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Reality Check: Frustrated Baby

Q. As he tries to master new things, my 9-month-old gets frustrated. He cries when he can't reach a toy, get cereal in his mouth, or stay up when he's trying to stand. Should I help him, or let him struggle on his own?

A. When my daughter Madeline was about your baby's age, she spent a month or two crawling backward when she meant to crawl forward. She'd let out a pitiful cry every time the object of her desire, just up ahead, got farther away with each crawling effort. It was agonizing to watch, and it seemed like a slightly twisted lesson from a kung fu master ("So you see, little grasshopper, the more you desire something, the farther from it you will be").

But according to a kung fu master of the pediatric world, T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., author of Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development, these are necessary developmental growing pains for both parent and child. "Parents need to give their children the chance to stretch themselves, to try something difficult, to feel frustration. This gives them a sense of 'I did it -- I did it myself.'" When you step in to help or even encourage your son, the resulting triumph isn't his alone because he has to share it with you.

So on those days when you know your baby is falling apart from frustration -- either because he's missed his nap or because one too many defeats has made him stop trying -- then go ahead and help him out. But as long as you've already shown him how to do something, it's usually fine to sit on your hands and watch as he works it out in his own way, at his own speed. When he grows up and gets frustrated by problems that his Mommy and Daddy really can't fix, he'll know that he can.

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor in chief of BabyTalk magazine.