Understanding Your Baby's Tantrums

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Parents of a new baby spend much of the first year of their child's life getting to know their moods. But right around their first birthday, many babies become more prone to tantrums, which can catch even the most attentive parent off guard.  

A baby who is content one minute can suddenly melt down the next, like a switch has been flipped. 

Although tantrums can be both startling and frustrating, they are a completely normal part of your child's development. At a year old, babies experience big feelings but don't yet have the words to express those feelings.

Something as little as a toy that's out of reach or a shirt that doesn't feel right can quickly lead to red faces, arched backs, ear–splitting wails, and kicking feet.

Learn why tantrums happen, how to respond when your child has one, and perhaps most importantly, how to prevent them.

Why Baby Tantrums Happen

When your baby launches into a tantrum, their immediate needs (real or perceived) are not being met, and they feel it acutely. Because most 1-year-olds cannot yet speak fluently and do not understand how to label their feelings, they use physical means to try and communicate big emotions.

When your baby has a tantrum, they are trying to tell you something. What they are saying might be:

I'm Afraid!

Babies can be startled or frightened by sudden noises, strange sights, or new people. They may also develop separation anxiety at this age and panic even when left with a familiar caregiver.

I'm Frustrated!

Frustration is at the root of many tantrums. It takes time for a young child to learn how to express themselves, and the disconnect between what they want and what they're trying to say is usually the point at which a tantrum begins.

Tantrums also often happen during transitions, such as getting in and out of a highchair or car seat, after playtime, and at mealtimes.  

I'm Overwhelmed!

Oftentimes babies who are overstimulated will act out. For instance, after a large family gathering or a party, your baby may be overwhelmed from too much noise, activity, and interaction. This can lead to a tantrum if you don't recognize the signs of overstimulation, which can include crankiness and crying.

I'm Uncomfortable!

During a tantrum, parenting expert Elizabeth Pantley recommends that parents first consider whether a tantrum is really a symptom of something else, like fatigue or hunger.

When a baby is uncomfortable, whether it's from a common cause such as being too hot, or something more serious like being sick or in pain, they will often try to communicate with their body.

Respond to a Baby Throwing a Tantrum

Of course, there's no foolproof method to ensure perfect behavior at all times, and you'll likely deal with a tantrum at some point, regardless of how hard you work to avoid it. Kids have an uncanny knack for throwing their loudest tantrums in a grocery store or a nice restaurant.

It is important for your baby to understand you care about their needs, so during these tantrums do your best to respond calmly while maintaining healthy behavior boundaries for your baby.

The more you react with anxiety, frustration, or anger, the more fuel you'll be heaping on the fire.

Take several deep breaths and speak to your child in a firm but soothing voice. Try to give them words for what they are feeling. For instance, you might say, "You feel sad because we're leaving the park."

Gentle touches can also help soothe your baby's temper. Remember at this age, your baby will likely need help to calm down. It isn't a skill that they have on their own just yet. Taking your baby into a quiet room (or outside), away from others, and singing softly while rubbing their back can head off a tantrum. 

Distraction is also an effective technique. For example, if your child is protesting being put into their car seat, try singing their favorite song or giving them a special toy that's only for car rides.

Another key thing to remember: Don't let an older baby or toddler use tantrums or unruly behavior to get what they want. Giving in and buying that toy to stop a crying fit will only reinforce this negative behavior.

If you think your baby's tantrums are prolonged and bordering on out-of-control, or it takes a long time to calm them down, you may want to discuss it with your pediatrician to rule out a larger health-related problem.

Prevent Baby Tantrums

The key to preventing tantrums is being mindful of your baby's needs and anticipating them as much as possible. This isn't easy, and if mom or dad is tired and frustrated as well, it's even harder.

A tried–and–true way to prevent tantrums caused by frustration is to keep your baby on a predictable routine. Wake–up time, breakfast time, nap time, bedtime, etc., should follow the same patterns as often as possible. This predictability gives small children a sense of security.

On days when you know the routine is going to deviate, try to plan accordingly. This may mean an extra reward for good behavior, or an impromptu nap if your baby is looking fussy. 

Additionally, your mindset can help influence how you react. Have appropriate expectations for your baby's development. Be patient with your baby when they are in a new situation or with new people. Work with your child as they are learning new skills, remembering that frustration is often part of the process.

Be sure to give yourself a break, too. Many parents, especially first-time parents, blame themselves or think it's their fault when their baby throws a tantrum.

A Word From Verywell

Tantrums are a normal stage of every baby's development, and they don't last forever (although sometimes they seem never–ending). By responding with empathy and showing your baby you care about their needs, you'll weather the tantrum years just fine.

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