We usually know what to expect from our babies and toddlers, but occasionally they do things that seem very strange and possibly abnormal to us. Most of the time these are normal behaviors and have no real consequences, but it is still important to recognize and address them.
Frequently, one of the first things parents notice with their newborn is that they seem to breathe in an irregular manner and sometimes seem to gasp for breath. This is a normal newborn breathing pattern as long as it just lasts for a few minutes. You certainly should be concerned if this pattern is persistent and does not soon stop.
Another common newborn behavior is straining with bowel movements. This usually occurs during the first month when the baby tries to have a bowel movement but does not relax the rectal muscles. They often become fussy, cry, and turn red in the face. This can be helped with gentle stimulation of the anal opening or gently slipping a cotton swab covered with petroleum jelly into the rectum.
Older babies will occasionally bang their head on the railing of the crib or some other object. It sometimes will be hard enough to leave bruises. Although it looks scary, it is usually not hard enough to cause any significant injury. This usually happens when they are trying to go to sleep and is a method of self-stimulation or self-comfort. This may last for a few months. It might be reduced by bathing and quiet reading or music before going to bed. Noise machines that produce soothing sounds may also be helpful.
Another similar activity is persistent rocking of the body. This is also a method of self-stimulation or self-comfort. It is a soothing feeling and has no significance in normal, healthy children. This activity can also occur in children with neurological disabilities which may require further investigation.
One of the most annoying and irritating behaviors is teeth grinding or bruxism. This occurs in up to 30% of children up to 5 years of age. Usually this behavior resolves spontaneously without intervention and without harm to the teeth. Occasionally it will be severe enough to cause jaw pain or dental problems. If these symptoms are significant, an evaluation by a pediatric dentist would be important. Teeth grinding may also be caused by a feeling of anxiety or stress. This might be relieved by relaxing activities before bedtime and talking with the child about how he feels and anything that may be upsetting to him.
Another behavior that is not usually mentioned and is very concerning to parents is self-stimulation of the genital area in young children. It is very common in the toddler and preschool ages and is considered to be normal behavior. Children at this age just know that it is an activity that feels good to them and does not necessarily have any sexual connotation for them. This usually involves rubbing themselves with their hands or on a soft toy or pillow. Sometimes ignoring certain childhood behaviors will discourage the behavior, but in this circumstance it is appropriate to correct the behavior immediately when it occurs in a public area. The child should be gently reminded that it is not appropriate behavior in front of others and to remove them to a private area as soon as possible. The child should not be shamed or punished or made to feel bad about it.
If you have concerns about these behaviors or other problems, do not hesitate to ask your pediatrician.