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!


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

12 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?

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