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Frustrations in four-month-old
by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
See Aletha Solter's book, The Aware Baby, for more information about frustration in babies.
My 17-week-old boy starting flipping over from his back to his stomach about three weeks ago. He has no problem holding his head up and looking around, and seems very happy as soon as he is on his stomach. Lately, however, he flips and then seems to want to crawl, desperately. He lifts his butt in the air and flails his arms out to the side and starts growling, and he gets himself so worked up that he starts crying. I should mention that he can flip over to his back sometimes, and I try to flip him as soon as it starts, but he goes right back to his stomach, which tells me that's where he wants to be. My questions are 1) Isn't he a little young to try crawling? 2) How long should I let him struggle and get worked up? I want to encourage him to try, but really seems to be trying too hard. I do try putting my hands against his feet so he has something to push off against, but that doesn't satisfy him.
Frustrations are inevitable as babies strive to learn new skills. Your son's frustration shows that he is very motivated to attain new motor skills. Babies need to be allowed to develop at their own pace and in their own way. Four months of age is not too early for infants to show the first signs of attempting to creep or crawl, even though they might not be able to master this for several more months. Some show no interest in this until later, and that is normal too. Often we adults try to spare them the frustrations that occur, or we hurry them along. But these interventions are usually not very helpful. Babies benefit from being allowed to struggle and to learn at their own pace, and they eventually master new skills on their own.
Sometimes babies really do need our help, for example, when they can't reach something they want. In those cases, I recommend doing the minimum necessary to help your baby, perhaps not giving the toy directly, but moving it within reach. The idea is to help babies be successful primarily through their own efforts so they can feel a sense of accomplishment. But in the case of your son, it seems as if there's not much you can do. He is probably going to feel frustrated until he acquires the strength and coordination to get himself up on all fours and crawl.
Therefore, I do not recommend that you try to help him or interrupt his efforts to crawl, even if he gets very frustrated during his attempts. You don't want to convey the message that he is incapable of learning new skills. And you don't want him to become dependent on you to "rescue" him, because he may begin to lose confidence in himself. True self-confidence comes from mastering difficult things by oneself.
What your son needs most from you is empathy and understanding. You can stay close, observe him, and acknowledge his efforts. Tell him that you realize how hard it is to crawl, but that you know he will eventually learn to do this. Let him know that you understand his frustration. Even though he may not understand your exact words, your facial expression and tone of voice will convey empathy, compassion, and confidence to him.
Researchers have found that there is often an increase in crying during the weeks preceding the acquisition of new skills. This is because the intent to master a skill always precedes the ability to do it, causing frustrations. When your son gets so worked up that he starts crying, this is probably a healthy release of frustration. If he can cry away his frustrations with you as an empathic witness, it will help him to relax and feel confident to try again later on. If you stop his crying prematurely, he may continue to be tense and frustrated and may have difficulty settling down later to sleep.
You can offer to hold your son when he starts to cry, but don't immediately assume that he wants to be picked up. He may surprise you by wanting to keep struggling to crawl while he is crying, and he should have the right to do so. You can reach out your arms and ask him if he wants to be picked up, and then look for his cues indicating whether or not he wants this. But do stay near him even if he doesn't want to be picked up right at that moment. If he does want to be held and comforted, he may still need to cry for a while in your arms, and you can support him emotionally while he cries.
Different babies have different temperaments. Some are very intense and determined, and they struggle to do things that appear too difficult. Others are more tentative, and don't try something new until they are sure they can master it on the first try. Your child's particular temperament and learning style will probably stay the same as he grows older. Perhaps he will become a determined adult who is not afraid to tackle difficult projects in spite of frustrations along the way. It's a part of who he is. I therefore encourage you to relax and let him do what he wants to do (within safety limits, of course). I realize that it is very hard to stay calm and to refrain from "rescuing" your child immediately when you see him struggling, but I feel that this is the most respectful and beneficial approach in the long run.
Aletha Solter, PhD, is a developmental psychologist, international speaker, consultant, and founder of the Aware Parenting Institute (www.awareparenting.com). Her books have been translated into many languages, and she is recognized internationally as an expert on attachment, trauma, and non-punitive discipline. The titles of her books are The Aware Baby, Helping Young Children Flourish, Tears and Tantrums, Raising Drug-Free Kids, and Attachment Play.
Aware Parenting is a philosophy of child-rearing that has the potential to change the world. Based on cutting-edge research and insights in child development, Aware Parenting questions most traditional assumptions about raising children, and proposes a new approach that can profoundly shift a parent's relationship with his or her child. Parents who follow this approach raise children who are bright, compassionate, competent, nonviolent, and drug free.