Food jags and temper tantrums

Why babies do what they do

By Jacqueline Kovacs
Food jags and temper tantrums

Remember when you first found out you were pregnant? You probably pictured nestling your tiny newborn close to your heart, seeing him take his first shaky steps, maybe hearing mama or dada. But did you also picture your arms aching from holding your wailing baby as you walk him for hours on end? Or watching him ping peas against the wall instead of putting them in his mouth? Or hearing him declare No! every time you ask him to come get ready for bed? Probably not.

Yet all of that baby and toddler behaviour — from the kind that melts your heart to the kind that makes you scratch your head — is normal. In fact, some of your child’s more trying traits are actually good signs of healthy development. Here’s a sampling of common behaviour challenges from babies on up to three-year-olds — along with some insight from the pros on how to handle them.

Crying and crying and crying

Birth to 6 months Everyone knows that babies cry. It’s the only way they have of letting their caregivers know that something is amiss — whether it’s hunger, a soiled diaper, an upset stomach or just needing to be held and cuddled. Most new parents expect to contend with some crying. But how much is considered excessive?

“It’s really variable,” says Danielle Grenier, medical affairs officer with the Canadian Paediatric Society. “Some babies are sleepier than others and don’t cry as much. We do see babies who will cry for three hours in a row — especially in the evenings. They’re upset and nothing seems to comfort them. It’s so hard for parents!”

What can a parent do? First, run through your checklist of possibilities: Is your baby hungry, wet, uncomfortable, overtired? If your baby seems physically fine but fussy, try to stay calm and comfort him the best way you can — hold him in your arms or in a sling or carrier that keeps him close to your body. Or try taking him out in a stroller; many babies find the motion soothing and settle down to sleep.

Whatever technique you try, know what your own limits are. If you feel you are getting angry or overly frustrated with your baby, put him gently in a secure place and get support from your partner or a trusted friend or relative.


Birth to 6 months By now, most parents have heard that the old four-hour feeding schedule touted by previous generations is something of a myth and, in any case, was associated with formula-fed babies. Breastmilk is more easily digested, meaning that a baby’s tiny tummy needs filling more frequently. Still, some new mothers feel as if they spend their day half-undressed, latching their babies on practically every hour. What’s going on? Does it mean there’s a problem with either the quality or quantity of mom’s milk?

Probably not. But there may be a problem with the latch. “A baby that’s not well latched on to the breast will not get milk very effectively,” confirms Teresa Pitman, executive director of La Leche League Canada. “And the latch doesn’t have to be very wrong for it to be less effective. So you end up with a baby who either nurses for very long periods of time or nurses frequently for short periods of time.” If you feel like you’re constantly nursing and your baby is never satisfied, it’s worth getting a lactation consultant to check your latch.

If, however, your baby is gaining weight well and producing plenty of wet diapers, and you still feel like you’re feeding him all the time, Grenier suggests that you may be using food to soothe your infant when something else might work. “I get worried when I see a tired mom who is feeding her baby every hour for half an hour,” says Grenier. She suggests that if your baby has been recently fed, try some other kind of soothing. Most full-term babies, Grenier says, can go 2½ to three hours between feedings, though they may cluster nursing sessions closer together in the evening.

But Guelph, Ont., midwife Karin Terpsa disagrees, saying that eight to 12 nursing sessions a day is average and that a baby will stay at the breast anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes. “It really depends on the baby,” she states. Bear in mind too that babies get more than milk out of nursing — they also get comfort and security.

Another factor that affects frequency is a baby’s appetite spurts: A baby will nurse more often to bump up mom’s milk supply. When a mother frets that she’s not producing enough and then supplements with formula, she sabotages this process in that her body won’t respond to the increased suckling from her baby.


Both Terpsa and Grenier agree, though, that things start to change once a baby is regularly eating solid food towards the one-year mark.

6 to 12 months It used to be such a relief — you could hand your baby over to Grandma and have a little break. Now your nine-month-old bursts into gut-wrenching sobs when you try to hand him over to someone else. What has changed?

“This is completely normal,” says Grenier. “At eight to nine months, we start to see full-blown separation anxiety. Your child can look at a face and realize he hasn’t seen it very often.” This is part of a child figuring out that he is a separate person from his parents.

“Separation anxiety is a very important perceptual and cognitive change,” says Claire B. Kopp, a developmental psychologist and author of Baby Steps: A Guide to Your Child’s Social, Physical, Mental and Emotional Development in the First Two Years. “But it’s disturbing to parents.”

Kopp explains that older babies have improved visual and cognitive abilities, which makes them better able to define features of people’s faces. And this development leads to more wariness around people they are less familiar with — even Grandma.


“Don’t scold your baby for getting upset,” says Kopp. “Recognize that this is a developmental milestone. Your baby needs to be soothed — not pushed to strangers.” Grenier suggests that any sitters come and visit you and your baby a couple of times before you leave the two of them alone together. Another tip: When your baby wakes up, start talking so that he hears your voice before he sees you. That will help him start to understand that just because mom or dad is out of sight, it doesn’t mean they’re gone for good.

6 to 12 months You’ve run through your bag of nighttime tricks — rocking, singing, rubbing your baby’s back. Why does your 11-month-old keep popping up in her crib?

Blame her newfound mobility. Whether she’s crawling, cruising or full-on walking, your baby finds it hard to stop practising her new largemotor skills. “Learning to be mobile is one of the most empowering things that babies do,” agrees Kopp. “It provides a sense of mastery that they’ve never known before.”

But that mastery can turn to misery for parents whose baby wants to do laps around her crib at bedtime. “Try to make the transition from daytime activity to settling down at night a bit easier,” advises Kopp. “Start with a quiet time before bed. Have a routine that includes reading stories or rocking to help soothe your baby. And if she wants to get up in her crib, go to her and calm her back down.” Eventually, says Kopp, your baby will get the message and settle down to sleep.

12 to 24 months Wasn’t it great when your toddler figured out how to get his own toys out of the toy box? Too bad that soon afterwards he also figured out how to get into your CDs, DVDs, purse, cupboards — you name it. What’s with this incessant need to open, dump and investigate everything, over and over again?


“Learning to walk on their own is associated with a tremendous urge to explore,” says Kopp. “They want to get up and see what’s around them.” And even though your little guy may leave a lot of clutter in his wake, he’s not merely making messes — he’s learning about his everyday world, from the way the house is laid out to where stuff is kept. The trick is to give your toddler the freedom to explore while keeping him safe. “Toddlers have great motor skills,” reminds Kopp, “but their cognitive ability does not match.”

The solution? Babyproof everything — cover outlets, put locks on closets and cabinets, tuck away lamp cords, move or remove furniture with sharp edges, etc. “Mostly parents should be removing everything that’s not to be touched or is potentially a danger,” says Kopp. A good way to do this is to get down to your child’s height and tour your home, looking for things that are in his visual range. In the end, it’ll save you and your child a lot of frustration about household rules.

12 to 24 months You stocked up on bananas because, for the last three days, your 20-month-old has been happily gobbling up that fruit at lunch, asking for it at snack time — even pointing it out in your fruit bowl. But today when you present her with her beloved banana, she pushes her little plate away and says, “No!” When you leave it for her, she mushes her hands in it and then flicks little bits to the floor. Not a morsel makes it to her mouth.

Before you go bananas, rest assured that this is typical toddler behaviour. “When children reach 16 months or so, they begin to sense that they have a mind of their own,” explains Kopp. “Part of expressing that comes out as rejecting food or clothing choices. It’s really a sign that the child is getting conscious of herself as an individual person.”

But celebrating that cognitive milestone likely isn’t foremost in your mind when you’re wiping food off the floor. So how do you manage your child’s behaviour without crushing her burgeoning sense of self?


“Introduce a rule,” suggests Kopp. “You tell her, ‘We do not throw food. If you throw food, I’ll take it away.’” And be sure to follow through so your child understands. You can also take steps to minimize food fights: Offer your child a variety of foods so she can choose what she likes; invest in plastic ware to diminish dish disasters; put just a few pieces of a food on your child’s plate so she doesn’t feel overwhelmed with her portion and to keep potential food-flinging ammo low.

24 to 36 months You’ve done the bath, the stories, the cuddles. Now you’ve closed his bedroom door and figure your two-year-old should drift happily off to dreamland. So why does he keep coming out, claiming he’s scared of the dark? Lights out has never been a problem before.

That’s because a figurative light has clicked on in your child’s brain. Fears — whether they’re focused on the dark, insects, dogs, bathtubs or monsters in the closet — represent a major cognitive advance, says Kopp. “Children become more aware of the world, and you’ll see even more of this after age three.” They realize that people can get hurt and may also worry about those closest to them — like parents or siblings.

The best antidote to a young child’s fears is reassurance. “Don’t force them to deal with things they’re not ready to deal with,” Kopp advises. So avoid exposing your child to scary movies or shows, and talk about what’s real and not real so that he can begin to understand the difference between fantasy and reality. And if it’s the dark your child dreads, simply investing in a night light might do the trick.


24 to 36 months Who hasn’t heard the ex-pression “Daddy’s girl”? Apparently your two-year-old daughter. Time was when your little girl would happily be with either of her parents. Not anymore. Now, whether it’s giving her a sippy cup, tying her shoes, reading her stories or putting her to bed, only Mommy will do. So what’s to be done?

“Accept it and forget,” says Kopp, laughing. “It’s just a passing fancy.” It’s also part of your child learning to express her opinion and have a say and some control in her life.

It can also be related to the routines in your child’s life. If she’s used to having one parent providing most of her care, then switching parents upsets her sense of a secure, predictable pattern and, naturally, she’ll object. But that doesn’t mean the other parent should simply back off. Instead, explain to your child what’s going on (“Mommy had to leave early, so Daddy is going to get your breakfast this morning”) and invite her to tell you how she likes things done. If she gets upset, acknowledge her feelings, but don’t lose your cool or feel insulted. That will just make the situation worse.

Besides, Kopp adds, if parents do make a big deal out of their child’s preferred choice of caregivers, that child will note the reaction and attention it gets him and it may prolong the problem. Advises Kopp: “Absolutely ignore it — if you can.”

People tend to associate tantrums with the so-called terrible twos. But is that really a fair assessment? After all, many people have seen seemingly inconsolable infants, red-faced and wailing — not to mention foot-stomping, door-slamming preteens.


Whatever the age, a tantrum results from much more stress, frustration and upset than your child can control at that moment — like a lid blowing off a boiling pot. And while that can happen at any age, California developmental psychologist Claire Kopp points to a study done on crying in young children as an indicator of peak tantrum ages.

The study, which looked at children 13 to 30 months, found an increase in crying at 16 months and 18 months, with a peak at 21 months. From there, it gradually declined. Why are nearly two-year-olds more prone to meltdowns?

“We don’t realize how stressful all of these newfound abilities are for the child herself,” says Kopp. “It’s constant change for a toddler — it’s all good change, but it’s quite rapid. So much happens in the second year of life and everything demands a certain amount of energy. A child just gets fatigued.” On top of that, Kopp points out, most children’s ability to understand words far exceeds their ability to speak them — an imbalance that leads to still more frustration.

With that in mind, when your child is in the throes of a tantrum, try to stay calm and do whatever it takes to soothe your child. If all your attempts fail — and you feel your own tantrum coming on — put your child somewhere safe to calm down and take a breather yourself. “Remember,” says Kopp, “tantrums can be mortifying, but they happen to all of us.”

This article was originally published on Apr 03, 2007

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