I can still hear my daughter’s exasperated sighs each time she realized she had been roped into what we had once called “the game.” Then just 4 years old and ever the responsible, protective big sister, she would generously retrieve anything her baby sister tossed from her high chair.
Gleefully, the little one would set any item sailing: half-chewed food, toys, forks, and spoons. But no sooner did my oldest place it back on the tray than did the little one—with a single flip of the hand—toss it back over.
It’s exhausting just to dredge up these memories and consider the hundreds of times we bent down to pick up whatever was thrown on the floor with little hope of it ever stopping. And while I understood the behavior had more to do with curiosity than torture, I couldn’t help but resent this game of fetch.
Why They Do It
Dr. Sarah Berger, a psychologist who helms the College of Staten Island’s Child Development Lab, offered a fresh perspective. She referred to babies as little scientists who have set out to better understand their worlds. “That means that one reason that [they] throw things from their high chairs is because they are trying to understand cause and effect relationships,” Dr. Berger said. “What happens if I drop this? Does it fall? Does it splash? Does mommy get mad? All outcomes are interesting to them, including strong emotional reactions.”
What happens if I drop this? Does it fall? Does it splash? Does mommy get mad? All outcomes are interesting to them, including strong emotional reactions.
When it comes to children throwing food from their plates (or often times the whole plate itself), the behavior reads as an obvious sign of “all done.” But occupational therapist Johanlie de Bruin explained there’s much more at play—and it all comes down to exploration. As de Bruin shared, babies and toddlers “love playing with their food,” studying its smells, colors, and textures. And, as Dr. Amy Nasamran, a licensed child psychologist and founder of Atlas Psychology, noted, tossing it around is just another way to flex their developing motor skills as they work to better control their tiny fingers and hands.
What You Can Do About It
So, how do parents curb this behavior? The short answer is: They don’t. Babies and toddlers will go on being babies and toddlers, and that means embarking on these little research studies that drive us nuts. It’s part of the way they learn and grow.
Babies and toddlers will go on being babies and toddlers, and that means embarking on these little research studies that drive us nuts. It’s part of the way they learn and grow.
But there is hope.
Dr. Berger urged parents to shift where they provide attention, reacting to other behaviors instead of anything involving flying objects and the high chair. Highlighting little ones’ developmental need to explore, she encouraged parents to do some thoughtful substituting and focus on explorative play outside of meal times.
“This could minimize the behavior, but in general, [parents] will have to wait this out for a few months,” Dr. Berger said. “Once babies can represent ideas in their minds without needing the concrete evidence in front of them, this behavior will decrease because they won’t need to try everything out to know the outcome.”
For older toddlers, embracing natural consequences may help. As Devon Kuntzman, a toddler parenting coach and founder of Transforming Toddlerhood, noted, asking little ones to help clean up their messes may chip away at their urge to make them in the first place. The key, Kunztman emphasized, is to use this tactic as a moment of growth and learning, not as a punishment for undesirable behavior.
Why It’s So Important to Keep Your Cool
If watching your little one hurl items from the high chair is triggering for you, you aren’t alone. “We tend to place a lot of meaning on food, and when we see it being thrown, it can really make us upset,” Kunztman said. “So shifting the lens through which you see the behavior is key to responding in a developmentally appropriate way.”
Kuntzman urged parents to see this behavior not as an act of defiance but as one of communication. Through this perspective, we can understand that our job as parents is to put on our detective hats and get to the root of what our children are truly saying.