Curious Parents

These (Mostly) Normal Baby Behaviors Terrify First-Time Parents

First-time parents are traumatized by the prospect of merely keeping a new baby alive, which may explain why pediatricians don't warn most new moms and dads about everything that can happen with their kid. The fact many new parents belatedly learn is that there are certain baby and toddler behaviors that are typical, if terrifying. Here are the chilling tales of disconcerting baby behaviors and what's behind them.

Seeing Things That Aren't There

Many parents report their children describing hallucinations with eerie certainty and not in a playful "imaginary friend" way. Once, Lisa Waldron, a mother of two in the Chicago suburbs, saw her two-year-old daughter point next to Waldron and ask, "Who's that?' When I said 'What?' she answered, 'That person dancing right next to you,'" says Waldron. "They articulate it in a way that raises the hair on the back of your neck."

One UK study found that almost two-thirds of children reported having one or more "psychotic-like experiences" in their lives, which includes unshiftable and unrealistic beliefs and fears. However, according to Jennifer Shu, MD, FAAP, a pediatrician in Atlanta and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, most spooky hallucinations are just the sign of an active imagination, no matter how "'real' it can seem. It's sometimes hard for kids to separate fact and fiction and to communicate their thoughts. They may not be seeing something but remembering something they saw or heard about or read about," she says. (Parents whose kids report only auditory hallucinations, or ones that instruct them to do things, might want to be concerned, advises Vamshi Rao, assistant professor of pediatric neurology at Northwestern University.)

Night Terrors

The difference between a nightmare and a night terror is that night terrors are more, well, terrifying, for parents if not for kids. "There are subtle differences," says Dr. Rao. "In nightmares, kids may get up, scream, they open their eyes, they can recall what the nightmare was. In a night terror, the kid seems to wake up. They are screaming, they are frightened, you hold them, they don't respond to you. It's almost like they're stuck in their own world."

Then? "They go back to sleep, they wake up, they have no recollection," says Rao. Greg Sainsbury is a Toronto father of two whose son experienced night terrors when he was feverish. Referring to the way his son spoke gibberish, he said, "it was the rare thing that I felt better after Googling — the alternative being that I had a possessed demon child."

Why do they happen? "We don't know," says Rao. All we do know, he says, is that "It doesn't cause anything bad. It doesn't signal anything sinister."

Fever Seizures

The day Kelly McNees saw her 2.5-year-old daughter have a seizure was, as she says, the "worst day of my parenting life so far." The pair was watching TV while her daughter was sick with a fever when, McNees says, "I felt her body stiffen next to me and looked over to see that her jaw was clenched and the skin around her mouth and chin was turning blue. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she started to shake all over and continue to clamp her jaw." This resulted in a call to 911, a visit from a team of firemen who explained what a febrile seizure was, and then an ambulance trip to the emergency room filled with trauma victims.

After all that? " It was completely nothing," says McNees. Febrile seizures like her daughter's are fairly common in young children. "The theory why children do that is that the children's brains are constantly developing. Their electrical activity is almost on steroids, they're constantly going because their brain is changing," says Rao. He says that a child's brain's electrical activity usually operates at a certain threshold, but fever can reset the threshold. "When your threshold falls, you tip over and have a seizure," he explains.

Breath-Holding Spells

Once, in a somersaulting mishap, I accidentally lightly (emphasis mine) kicked my two-year-old son in the head. Instead of crying like I thought he would, his eyes rolled back in his head and he went limp. I was convinced I had damaged his brain stem. After our own trip to the emergency room, the situation was deemed a breath holding spell.

"They literally hold their breath, but it looks like the child is frozen and about to pass out or have a seizure," says Dr. Rao. "Most of the inciting phenomenon is some sort of stress, a stimulus that is pain, or fear, or getting mad, or sometimes distress." There are two kinds of breath-holding spells: the pallid kind where the child turns pale or the cyanotic one, where the child turns blue.

Even though Rao says there doesn't seem to be a good explanation for why kids do this, he says worried parents should be reassured if a spell can be tied to a specific stimulus. (If not, parents may want to get an EKG or have their children's iron levels checked.)

A Flexible, See-Through Head

Many babies are born with cone-shaped heads. In order to fit through the vaginal canal during birth, infant skulls are made up of shifting, soft parts. Especially after a long vaginal delivery, a newborn's head looks pretty much like an alien. For the first few months of life, babies' heads start to assume a rounder shape. During that time, they feature a "soft spot" called the fontanelle, where the bones of the skull have yet to fuse together. Many a parent has been weirded out by seeing the fontanel throb as blood flows through the baby's head (again, like an alien) but it's perfectly normal — although a sunken fontanelle may be a sign of severe dehydration.

Something else parents often fret about is whether too much time on a baby's back can create a flat head – and it totally can. "Positional plagiocephaly" has been reported in more babies since the NIH began recommending a "back is best" philosophy to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Not to worry: "Flat heads are purely cosmetic in general," Dr. Shu says. If parents feel pressured to choose between a round head and safe sleep, they should choose the latter every time. "The head starts becoming more round as they spend more time upright," says Dr. Shu. "There are ways to fix a head, so worst comes to worst there are helmets that are available to help mold the head quickly."

Head Banging

Some babies rock themselves to sleep, others literally bang their head — hard — against their mattress until they fall asleep. This can be a tricky one for new parents to Google because it's a short wormhole into armchair diagnoses of autism or psychosis.

"It's a self-soothing phenomenon," explains Dr. Rao. If it makes parents feel better, he says parents can try to interrupt the head banging just to see that they, at least momentarily, can do so (which they wouldn't be able to do with a seizure.) "They're in a sort of loop that is voluntary, and you can physically actually stop it," says Rao. Most babies grow out of headbanging by age 3 or so, although mine is still doing it at age 5 (and doing just fine.)

Written by Claire Zulkey April 26, 2018