Q: My 9-month-old loves to throw food on the floor. He tosses it, then he looks at me, then he giggles. It's cute for a while but then it's really annoying. How can you start to set limits with a baby this young?
A: The “Food Fling” game is quite common. Nine-month-olds are driven to learn how the world around them works. When your son is throwing his apple slices off the high chair tray, he is figuring out: Where does the apple go? Does it always fall on the floor? Can I make it come back? What sound does it make? What happens to it after it falls—does it bounce, splat, or squash?
At 9 months, you set limits by stopping unacceptable behavior and offering other ways for your child to explore that are acceptable. The less emotional and more matter-of-fact you are when you set the limit, the more likely the behavior will stop. The more intense your reaction—positive or negative—the more rewarding it is for your child and the more likely he will continue the behavior. So avoid raising your voice or getting into a battle about it. And, although it’s tempting, try not to laugh or smile or give your child signals that you enjoy the game. This can be confusing to him.
When your baby starts to throw food, keep your expression neutral (no smile, no frown) and say, No throwing. If he continues tossing food, simply take it off the tray and say (again, matter of factly and without anger), I guess you are all done. Then take him out of the high chair and offer him objects he can drop or throw (such as a foam ball) in a place that is acceptable to you—such as in a playroom or outside.
If you do this consistently, he will put two and two together and learn that food throwing in the high chair means the food goes away. (If you are concerned that he hasn’t eaten enough, offer a healthy snack soon after. If he’s hungry, he’ll eat.) By reacting in this way, you are teaching your child very important life lessons: how to cope with disappointment when he can’t always get his way, and how to find acceptable means for getting his needs met.