9 baffling baby behaviours—and what they mean

Gagging? Fake coughing? We've decoded your tot's trying tricks. Here's how to understand and deal with your baby's behaviour.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Aw, look at baby! She’s adorable. Watch her clap her hands, smile and coo. Wait, what’s that she’s doing now? Shoving her fist down her throat—and triggering her gag reflex? Huh? That can’t be good!

While we delight in many of our baby’s behaviours, there are others that can leave parents perplexed and even panicky. Fortunately, most of the time they are a normal part of healthy development. Here’s a look at some baffling baby behaviour — and strategies for handling it:

1. Gag me
Most babies stumble on this parlour trick by accident, but win adult attention when they do it. That’s usually enough to hold their interest for a few more attempts. Babies are learning cause and effect, and they delight in any event they can control. Eventually most infants will decide they don’t particularly like the sensation of gagging on their own fingers, and will stop — especially if parents tone down their reactions.

That said, talk to your baby’s doctor if it happens constantly, especially during mealtime. And, of course, vomiting without an obvious cause should be checked out.

2. Hear me roar
When eight-month-old Logan let out a piercing shriek from the back seat of the car, his father thought he’d run over a yipping puppy. His mom, Alison Slack of Guelph, Ont., says Logan often screams in the car and will only stop for the rhythms of Raffi. “He’ll see how loud he can get before we’ll say anything,” says Slack. If a child looks you in the eye or breaks into a grin, that’s a sure sign the screaming is not a health symptom, says Mark Feldman, a Toronto paediatrician. But if this baby behaviour comes out of the blue and doesn’t seem to be a bid for centre stage or a response to a reprimand, consult a physician.

3. Fake coughing
Babies who dry-cough for attention will usually cut it out after a few days, especially if mom and dad ignore it. Longer-term “habit coughing” is uncommon in babies, so if a dry cough persists, have your child checked out. It could be a sign of mild asthma. Of course, always consult a doctor for a short-term cough if your baby is showing other indications of illness.

4. Taking it off
Sometimes your baby is much more interested in honing his fine-motor skills than keeping his head covered. Kathy Archer, an early childhood studies instructor who teaches infant care at Nova Scotia Community College, notes that hats and shoes can feel restrictive to the baby who is actively exploring his environment. Whenever he pulls off his footwear, gently replace them and tell him he needs them to protect his feet. Archer also points out that parents tend to pull hats down over their babies’ eyes to shield them from the sun — so she suggests trying infant sunglasses instead. If a hat isn’t blocking the view, baby is less likely to yank it off.

5. Ear pulling
When parents see ear tugging, they worry an infection is brewing. It’s too bad baby can’t talk; he might tell you that the new shampoo you bought has left an itchy residue. Babies also pull on their ears when they’re exploring — and, of course, anything that elicits a reaction from mom or dad is worth repeating a few more times. Feldman cites four red flags that indicate this baby behaviour may warrant medical attention: Call the doctor when this baby behaviour is accompanied by a fever, signs of pain, ear discharge or a cold virus.

6. Crying myself sick
It can be unsettling when your baby spews her cereal in the middle of a meltdown. That was the experience of Tonya Bishop, who put in a panicky call to the paediatrician when it started happening to her infant daughter, Talys. “If she gets mad, she’ll scream and scream and scream, and then she’ll vomit,” says the Saskatoon mom. It’s usually not as bad as it looks, however. Hard crying can stimulate the gag reflex, and some babies are simply more sensitive to it than others. If the crying seems to have no trigger, and your baby is unusually irritable, call the doctor to rule out certain gastrointestinal conditions. But if baby has a clean bill of health, just wipe her down.

7. Headbanging
Babies who bang their heads, rock or flap their hands can send parents into a panic. “Certainly kids with autism are more likely to head-bang,” says Feldman, “but we also see this in 100-percent ‘normal’ children.” Headbanging often occurs right before sleep; the rhythmic motion can be soothing. Most of the time, it’s normal. Your infant should be assessed by a health care professional if, along with the headbanging, he isn’t making eye contact or playing age-appropriate social games like peekaboo. Otherwise, this behaviour can be safely ignored.

8. Hurting the ones I love
“I have war wounds all over my breasts,” complains Slack. Around 7½ months of age, Logan started scratching at her skin while he nursed. Other babies have been known to take a nip or two at the nipple. It’s not necessarily on purpose: Archer points out that babies aren’t always sure where to park their new pearlies while they nurse, and they may also bite down when they smile or need to ease sore gums. Scratching can be a self-soothing behaviour. “There’s nothing wrong with taking the child’s hand and holding it and saying, ‘Please don’t do that; it hurts Mommy,’” says Archer. Even an “ouch!” will do. But watch your tone: You don’t want to sound harsh, but if your voice is too light, it will seem like a game. Whatever you do, curb this baby behaviour quickly, since it can cut the breastfeeding relationship short.

9. Bye anxiety
Believe it or not, you should be pleased when your six-month-old starts wailing without warning as she’s passed over to Uncle Paul. This sudden baby behaviour shift is actually a good sign. “Your child is starting to spread her wings a little bit,” says Archer. “It’s also the sign of a very good bond between parent and child.” Your baby is now old enough to understand it’s a wide, wide world, but young enough to believe that when Mom is gone, she ceases to exist. “That can be alarming to an infant,” says Archer. To make your baby feel more secure, keep your drop-off routine consistent: Pass her off to the same daycare teacher daily, remind baby you’ll be back after nap time, give her a kiss and leave the room. The pattern will help your baby predict what’s going to happen…including Mommy’s safe return.

This article was originally published in 2006.

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