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Baby Steps: Tantrum Time?

Q. We just got home from a weeklong trip with our 9-month-old son. The next day he started throwing temper tantrums. He has started hitting his chest and screaming if he doesn't get something right away. Yesterday, for example, he was acting really tired so I put him in his crib for a nap. About 5 minutes later, he started hitting himself, which left a bruise on his chest. This was our first long trip together as a family, but I tried to keep our routine consistent by doing the same things we do at home. What did I do wrong?

A. It's hard to say why your son has started having tantrums, but it's unlikely that your trip caused it. It is quite possible that the timing of the end of the trip and the beginning of the tantrums is just a coincidence.

It could be that the change of place -- the different smells and sounds -- made your son more anxious than he would have been otherwise, but this isn't something you need to feel guilty about, since you couldn't have predicted it and you kept his routine as consistent as you could. Besides, it's better to teach our children to cope with challenges and changes than to avoid them altogether. Better to focus on what to do to help your child in the future rather than worrying about what you might have done to "cause" his behavior. (Of course, if you happen to notice a relationship between, say, long car trips and tantrums, you might want to find ways to adjust your plans to minimize everyone's misery, but don't agonize over what's already done.)

The three most important things to remember about screaming and temper tantrums are 1) they are normal and all babies and toddlers will have them from time to time, 2) you need to keep your baby safe, and 3) you need to keep yourself calm. I have found that knowing that tantrums are normal helps me to keep calm, and keeping calm is essential. If you get upset too, you are frightening your baby and, worse, teaching him nothing about how to manage his emotions. Think of yourself as his container -- you need to help him learn how to hold it together, and at the start, that means you holding it together for him. Talk to him in a calm, soothing voice. Even if he doesn't understand your words, he'll understand your tone. If you can hold him, go ahead; otherwise, sit on a floor where he can't hurt himself and rub his back.

Your son screams when he doesn't get things right away because he has no understanding of time and little reason to believe that another way might work. You can help him by modeling other methods for him, and, believe it or not, by responding to his requests. For example, if your son is sitting in his high chair and screams for the spoon he just dropped, you can say in your calmest, most even voice, "You dropped your spoon? You want me to get it? Here it is. Here is your spoon." The talking will distract him and your tone of voice will let him know that help is on its way. Soon he'll learn that he does not have to scream to get what he needs.

Right now it is very frustrating for your baby to have so few tools for conveying his wishes, but this frustration will decrease in the next few months as he begins to learn the words associated with getting his needs met. It's not unusual for babies and toddlers to hit themselves sometimes. Often this has a self-soothing purpose, not unlike rocking or head-banging, and if it doesn't continue into the preschool years and doesn't regularly cause injury, it is not a problem. (Of course, if it causes you concern, you should check with your pediatrician.) You needn't be alarmed that he left a bruise once or twice -- your little Tarzan just doesn't know his own strength!

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