Why growing up can cause toddlers to act needier than ever.
Why It's Normal
Many kids seem anxious to skip over their baby years. They toddle anxiously after older siblings, try to play with big-kid toys, and issue straight denials, like, "I am not a baby!" Which is why it's so surprising when your toddler suddenly does start acting like an infant: pouting, begging to be carried, and generally gluing herself to your side.
Reverting to babyish habits is normal -- even healthy. Taking a few temporary steps back helps kids cope with the huge developmental changes of the toddler years. "Children this age are becoming independent quickly but still need to feel connected to their parents," says Andrew Wenger, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Miami. "It's an emotional tug-of-war for them." Reverting to clinginess and chants of "You feed me!" is your toddler's attempt to ditch the stress of growing up. It may make you crazy, but it's actually pretty easy to understand the emotions that prompt this phase -- and how to survive it.
What Triggers a Backslide?
Any transition -- starting preschool, moving to a new house, switching caregivers -- can sabotage your child's sense of control, making him feel vulnerable and anxious. Even minor blips, such as going on vacation, can spur a regression. "A toddler can't articulate what he's feeling and why," says Tracy Pipes, a child-life specialist at Children's Medical Center, in Dallas. "Plus, he hasn't had time to develop coping skills to help him handle it." Reverting to comfort objects -- like a blankie or pacifier -- becomes his go-to strategy.
All it took was a case of the flu to make 3-year-old Declan Lockwood, of Covington, Louisiana, backslide. "He'd been off the bottle for months and had gone straight to using a regular cup," says his mom, Allyson. "But after he'd been sick for a few days, he found an old bottle and started begging for it!"
But probably the most unnerving life change for kids is the arrival of a new sibling. The thought of competing for your attention can send your toddler into a tailspin. When Kelsey Grant, of Fairchild Air Force Base, in Washington, was 2, she became a big sister -- and seemed to develop a split personality. "Kelsey would talk about what a big girl she was, but when she saw me with the baby, she suddenly wanted to be a baby too," says her mom, Brandi.
Often, there's no specific trigger for backsliding -- just dealing with the reality of growing up can make kids regress. While you may feel nothing but pride for your toddler's rapidly emerging skills, all that newfound knowledge and ability can overwhelm him.
On the upside, this panic is a sign that your child's cognitive skills are becoming more sophisticated. "As he grows, so does his imagination," says Dr. Wenger. It's why a child who used to be comfortable with a babysitter may start clinging to your leg when you leave him. Now he's able to foresee what it will be like when you're apart, and he can even create scary scenarios in his mind about what might happen if you don't return.
How to Get Your Big Kid Back
Validate his feelings. Once you've figured out what's causing your child's babyish behavior, let him know that you understand how he feels ("It's okay to be scared about going to preschool").
Indulge her (a bit). Let your child play at being a baby for a few minutes a day. "Kids are looking for reassurance that you'll still take care of them when they're big," says Karen Ratliff-Schaub, MD, a developmental pediatrician at Columbus Children's Hospital, in Ohio.
Give extra attention. If he's always climbing onto your lap or demanding you play with him, give him the love and attention he wants. This is especially important if he's jealous of a new sib -- your toddler needs to know he'll still have one-on-one time with you.
Don't be a critic. Since these little relapses are all about getting attention, showing your annoyance can backfire and reinforce the behavior. "Punishing your child for backsliding will only increase her stress and her need to regress," says Dr. Ratliff-Schaub. A better bet: Offer small incentives to act her age ("We'll read a story after dinner if you feed yourself"), and praise her when she follows through.
Sell her on being a big kid. Acting babyish won't seem so great if you remind your child of all the fun things she can do because she's older, like eating pizza and playing with her friends. If jealousy of a new sibling is behind your toddler's babyish ways, give her some responsibilities.
Let her help with burping or hold the towel when you give the baby a bath. Be sure to compliment her for being such a big help. This gives her the attention she wants -- but in a positive way.
Best Responses to Babyish Behavior
When your child begs to be carried. Try making a game out of it. Say, "Let's see if you can walk to the next store. Now let's skip to the store after that."
When your child uses baby talk. Try saying, "I can't understand you when you talk like that. I wish I knew what you were asking for."
When your child demands to be fed. Try making it fun. Say, "Okay, I'll feed you one bite. Now you take two yourself." Praise her when she does it on her own.
Books About Growing Up
I'm a Big Kid, by Josephine Page
This fun lift-the-flap book gets toddlers psyched about leaving babyish things (like bottles and cribs) behind.
I'm a Big Brother/I'm a Big Sister, by Joanna Cole
Kids learn all about what newborns need -- and celebrate the many reasons why being the older sib is so cool.
Ready, Set, School! by Jacqueline Mitchard
Cute raccoon Rory wishes his parents wouldn't treat him like a baby -- yet he's scared to be away from them.
Copyright © 2007. Reprinted with permission from the July 2007 issue of Parents magazine.