says Dr. Acredolo.

If you need a break from the flinging, try filling a tissue box with old washcloths and hankies, then let your baby pull and throw to his heart’s delight.

Beth Kanter is a freelance writer.

What Does Your Baby Feel, and When?

Emotion Contentment Embarassment Anxiety Anger
Do Babies Feel It? Definitely! No Yes Yes, after
6 to 12 months
What’s the Deal? Starting almost from birth, an infant can feel all warm and fuzzy inside thanks to a full tummy, a clean diaper and a loving snuggle. Considered a “social emotion,” it’s a complex feeling that
requires self-under – standing kids aren’t capable of until 18 to 24 months. (Ditto shame and guilt.)
Separation anxiety is a healthy sign of your child’s connection to you. It usually peaks twice, first between 6 and 9 months, and again between 12 and 18 months. If your 4-month-old scowls, she’s just frustrated. Her brain isn’t developed enough to feel and display anger. The telltale signs: narrowed eyes, a clenched jaw and plenty of trying.



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