Is It Normal for a Baby to Prefer Dad Over Mom?

It's actually quite common for babies and toddlers to pick favorites. Here's what to do if it happens to you.

Mom and dad with happy baby
Photo: Getty Images

Here's the scenario: You spend all your time lovingly tending to your baby and seemingly out of nowhere, your sweet little bundle of joy begins to play favorites and wants their other parent instead. We know it's hard if your baby suddenly starts treating you like a second-class citizen, but try not to take it personally.

In fact, it's actually quite common for babies and toddlers to pick a favorite parent or caregiver—and for that preference to switch back and forth over time. Read on to learn more about why babies sometimes show a preference for one parent and what to do if it happens to you.

Why Babies Sometimes Show Preference for One Parent

There are many reasons why babies may show a strong preference for one caregiver over another. Sometimes it's about proximity, routine, or familiarity. Sometimes it's linked to life events and developmental milestones. And other times, these preferences just come and go for no particular reason. But be assured they have no bearing on your future relationship with your child—and your baby may switch back to being all about you soon.

Here are a few common reasons babies express a preference for one parent over another.

Babies often prefer their primary caregiver

Most babies naturally prefer the parent who's their primary caregiver, the person they count on to meet their most basic and essential needs. This is especially true after 6 months when separation anxiety starts to set in. If one parent starts to assume more of the everyday caregiving, they may become the new "favorite."

One of the major downsides of this primary caregiver favoritism is the potential for parental burnout. If parenting duties continue to fall only on the primary caregiver, even when another caregiver is available to help, the result can be added exhaustion, stress, and resentment—and those feelings can impact a parent's well-being and the quality of the time they spend with their child.

If one parent is doing most of the day-to-day baby chores and it is impacting your child's parental preferences, try some of these ideas:

  • Create a schedule to decide who will wake up at night to tend to the baby.
  • If you are not exclusively breastfeeding, try ensuring that both parents get at least one turn feeding your baby each day.
  • Take turns putting your baby down to sleep, so your child gets used to both of you.
  • If your baby is naturally spending most of their time with you, encourage quality time between your baby and your partner to help build their bonds too.
  • Keep communication open about what is working and what isn't.

Babies might favor one parent if the other is pregnant

Some children develop a penchant for one parent when the other parent is pregnant. Although your child still knows you love them, they may sense that you're temporarily less available and naturally attach themselves to the parent who seems less preoccupied.

Once the new baby is born, the older child often bonds strongly with the non-gestational parent, who is likely more available. These issues can sometimes resurface during the toddler years when children of heterosexual couples may naturally gravitate toward the parent of the same sex, particularly during potty training when anatomy differences become more apparent to them.

If your baby is seeking out your partner while you are pregnant, try turning your growing belly into a fun game and encourage your baby to engage with your belly. Maybe your bump is the perfect ramp for their favorite toy car. Or maybe they'll enjoy feeling their future sibling's kicks and squirms. Alternatively, ignore the bump for a bit and set aside some special time to focus just on your baby. Even if it's just 10 minutes of your undivided attention, focusing all of your attention on them can help foster meaningful connection.

Babies sometimes want the parent they see the least

Sometimes babies show a preference for the parent they see less often. While there is not a lot of research on why kids will play favorites with their parents, some research does suggest that even when a young child is showing a preference for the other parent, they are still keeping a close eye on their primary caregiver and will seek that person out if they are hurt, hungry, or scared.

That is to say that as your baby's primary caregiver, your love and presence are sure things to your baby. So, don't worry if your baby reaches for your partner; it is a sign of a healthy relationship forming.

Ultimately, there are also lots of future benefits to this playing favorites thing. For example, research has shown that babies who form strong attachments with their parents in the first two years of life go on to have better mental health as they grow up. This can mean having kids that grow into adults who are mentally and emotionally resilient, more independent, and happier than those who did not have strong parental bonds.

While it may not feel so pleasant to see your child yearning for your co-parent, it could be a sign that they are forming those healthy, strong bonds that can help your child grow up feeling nurtured and supported.

Ways to Bond With Your Baby When They Prefer the Other Parent

Regardless of the reason why your little one suddenly wants their other parent more, you can still enjoy bonding time together. And sure, it may sting a little bit to know that your baby is playing favorites, but that doesn't mean they don't think the world of you and want to be with you too. With a little creative thinking and an open heart, this phase will likely fizzle out quickly.

Here are some suggestions:

  • When your baby pushes you away in favor of the other parent, avoid acting hurt or rejected, which can confuse your baby. Just let them know you're ready to play when they are.
  • Have the other parent invite you to join in their activities.
  • Share baby-related chores with your partner so you can enjoy playtime as well. Sometimes, one parent becomes associated with fun while the other becomes associated with mundane tasks like diapering and feeding.
  • Make sure you and your partner both have alone time with your baby when the other parent isn't around.
  • When you have one-on-one time with your baby, don't hesitate to deviate from the usual routine. For example, instead of always driving straight home directly from daycare, try taking a pit stop to play at the park for a few minutes instead.
  • Don't eyeball the clock. If you and your baby are having fun, don't cut it short just to keep everyone on schedule. It's OK if dinner is 15 minutes late one night or the laundry gets put off until tomorrow if it means spending quality time together.
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