What to do when a baby repeatedly drops something

This is a common game of babies: Drop an object on the floor. Wait for adult to pick it up and give it back. Drop it again. Repeat until adult begins tearing hair, turning purple, or otherwise doing something entertaining.

We didn’t play that game when Nicholas was a baby.

I had been noticing since I was very young that most adults would play that game with a baby for a while, thinking it was so cute how the baby said, “Uh-oh!” or dramatically pretended to have dropped the object by accident, but then the adult would get sick of the game and wish the baby would quit it.  While the baby continued to have fun, the adult’s gradually increasing frustration and resentment would be expressed through signals babies don’t understand, until finally the adult would stalk away, roughly plunk the baby on the floor, yell, or otherwise hurt the baby’s feelings.  Then the other adults present would laugh at the sad baby.  This struck me as a bad experience for both baby and adult, in the end, and a poor way to teach social skills.

There are some parents who really enjoy raising an “ornery” child who does annoying things just to get a reaction from people, and if you’re that kind of parent this article is not for you!  This advice is for parents who want their child to understand, as early as possible, that if you want to keep an object you had better treat it properly.

Of course, babies are just learning to grasp objects, so they are going to drop things pretty often.  When it’s genuinely a mistake, there’s no reason you shouldn’t get the object for him and give it back.  Just don’t make a big production out of it–acting horrified that it’s fallen, saying, “Uh-oh!” in a loud cute voice–because that makes it rewarding.  Be very calm and treat this mishap as a brief interruption in what he was doing; assume he’ll want to get back to doing it as soon as he has the object in hand again.  Show him that you see accidental dropping as something that happens but is no big deal, not interesting at all.

If the baby drops the same object twice in a short time, start paying more attention to him.  It may have been another mistake; it may have been a way of getting your attention.  Don’t give him attention for dropping, but talk to him, get him involved in what you’re doing, hug him, smile, etc.  If you are very busy, thinking out loud may keep him entertained.

If you see that the baby waits until you’re looking before he drops–especially if he does it with a coy expression or says, “Uh-oh!” the second he lets go–he’s doing it because of your reaction, not to fulfill a desire to get the object to a different place.  Your goal now is to avoid having your reaction be rewarding for him.

Here is what I did when Nicholas purposely dropped or threw something while watching for my reaction: I said, “I see you’re all done with that.” and picked it up and took it away.

If he protested, I said in a surprised tone, “Well, if you wanted to keep it, why did you throw it on the floor?”  After a brief pause and puzzled look, I gave back the object, said in a pleasant instructive tone, “Hang onto it this time,” and went about my business.

If he dropped it again, I shrugged and left it on the floor (if it didn’t create a mess that had to be cleaned up immediately) and kept on with what I was doing until he asked me to pick it up.  Then I said, “Just a moment,” and when it was convenient for me, I picked it up and repeated, “If you want to keep it, hang onto it.”

If he dropped it one more time, I said, “I am tired of picking it up. You’re all done with it.” and put the object out of his reach for several hours at least. At times I had to do this with 3 or 4 objects in an hour before he finally gave up! But by about 18 months, he understood that if he treats an object irresponsibly, it will get taken away for a while.

It’s important to be firm and matter-of-fact about this, not mean and rude.  Don’t even start playing the drop-and-pick-up game; act to stop it before you feel so frustrated that you want to yell at the baby or throw the toy yourself. Avoid sighing, rolling your eyes, or telling anyone else present how tired you are of your kid “always” behaving like this.  (I once saw a toddler in a restaurant who actually sighed and rolled her eyes just before pushing over her cup again–she had learned that this was appropriate behavior in this situation!)  When your attitude says, “Here we go again! He’s so annoying!” you convey to your child that you expect that he will behave that way and that your efforts to stop him will not work.  Babies are designed to figure out our expectations and try to fit them. Show, instead, the expectation that a person who wants to play with a toy or eat a food will keep that thing near him.

Mistakes do happen, especially to inexperienced chubby-fingered people, and it’s possible that a baby who understood that you meant it about not throwing Owl across the kitchen will, five minutes later, accidentally lose control of Owl and see her tumble helplessly off the high-chair tray and feel quite stricken.  Try to recognize the different body language that goes with a mistake, compared with an attempt at annoying game-playing.  Sometimes you’ll take away a toy and then realize you misunderstood what was happening–and then you can give a second chance.

UPDATE: On a Wednesday when I don’t have time to write an article, I’m linking this to Works-for-Me Wednesday, where you can learn some new uses for potatoes, many St. Patrick’s Day ideas, and more!

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

14 Responses to What to do when a baby repeatedly drops something

  1. Jessica says:

    I love these tips of yours because we have such similar philosophies. It’s really important to me when I have kids that I don’t reward behaviors like whining and tantrums–I watched my mom give in to my baby sister (11 years younger) repeatedly because she would get too frustrated or didn’t want to draw attention, and it drove me nuts. I think you have great ideas (and experience) around these difficult kinds of issues.

    For this particular issue, I will add one thought, which comes from the fascinating book Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. The authors discuss the fact that babies learn about the world by physically interacting with it, which is part of the reason they put everything in their mouths at a certain age. One specific example they gave that stuck with me was babies throwing their spoons from their high chairs, which, they suggested, is a kind of science experiment: Does it fall every time I throw it? Does it go farther if I throw it harder? What if I just drop it off the side? I don’t think that in itself is an excuse for turning “Oops, you dropped this” into a game, especially–as you said–if you’re just eventually going to get frustrated and angry about it. But it does suggest that there is some element of learning in the act of throwing things, which I wouldn’t have necessarily considered.

  2. 'Becca says:

    Thanks! Oddly enough, one reason I write about how to handle issues like these with babies and toddlers now (when my son is 6) is that I did so well at figuring out how to work with him when he was younger and still can see the beneficial effects of what he learned at that early age, but the broader lessons I learned from it seem to need reinforcing! I hear myself expressing negative expectations almost every day, sometimes, and he can be quite good at living up to them. The games he plays with us are different now, more subtle, and it’s harder to notice when I first start playing along. So it helps to remind myself that I can, too, be a firm and competent parent!

    I see the point about experimenting with throwing things. Sometimes I did (still do) facilitate that type of experiment at times when it’s not going to annoy me. But in general, I don’t think it’s handicapped Nicholas at all to restrict his experimenting to experiments he can conduct on his own. A baby can play on the floor, dropping things from shoulder height, to learn about gravity. Nicholas seemed to learn a lot of things just from daily life and all along has shown a pretty good understanding of physics.

    Maybe it’s just his personality, though, since he didn’t put things in his mouth to the extent many babies do–I mean, if he was playing with a toy, licking it was one of the ways he’d explore it, but with most toys he lost interest in the mouthfeel pretty quickly; other objects in the environment (my necklace, a pencil, autumn leaves, etc.) he tended to handle and look at without putting them into his mouth, and if he did it was a later step. There was a brief phase of putting sidewalk pebbles in his mouth, but that was a game (he did it once for some reason, and I freaked out about the choking hazard, so that was entertaining, so he kept doing it to get a reaction) that I finally ended by refusing to let him walk in the half-block area where he’d been doing it. But mostly he was not a mouth-stuffing kid, just as he was not a walking-into-traffic kid or a breaking-things kid, and maybe we can’t take any credit for that but are just lucky. 🙂

  3. Lauren King says:

    Repeatedly dropping things is how infants/babies learn cause and effect and is a way to interact with their parents. It might be annoying to parents but it’s developmentally important for the child. Your “advice” on stopping this behavior makes a child scared to accidentally let an object fall and is actually breaking a child’s spirit. A baby shouldn’t feel “stricken” for accidentally letting an object slip through her fingers! I feel sad for the children of the parents that have tried to implement these techniques.

    • 'Becca says:

      I’m sorry you took it that way. I made a distinction between dropping things accidentally and dropping things on purpose. Where I referred to feeling stricken, it is because the baby accidentally dropped something that she had no intention of dropping–a completely different behavior from purposely throwing things over and over again.

      In my reply to Jessica’s comment, I addressed the idea that the drop-and-pick-up game is crucial to infant development. There are other ways to gain the same skills and interact with parents.

    • Betsy P says:

      I agree completely Lauren, It’s an important developmental stage that babies need to go thought. Refining motor skills – letting go of things as well as grabbing them, also it helps with object permanence! You really should make sure that you know what you are talking about and probably learn some child development before spouting ‘advice’.

      • 'Becca says:

        I have a degree in psychology with coursework in child development, actually, and worked for two years as a research assistant in studies of infant visual development and physics comprehension.

        Of course babies need to experiment with letting go of objects as well as grabbing them. When an experiment with dropping an object results in it falling out of his reach, a baby has learned something. The issue I’m addressing here is what you want him to learn about the next step in the chain of events. If you WANT to teach him that this is a game you and he will play together, that he drops it and you pick it up over and over and over again, that’s fine–I’m not saying that this game is harmful to a baby ***if*** the adult is happy to play the game. Where it is problematic is when adults tire of the game and switch from rewarding the baby’s behavior to being angry and irritated about the exact same behavior–that is confusing for a baby, not educational, and could even be emotionally harmful. Because I knew I did not want to play this game, I allowed my baby to learn that the natural consequence of dropping something out of his reach was that he would not be able to get it back.

        One of the main things I learned in the research with babies is that their understanding of physics develops much earlier and requires much less “teaching” than parents think. There’s nothing I learned either in research or in class that would indicate that choosing not to pick up objects for a baby would impede her development.

  4. Elisabeth says:

    I really like your parenting style. I found this blog because I wanted to figure out how to handle this situation and googled it. Do you recommend any books that teach your parenting style? Thanks! Elisabeth

  5. Pingback: Top 10 Articles Earthlings Read in 2012 « The Earthling's Handbook

  6. Sarah Molloy says:

    You said that by 18 months, your child “learned” to not play the “drop it” game… but the “drop it” game is a developmental stage that’s supposed to end at 18 months… Your child just out-grew this stage…

    • 'Becca says:

      That’s a good point, but I do think he had learned something. I have seen children who were indulged in this game continue to play it until 3 or 4 years old, often with variants where they pretend to have made other mistakes like, “Oops, I accidentally hit you.”

  7. Sarah says:

    I think your tips on this subject are very helpful as it is a frustrating “game”. Assuming that parents use their common sense. If I havnt seen how the object was dropped then I always hand it back.. sometimes its obvious that baby wants my attention then. I stop whatever I am up to and talk play cuddle and then occupy baby again… it begs the question though how and why did people that are critical about your advice come across it in the first place? I googled baby drops things … were they frustrated also?

  8. Rachel says:

    Dear Readers of this article. Please do not listen to this woman’s advice. She is wrong. Let your baby drop things. It’s normal. It’s part of the developmental process. They’re discovering cause and effect. Conducting experiments. Don’t scold them. This woman is giving out bad advice. I don’t care if she claims to have a degree in the field. Do some more research on the topic and you will find different advice than this. Good day.

    • 'Becca says:

      Since writing this article, I have had a second child, who is now 3 years old. I stand by everything I wrote here.

      Yes, let your baby drop things. Do not lunge to catch things before they can fall. Let them fall. That is, indeed, how babies learn about cause and effect, gravity, physics, etc. I taught my babies that if they CAUSE an object to fall out of their reach on purpose, the EFFECT is that they will be unable to reach the object. That is a totally normal, logical lesson about how the world works.

      I never suggested scolding and in fact cautioned against it.

      Since you didn’t suggest any alternative approach or provide any links to different advice, I took your suggestion of doing more research. Here’s what I found:

      Parents magazine says to “humor your child for a while” by picking up dropped toys, but you should end a meal if the child knocks over her food even once. In other words, treat the dropping of toys as harmless play, but treat the dropping of food as a reason to withhold food. That’s quite a distinction. I wonder why they draw that line–they don’t say. They articulate the child’s understanding of cause and effect as, “I drop it, you pick it up.” Exactly–that is what your child will learn *if* that is what you teach.

      Parenting Stack advises seeing this as an opportunity to “choose what message to send your toddler and what you want to teach” and “set the tone of your family life.” Here, the idea that dropping food is a bigger problem than dropping toys is explained (dropping food is inappropriate, wasteful, messy) and it’s clear that playing the toy-dropping game can lead to confusion about whether it’s okay to drop food. A parent suggests teaching that when you say, “All done!” you will not be picking up the toy anymore, and also suggests “physically removing the object they were dropping to somewhere they can’t see it.” So this is similar to my advice.

      The Imagination Tree explains how to make a toy that enables baby to experiment with dropping (and enveloping) ON HER OWN instead of relying on adult assistance. I think this is far more empowering and educational than picking up stuff for her.

      That’s what I found using the title of this article as my search term. Your alarmist tone suggests that there is a lot of research indicating that babies will be terribly damaged by parents like me. So I’ll search for “baby harmed if I don’t pick up dropped toy again”… Hey, my article is the #1 search result there, too!… Gosh, that search brings up a lot of disturbing stuff, and why is so much of it about dentistry?? Only one link seems even slightly relevant: What To Expect says when you’re in places where the ground/floor might be dirty, “Don’t even think about giving your baby back her dropped paci or cracker.” Well, I’m definitely a bad mom, then, but not when I leave dropped items on the floor.

      Okay, one more try: I’ll search “baby drops toy over and over.” Lots of discussion board threads in which parents agree that babies do this. Advice includes, “we called the NO YOU GET IT game LOL…we quickly figured out that once we stopped giving them back she stopped dropping them!”

      Psychiatrist Dawn Barker writes that dropping objects is part of understanding object permanence but does not say that the parent must pick up the objects for the child to learn.

      Inspiration Laboratories explains what children learn from dropping things and says, “You continue this game until you no longer want to play.” It does not say that refusing to participate in the game–letting your child learn from his own actions–will impair your child in any way.

      Ah. Now here’s Babywise Mom, whom we can infer from the name is one of those people who advocates leaving your hungry baby alone to scream when the schedule says it’s sleeping time, and she’s giving advice rather similar to mine. Maybe that’s where you get the idea that this is bad advice, because you’ve also seen it from Babywisers? But that doesn’t mean everything she says is wrong. Her advice on this one page is quite reasonable and gentle. I am quite vehemently not a Babywiser, for so many good reasons. Please don’t assume any connection.

      Spirit Lake Consulting (PhD. in educational psychology) addresses toy-dropping in the section on Tertiary Circular Reactions toward the bottom of the page. She says, “Sometimes I would get tired of this game and just leave her toys on the floor so I could eat a bite. Passersby always stopped, picked up the toys, put them back on her highchair tray and gave me a disapproving glare for being such a neglectful mother.” So, this expert experienced the judgment of strangers who thought she should be picking up the toys, but she doesn’t say parents should pick up the toys.

      That’s “some more research” but I don’t see even a hint that any expert in child development has identified any harm done to children by declining to pick up their toys every time they drop them. Please share references if you have any.

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