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Interpreting baby body language

  • Story Highlights
  • When babies kick their legs, it could mean excitement or a call for attention
  • Arching of the back indicates the baby is irritated or in pain
  • Rubbing the eyes could mean that the baby wants to play peekaboo
  • Stretching of the arm suggests the baby is in a good mood
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By Melody Warnick
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Kicking Her Legs

It could mean: She's having a swell time. When your baby spies something amazing -- like water pouring from the bathtub spout -- leg banging is her way of saying "Wow!"

When a baby puts their hands over the eyes, it could mean he or she is feeling playful or tired.

How to respond: Share her enthusiasm: Kicking her legs helps her develop the muscles she needs to crawl. So if the neighbor's dog gets your baby kicking, arrange a puppy playdate. Along with any body language, experts say to always watch your baby's face: That'll help you sort out what she's thinking.

Or it could mean: She wants a little face time. Your baby probably figured out that banging her legs against the crib mattress not only makes a pleasingly loud thump, it also often attracts her favorite person: you.

How to respond: Set her on your lap and sing "The Wheels on the Bus." Kicking perfectly accompanies the up-and-down rhythm of the song, and she's in the right position to get plenty of one-on-one time with Mom or Dad.

Turning His Face Away

It could mean: He needs a minute to process what's going on. "Babies are often trying to make sense of what they're seeing," says Paul C. Holinger, M.D., author of What Babies Say Before They Can Talk. "Looking away can mean 'Let me swallow this first before you give me another bite.'"

How to respond: Let him check out his surroundings on his own schedule, even if he only wants to peek periodically at his reflection in the mirror or his new toy. When he turns away for good, move on.

Or it could mean: You've invaded his personal space. "Babies can get annoyed if you enter their space bubble, just like adults can," says David Burnham, M.D., a pediatrician and medical director of HealthEast Maplewood Clinic, in Minnesota.

How to respond: Give him room to chill. Sure, you love fawning over him, but it's fine if he'd rather stare at the wall. So give patty-cake a rest and let your baby play on the floor by himself for 20 minutes. (Hey, it's downtime for you, too!)

Rubbing or Covering Her Eyes

It could mean: She's trying to lure you into a game of peekaboo. Babies pick up on how that game works pretty quickly, and even 8- or 9-month-olds can initiate it themselves. Boost your baby's self-esteem

How to respond: Throw a thin blanket over your baby's head and see if she can pull it off -- to your enthusiastic cries of "peekaboo!" Once she gets the hang of it, hide under the blanket yourself; she'll try to pull it off your head.

Or it could mean: She's ready to hit the sack. Just like adults, babies rub their eyes when they're exhausted.

How to respond: If she's yawning or snuggling with a favorite lovey, of course, put her down for a nap. You might even shorten your normal wind-down routine, reading a shorter book, for instance, or skipping your rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" so she can get right to sleep. 5 baby sleep strategies

Twirling His Hair

It could mean: Your baby knows how to make himself feel better. "Repetitive movement gives excess energy a place to go," says David Finn, director of special education and CEO of the Children's Learning Center at Samford University, in Birmingham, Alabama. "It slows down a baby's central nervous system."

How to respond: Let him twirl. It's one of those self-soothing behaviors that might look a little odd to outsiders, but it's not one you need to deter unless he's actually pulling out his hair (or if the hair he's twirling is yours -- ouch!). If so, then see if he'll find stroking a small silky scarf or a soft-haired doll just as relaxing.

Or it could mean: He's nervous about something around him, like a new babysitter or a noisy playgroup.

How to respond: Soothe him yourself, or give him a blanket or soft toy to stroke if he doesn't already have a lovey. You can also coo something like "This is so much, I know. It's exhausting to see so many new faces." He won't understand your words, but your soothing tone of voice will help, according to Lauren Zimet, a speech-language pathologist and director of Early Insights, a parent consulting firm in Atlanta.

Arching Her Back

It could mean: She's upset. If she's screaming or fussing, too, it's pretty hard to mistake. Translation: "I'm really worked up, and I need your help to calm down." Soothing a crying baby

How to respond: Soothe her the best you can. Because back arching is sometimes the grand finale of a series of subtler cues, like turning away or rubbing her eyes, it may take longer than normal to calm your baby down, so work in some extra rocking or shushing. If your attempts to calm her only aggravate her more, make sure she's not hungry, wet, or in pain, then set her gently in her crib and let her fuss herself to sleep.

Or it could mean: She's hurting. If your baby often arches her back and fusses during or right after her feedings, it could indicate reflux, a painful condition in which stomach acid flows back up into the esophagus.

How to respond: Have her checked by your pediatrician, even if she doesn't spit up. If reflux does turn out to be the diagnosis, your doctor can prescribe a medicine to neutralize the acid and make your baby more comfortable.

Stretching Out His Arms

It could mean: He's in a good mood. Outstretched arms with open hands and fingers usually indicate that your baby is relaxed and ready to check out what's going on around him. Again, watch his facial expressions.

How to respond: Run an errand! In these moments, your baby may find driving and shopping more intriguing than aggravating, reducing the chance of an in-store meltdown. Make the most of your baby's upbeat mood: Grab his favorite toy and hit the road!

Or it could mean: He's a newbie at sitting up. The arms-out position helps novice sitters and cruisers keep their balance.

How to respond: Offer a hand if he needs it; otherwise, let him build the abdominal muscles required to sit up tall. If you surround him with a mini-throne of pillows, his wobbling won't lead to head bonks.

Tugging Her Ears

It could mean: She's overwhelmed or in distress. "Grabbing her ears can be a sign that something is too much for your baby -- the milk is too hot, she has too much gas, she needs to burp," says Finn.

How to respond: Follow your standard soothing drill, but if burping and changing don't calm her, try closing the blinds, moving to a different room, or turning off the TV. Sanity-saving baby soothers

Or it could mean: She's in pain. "Ear pulling can be a sign of discomfort in any part of a kid's body," says Dr. Burnham. "It doesn't have to be an ear infection; it could be a sore throat or nasal congestion instead."

How to respond: Check for other signs she's uncomfortable: Is she stuffed up? Extra crabby? If so, have your pediatrician take a look. Child health guide

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