8 Sometimes Frustrating Phases of Baby Development

Learn what's behind some of the more frustrating but common phases of babyhood plus smart tips to help you get through them.

Babyhood is full of amazing moments, like your child's first gummy smile, first bite of food, and first time rolling over. However, in between those adorable milestones are plenty of challenging ones, like the 3 a.m. wake-ups, the tears when you hand them to someone else, and the cascade of objects they hurl from the high chair. Learn what's behind eight common first-year stages—and smart tricks to help your child get over them faster.

Dropping Stuff Over and Over

When infants drop something out of sight, they assume that it's gone. But then, around 8 to 12 months, they realize that things exist even if they can't see them. This concept is known as object permanence.

You'll know object permanence has kicked in when your child looks down to see what they've dropped from the high chair. "It's a game for your baby, and it teaches [them] about cause and effect—'I drop it, you pick it up,'?" says Tovah Klein, Ph.D., director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development in New York City.

Although it's tiresome to constantly pick up utensils, toys, and basically everything else they can drop all day, humor your child for a while. "[They'll] feel empowered every time you respond," says Dr. Klein. Feel free to end the meal once your baby knocks over their bowl of mushy carrots. Fortunately, the novelty of falling sippy cups will wear off by around 15 months.

If constantly picking up dropped stuff is driving you bonkers, you can try some of these tricks:

  • Create a play space where it's OK for your baby to drop things all day long.
  • Babyproof your house by removing any objects that your baby can reach.
  • Don't turn it into a game by retrieving the object.
baby with messy face
Alexandra Grablewski

Being Especially Messy at Mealtime

Around 7 to 9 months, you'll notice that mealtime is less about eating and more about the experience. Food will become a fascinating medium for your child to explore. Soggy Cheerios make an agreeable noise as they squish through those adorable little fingers, and sweet potatoes feel good on those chubby toddler cheeks.

Your child is also exerting some independence. "There's very little that babies can control, so when they play with food, they're examining it on their own terms," Dr. Klein says.

Not sure how to handle meals getting so messy? Try some of these tricks:

  • Undress your baby down to a diaper at mealtime so they don't stain their clothes.
  • Place a towel on the floor under your baby's high chair to help catch spills.
  • Lean into the experience and offer different textures, colors, and flavors to explore together.
  • Plan bath time for right after the messiest meal of the day.

Resist the urge to take away that spoon to avoid the mess. Your child needs to practice feeding themselves. By their second birthday, your baby's coordination should improve, and they may be more focused (and less silly) at mealtime. Still, don't be shocked if your kid remains a sloppy eater until kindergarten.

baby crying
Alexandra Grablewski

Screaming When Anyone New Holds Them

Around 7 months, your baby will likely discover stranger anxiety. Although they may once have been fine with being passed around at a family gathering, they're now keenly aware when they don't recognize the person reaching for them.

This awareness is why your baby may freak out when you hand them to a relative who doesn't visit regularly or even when you open the door for the UPS person. Perplexing? Sure. But the ability to distinguish between you and someone unfamiliar is a developmental leap forward.

If your baby cries when someone unfamiliar holds them, try helping them warm up to the idea first. A few small things you can try include:

  • Have your baby sit on your lap and face away from you.
  • Have others interact with your baby while you are still holding them.
  • Create an activity they can play with others while you are close by.
  • Try to see friends and family regularly to help your child get used to them.

Don't fret if your baby still cries when others try to hold them, it takes time to warm up to new things—even for adults! But if your baby does cry, resist the urge to immediately scoop them up.

Try to encourage the person and your baby to get involved in an activity together, suggests Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, an early-childhood-education group in Washington, D.C. "See if that will make [them] feel secure," she adds. 

Experiencing a Sleep Regression

Does this sound familiar? You spend months sleep training your child, and everything is going smoothly when suddenly, sometimes around your child's second birthday, they inexplicably start waking up at night. You might be dealing with sleep regression.

Kids will grow through many milestones throughout their childhood, and some of them can affect their Zzzs. A few common triggers for sleep regression include:

  • New milestones
  • Stress
  • Separation anxiety
  • Changes to routines
  • Asserting independence

Your baby could be about to hit a major milestone, such as standing or cruising, which has captured both their imagination and focus. "While [they're] channeling all [their] energy into this skill, [they] may regress in other areas, including sleeping," says Dr. Klein.

Comfort your child quickly, and then leave the room so they can fall back asleep on their own. The longer you stay, the more stimulated they'll get. Also, make sure you're following a healthy bedtime routine. Put your baby down for the night while they're still awake. Good sleeping habits should resume within a few weeks.

Playing Favorites

Your toddler realizes that both parents have distinct caregiving styles, and they're expressing their preference for one parent over the other. In most cases, kids will choose the parent with whom they spend the most time. But if your partner turns everything into a game or bends the rules more often, they may become your baby's go-to option.

Be patient if you're the one being rejected; your baby will likely switch back soon. Besides, forcing yourself on your child may cause them to resist even more. Instead, try to spend more time as a threesome. Gradually, the favored parent should pull back so the one who's feeling snubbed can get more involved. It's also a good idea to take turns doing feedings, baths, and the bedtime routine, so your child won't associate any of these with just one of you.

While it might feel frustrating for your child to not see you as their favorite, try to avoid turning the situation into sour grapes. Here are a few things to do while your child goes through this phase:

  • Don't make a big deal about it.
  • Don't let yourself feel bad about it.
  • Don't refuse to let the "favorite" parent do tasks you enjoy.
  • Don't talk badly about the other parent.

It might not be a fun phase, but at least it is a temporary one.

Refusing To Lie Still During Diaper Changes

Your baby is gaining greater control over their body. So instead of just lounging while you put on a diaper, they are busy testing those new kicking and turning skills.

And as adorable as those kicks may be, it sure isn't adorable when you're elbow deep in changing a dirty diaper. To help make changing time a little less chaotic, try a few of these tips:

  • Distract your baby with an object like a book or small toy.
  • Sing or use silly voices to grab their attention.
  • Change your baby on the floor where there is more space.

You might find it easier to use one hand to gently hold your child still and the other hand to change the diaper.

Crying as Soon as They See You Leave

According the American Academy of Pediatrics, your baby may begin to fuss or cry around 9 months old when they see you leaving them. That's because they have just reached a new milestone called separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety kicks in when your child can picture you in their mind even when you're not there. Need a little privacy in the bathroom? Good luck. They hate to say goodbye because they don't know how long you'll be gone. But don't worry, like most phases, this one too is short-lived.

To help manage your baby's fears of being left alone, try some of these tips:

  • Create a goodbye routine before leaving.
  • Practice by turning leaving and returning into a game.
  • Remain calm when your baby becomes upset.
baby chewing on teething toy
Alexandra Grablewski

Putting Everything in Their Mouth

When your baby sucks on a toy (or their toes), your child is trying to take in information: Is it hard? Is it squishy? Can I eat it? That's because your baby can't ask questions to figure things out the way you do. A baby's primary way of learning about the world is through their senses, says Lerner.

Another reason why your baby may be eager to taste-test everything in sight is that they could be teething. Your baby's gums will erupt with new teeth as soon as 4 to 6 months, making the urge to gnaw a particularly strong one.

Keep dangerous items locked away or out of your child's reach. This includes anything small enough to fit inside a toilet paper tube; scissors, letter openers, and other sharp things; and poisonous substances such as cleaning products and medicines. It may help to crawl around and see what hidden hazards lurk at their level.

If your baby puts something tiny in their mouth, remove it at once and give them something safe to gnaw on instead, such as a teether. While there's nothing you can do to stop this phase of oral fixation, it usually starts to fade around 12 to 18 months, when your child turns their attention to walking and talking.

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