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Our 14 month old usually sits at the table to eat (in a booster seat). Last night she freaked out when we tried to put her in her seat for dinner. She tensed up and screamed and didn't stop even after we stopped trying to put her in her seat.

Her tantrum was among the worst she's ever had; flailing, screaming, etc. Doing anything to calm her down seemed to make it worse (pick her up, put her down, give her a toy, etc.). We thought she may have hurt herself or something, but she calmed down and began to eat while sitting in my wife's lap, and was fine/normal the rest of the night.

It happened again today during lunch. As soon as we tried to put her in her chair, she freaked out. Not as bad, just screaming and not wanting anything (not held, no toys, etc.), and calmed herself down within 5 mins or so. We moved the chair to a different spot at the table and she sat there and ate lunch a little while later, but freaked out again at dinner time.

We tried removing the booster seat, and that didn't seem to make a difference.

Whats the deal? What could the problem be and how should we respond?

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Careful, your child is learning how to train you and your wife. Unless there's something obviously wrong with your child's bottom (horrible rash) or the seat (sharp piece of plastic/metal), I wouldn't give in to the tantrums. –  Alex In Paris Feb 26 at 8:37
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There's a wide distance between "understanding a tantrum may come as a result of some underlying issue" and "giving in to tantrums". It's a mistake to assume tantrums are always just "I wanna", as much as it is to "give in". –  Joe Feb 26 at 21:52

3 Answers 3

Since you've eliminated the possibility of pain from the seat, it could be she's showing you in a rather emphatic manner that she's ready for some control and some options. Maybe try giving her a choice: would you rather have the booster seat here, or put the booster seat over there? Would you rather use your booster seat, or a cushion? (Depending on seating options, ymmv.)

Depending on how structured you prefer dinner to be in your home, you could also allow her to sit with you for part of the meal, and then get down and graze a bit. We did that with both of ours, but dinners are notoriously unstructured affairs at my house. They'd eat the things that are better eaten sitting, and then could get up and carry around a cracker to graze on (or come back for a small bite and then go play some more). If you prefer more structured dinners, though, this might not be optimal.

In my experience, offering a binary choice (too many options and sometimes they don't want to choose at all, or are overwhelmed by the options) is a great way to redirect a tantrum and give a child some control over her environment.

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I'd consider the possibility that something happened emotionally (not in terms of 'a harmful experience' but just some change to her emotional makeup) that caused her to feel more in need of comfort in relation to meals. My oldest son went through a stage not dissimilar to this at a similar age (a little older). He stopped wanting to come to meals entirely and threw huge tantrums, and while some of it was certainly a desire to keep playing, some of it was not. In particular, breakfast was hard, probably due to him not being very awake or very hungry first thing (like my wife).

While we never really found the root cause, what did help was to treat it matter-of-factly, as if it was a legitimate problem, but one with a solution. We gave him lots of love and hugs and such, but told him it was dinner time and he needed to eat. Then we gave him some choices - what chair he wants to sit in, what bowl he wants to use, what spoon, etc. Between the two, the issue mostly went away. Now (2.5) he still complains about going to the dinner table, but clearly in the mild "I want to keep playing" style. I still sometimes allow him to sit on my lap during meals, particularly during breakfast, if he's having a hard day, as it seems to help him eat better and feel better about eating.

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Valkyrie is so right about binary choices often being of help. This is the answer I would go with after checking on a few other possibilities.

It is possible she did get hurt by a pinch in the buckles of the booster seat (if it has a lap belt) on a different occasion and is remembering that moment of pain now. Memory is a strange beast in small children and sometimes something that happened the day before will seem forgotten until a month or more later when suddenly the child remembers it as if it were the day before. She could also be associating the pain with both the booster seat and the position of the chair at the table and responding to these associations independently but inconsistently enough to make the matter extremely confusing for you. I'd double check on how tight the straps are and ect. Try to make things super comfortable for her and then entice her a little or distract her with some fun playing next time you go to put her in the seat.

It is also completely possible she is resenting the seat and how it impacts her mobility. Many kids start really moving at around 14 months and resent anything that prevents them from practicing their new skill. Mommy's lap is a nice enough place to over-look the matter there, but perhaps the booster seat is not a nice enough place to cause her to want to over-look the lack of mobility when strapped in. If you think this is a possibility, I'd make a deal with her. Don't buckle the straps at first. If she gets up, buckle the straps, not as a punishment but calmly and as "a reminder that while we are eating, we stay in our seats." Start fresh without the buckles at every meal and be consistent that getting up means, "I guess you still need the straps to remind you to stay in your seat." You really don't want her running around with food in her mouth. Make sure she has a toy or two at the table she can engage with and know that it is a temporary developmental thing and that the distractions of toys and being engaged with you in some way while eating will help alleviate her desire to get out of her seat in the mean-time. Try to keep the time she has to sit to a minimum. At this age, about fifteen minutes max (unless she is happily eating) and then offer what she didn't eat as a "snack" again about half an hour later.

If she is not strapped into her booster seat, both of these possiblities become irrelevant, in which case, as I said, I'd go with Valkyrie's suggestion.

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