Why They Regress
My husband and I have about a zillion reasons why our firstborn daughter, Zoe, is our pride and joy. But one particularly charming quality was her habit of disappearing into her room and coming back dressed in a new outfit. So what if she paired pink polka dots with orange stripes? The fact that she'd done it all by herself brought on the big hugs.
Not long ago, that delightful display of independence disappeared. At 2?, Zoe now wants us to pick out her clothes and dress her and even says, "Feed me, Mommy." The event that precipitated this relapse into babyhood? The birth of pride and joy number two, our daughter Tess.
As it happens, Zoe's reaction is almost comically typical. "It's normal for a toddler to regress when a new sibling arrives," explains Zeenat Malik, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of New Jersey, in Newark. "Kids this age think in very concrete terms. They see someone who is wearing diapers and using a bottle getting all this attention, so they want to be like that baby. They think, If I wear diapers and drink from a bottle, Mom will give me the same attention."
This scenario is particularly common among children between 18 months and 3 years. At this age, a child's world still very much revolves around his parents, and there are few outside influences to distract him from what's going on at home. What's more, because toddlers lack the verbal and cognitive skills to express their jealousy, frustration, and anger, their only available means of showing emotion is to act out. It's quite common for potty-taught toddlers to start having accidents or to refuse to drink from the Sippy cup they mastered long ago. A child who has been sleeping through the night may revert to waking up: After all, the baby gets attention in the middle of the night, so maybe she will too.
Not surprisingly, a toddler's demands peak at those times when parents are focusing on meeting the needs of her sibling. "Whenever I started to nurse Zach, my 2-year-old daughter, Sidney, would crawl into my lap," says Catherine Lind, of Canton, Massachusetts. "Holding them both proved impossible. I told Sidney she'd have to wait until Zach was fed, and she came up with every imaginable need: 'I need a drink' or 'I want to play.' "
Often, though, a toddler's clinginess will persist throughout the day -- even when the baby is napping. "In a sense, the older child feels that he's lost you and needs to make sure you're still there," says Meri Wallace, M.S.W., a child and family therapist in Brooklyn and author of Birth Order Blues (Owl Books, 1999).