Newborn babies will look at their parents right after birth, but their eyes can’t do more than “fix” on objects for a few weeks. Between 1 and 2 months of age, babies will begin to follow objects during quiet, alert periods. It’s important to realize that this is still a difficult task. There are six muscles that control each eye, and they must work in unison for a baby to follow an object through space.
The best way to get your baby to follow is to put your smiling face 12 to 18 inches in front of her face. Then, move your head slowly in one direction or the other. Most babies will be able to follow you for an arc of about 30 to 45 degrees. After that, their eyes may stop or wander a bit.
Have you ever watched a TV show where someone who’s having a heart attack grabs his left arm or shoulder? Have you ever had a stabbing pain in your forehead or the bridge of your nose after eating ice cream too quickly? With a heart attack, the source of the pain is in the person’s chest. With a brain freeze, the source of the pain is in the roof of your mouth.
Referred pain occurs because the body’s sensory nerves occasionally send signals in the wrong direction. The following examples commonly occur in children:
- When children complain of mouth, cheek or tooth pain, they sometimes have an ear infection.
- When children complain of ear pain, they sometimes have a throat or lymph node infection in their neck.
- When children complain of knee pain, they sometimes have a problem in their hip or testicle.
- When children complain of low back pain, they sometimes have constipation.
- When children complain of stomach pain in the middle of the night, they sometimes have a pinworm infection.
For over 20 years, pediatricians in the United States have recommended that infants sleep on their backs. One of the questions that parents frequently ask is what they should do if their baby starts rolling over before 6 months of age.
Although babies occasionally roll over in the first few months, determined rolling isn’t learned until 4 months or later. If a baby rolls over at night, most doctors (this one included) don’t recommend putting the baby on her back again. This reason for this is simple. If you turn the baby on her back, she will invariably roll to her stomach again. If you do this repeatedly throughout the night, no one will get a good night’s sleep, which could lead to other dangers, i.e., car accidents.
So while I would still recommend putting your baby to sleep on her back, I would leave her alone if she rolls to her stomach.
When parents think about developmental stages in their children, the ones that come to mind are major milestones like smiling, crawling and talking, etc. Despite the obvious importance of these landmarks, I am queried on a regular basis about a handful of “lesser” behaviors children exhibit.
- Hand regard. Babies usually discover their hands by two months of age. This can happen in three ways. First, the baby purposefully sticks his hands or fingers in his mouth to suck on them. Second, the baby starts swatting at things. Third, the baby stares at a fisted hand held in front of his face. The last behavior is called hand regard. Parents may mistake hand regard for a seizure. If your child’s hand jerks rhythmically with this behavior, call your doctor. Otherwise relax and enjoy your baby’s new discovery.
- Developmental drooling. Humans have two types of salivary glands. There are tiny ones in the cheeks and floor of the mouth that function from the time of birth. The parotid glands, which produce large amounts of saliva required for swallowing solid foods, don’t mature until a baby is about 3 to 4 months of age. This corresponds to the baby’s ability to chew and stick his hands in his mouth with ease. Parents often conclude that a drooling 4-month-old is teething. In reality, it’s due to the maturation of the parotid glands.
- The fencing reflex. If you have a 2 to 3 month old, you may have noticed that he sometimes looks like he’s “fencing” when he’s lying on his back with his head turned to one side. The reflex consists of one arm extended and the other flexed as though the baby was getting ready to lunge at his opponent. The medical term for this posture is the asymmetric tonic neck reflex. It disappears by 6 months of age.
- The 6-month cough. Around six months of age, babies get more control over their vocalizations. In addition to babbling and guttural sounds, they often cough on purpose. You can recognize this cough because it is “throaty” rather than coming from deep within the chest. In addition, the child won’t have a runny nose or fever, and she will be acting completely normally except for the cough. The behavior lasts for a month or so, and then the baby moves on to other interests.
- Ear grabbing. I often joke with parents that when babies are first born, they consist of a stomach and a mouth. The stomach demands to be fed and the mouth is equipped with a sucking reflex to make this happen. This is an exaggeration, of course, because babies hear, see and respond to touch. They can even distinguish their mom from other women in the first few days of life. Despite these amazing skills, a newborn has little to no control over her arms and legs and doesn’t have a clue that she has a nose or other body parts. By 6 months, babies are very good at exploring their bodies. Hands and feet go to their mouths, and they often play with their bellybuttons. At 8 or 9 months, babies discover that they have ears. As a result, parents will often see their babies pulling and poking at their ears. This often makes parents wonder if the child has an ear infection. If your child doesn’t have a cold and isn’t fussy, there’s a very good chance that her ear tugging is body exploration rather than a sign of an ear infection.
When children come down with respiratory illnesses, they make lots of noises. The words parents use to describe these noises don’t always agree with how the doctors use the terms. Here’s the lowdown on the noises kids make when they have a cold or the flu.
- Congestion. This occurs with a stuffy nose and sinuses. When a child is congested, he will sound nasal because less air is passing through his nostrils when he talks. Which nostril is clogged varies throughout the day.
- Postnasal drip. If a child has a cold, mucus not only drips out of his nose, but some will also drip down the back of his throat. This can make his voice hoarse or raspy.
- Garbled voice. If a child has enlarged tonsils, he will often sound like he has “marbles” in the back of his throat.
- Chest rattle. Babies and young children don’t do a good job clearing mucus from their nose and throats when they have a cold. As a result, they often produce a rattle-like sound when they breathe. Parents not only hear this noise coming from the baby’s throat, but they may also feel it in the baby’s chest when he’s being held. A chest rattle is not usually a sign of pneumonia.
- Dry cough. This refers to a cough that has a rough, staccato quality.
- Wet cough. This refers to a cough that has a moist quality. It usually happens if a child has postnasal drip or bronchitis. Contrary to what many people believe, bronchitis in children is usually a viral disease and does not require antibiotics.
- Croupy cough. If a child has croup, his trachea becomes swollen below the vocal cords. This creates a hoarse voice and a barky, seal-like cough.
- Stridor. This sound is made during inspiration. It’s a brassy sound associated with a sense of difficulty getting air into the lungs. This is most commonly heard in children with croup: they “bark” when they cough and have stridor when they breathe in.
- Whoop. A classic whoop is heard with pertussis (whooping cough). The whoop is dramatic and occurs after a child has had a prolonged coughing fit. Nowadays, pertussis is more likely to be seen in older children or adolescents rather than babies or toddlers. An older child is more likely to “gasp” than whoop when he takes a breath after a prolonged coughing spell.
- Wheezing. This sound is made primarily during expiration. It’s a medium to high-pitched noise that sounds like the word. It is produced when a child’s bronchial tubes are tight (asthma) or narrowed with mucus (bronchitis, asthma). If a wheezing child is having respiratory distress (difficulty breathing), you may notice certain things when he breathes in: (1) his nostrils flare and (2) the spaces between his ribs pull in (“retract”).
When parents call me about rashes, I often hear that a child has “hives.” In most cases, parents use this term incorrectly. The question is, does that matter?
The factors that cause most rashes in children are environmental (insect bites, heat rash, allergic reactions) or infectious (viruses, bacterial, fungal). Hives are usually caused by viruses, but they can also occur with strep and allergic reactions to foods. (If you suspect that your child has hives because of an allergic reaction to a food, you should give him Benadryl and call the doctor right away. If your child also has coughing or trouble breathing, you should call 911 in case he’s having an anaphylactic reaction.)
The thing that distinguishes hives from other rashes is the margin between the normal skin and the rash. Most of the rashes children get consist of flat areas with or without a scale and small, raised bumps. (Doctors call flat rashes macules, bumps papules and hives wheals.) Papules come in different sizes, but they have one thing in common. The region between normal skin and the lesion rises slowly like a hill. With wheals (hives), the region between normal skin and the lesion rises more sharply, like a plateau. If you’ve ever seen a welt, the raised area at the edge is more characteristic of a wheal than a papule.
Most children contract hand, foot and mouth syndrome before kindergarten. The infection is usually caused by a member of the Coxsackie virus family. It typically presents with fever, sore throat and small blisters on the palms and soles. Some strains of the virus also cause a red bumpy rash on the body. The treatment is the same as it is for most viral infections: rest, fluids and fever control.
When I see kids with hand, foot and mouth syndrome, parents usually ask two questions. (1) How long is the child contagious? (2) When can she go back to daycare or school? The answer to the first question surprises parents. They’re contagious for 2 to 3 weeks after they get sick. The answer to the second question surprises them even more. Kids can return to school as soon as they feel better. What? How can doctors send kids back to school when they’re still contagious? The rationale for this is simple. Up to 20% of children with hand, foot and mouth syndrome are asymptomatic. This means they contracted the virus and are spreading it to others even though they’re not sick themselves. That fact, combined with the long contagious period, means keeping kids home will have no impact on the spread of the disease. That’s why we send them back when they feel better.