Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reader Question: Why Does My Older Baby Hate Her Highchair?

Recently, we received the following questions from a reader:

My 11 month old won't sit in her highchair anymore. She just screams until I let her sit in my lap. Ideas?

It sounds like this mother has a very smart baby who may be trying to "tell" her mother that she wants to be near her while she eats. This baby also may have had a negative experience that she associates with the highchair. Whichever of these is the case, this baby has created a "script" in her mind of what to expect when she is put into the highchair based on her prior experience.

Babies use "scripts" to help them make sense of the world around them. Just as newborns get so excited when they can "predict" when their parents will smile or tickle their tummies, older babies feel happy and secure when they can predict what will happen during more complex activities like mealtime or bath time.

It's possible that this 11-month-old wants her mother to hold her while she eats, and she has learned that when she screams, her mother will pick her up. In the baby's mind, she creates the following script: sit in highchair - scream - mom picks me up - I'm happy. Mealtime is an important time to practice social skills and most babies want to be close to their family members while they eat. Sitting very close to the baby during meals might help. Perhaps this mother has put her baby in the high chair before everyone is ready to sit down to eat and she is confused and overstimulated by all the activity around her. Watching for baby's cues will help. Offering family meals at regular times during the day and keeping them pleasant is important. Perhaps waiting to put the baby in the highchair or having someone sit close to her while she waits will help. As she gets older and new mealtime routines get established, she'll be much more content in the highchair.

On the other hand, if the baby has had a negative experience in the highchair, she may continue to associate the highchair with that bad experience. She may have sat in the highchair and accidentally been pinched by the tray one time, and now every time she gets in the highchair she believes she may be pinched again. There may have been a time when a loud noise or something else had frightened her when she was in the highchair and now, she is frightened every time she gets into the highchair.

There is a solution though! Parents can create a new "script" for their babies by consistently creating a positive experience in the highchair. One way to do this is to let the baby play with a very special toy only when in the highchair. This positive association will build a new script in the baby's mind: Sit in highchair - get to play with special toy - I'm happy. Or her parents might sit close to her for a few minutes for some special one-on-one time or a game right after she is put in the chair. Changing babies' negative scripts takes time and patience. The key is not to go back to the old script while making the new activity as pleasant as possible. Parents may need to reassure and calm their babies with repetitive sounds and a soft touch. Fortunately, most babies will respond fairly quickly when parents are consistent and calm.

Other highchair hints:
  • Is the highchair comfortable now that your baby is growing? It may need some adjustment. For toddlers, parents must consider if their babies have outgrown the highchair. There are booster seats with safety straps, or you can remove the tray and push her right up to the table with the rest of the family (as long as the child may be securely strapped into the chair without the tray). Be sure to pay attention to the guidelines that come along with the various chairs and seats.

  • How much time does your baby spend in the highchair? Her body is learning new skills (like pulling up to stand) and the drive to practice is strong at this age. I can remember my very active daughter at this age being able to sit in the highchair for maybe 5-10 minutes at a meal. I would have the meal all plated up, put her in the seat, and put the food down. Sometimes she ate quickly, sometimes she would eat only a few bites, then she would start playing which meant she was done.

  • This too shall pass. As babies get older, they are able to sit independently in highchairs for longer periods of time. In my family, we didn't always use a highchair. I have fond memories (and pictures) of my (now, almost 3-year old) daughter sitting on her Daddy's lap sharing his dinner. Then she would switch to my lap and have some of mine. Today, she sits in a big girl chair at the table without a problem. Though she still likes to eat off our plates...after she's finished what's on hers.

Next time: More Readers' Questions

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