Toddlers' Strange Habits: When to Worry

Your child may start developing some very odd habits around now. We’ll tell you which are worth a closer look.
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From the first smile to the first step, you watched your baby hit one milestone after another and recorded each with pride. Then he turned into a toddler—and suddenly he’s eating carpet tufts, banging his head against a wall, or exploring his private parts in public places. Of course, you may wonder whether these kooky habits are really on the developmental checklist or if you should be worried. In most cases, they help your child stay calm and feel in control of his world, but it’s helpful to know why they happen and which ones might be worth mentioning to your pediatrician.

Self-Soothing

What's Normal?

When a kid this age is stressed, tired, or bored, she may comfort herself by moving her body repetitively. It’s common for toddlers to rock back and forth as a way to unwind, and in some cases to bang their head rhythmically against a wall, floor, or crib railing. While watching these actions can be scary, very few children hurt themselves this way, and they usually outgrow the habit by around age 3. (To further reduce the risk of injury, try to move your child to a carpeted area when she begins a head-banging episode.) 

Some toddlers soothe themselves by sucking on a thumb, finger, or pacifier. Others bite their nails. These habits are endearing when your child is a baby but a lot less adorable when she’s a toddler. Still, they aren’t truly a concern until age 4, when incessant sucking raises the risk of dental and speech problems.

Thumbs and Binkies aren’t the only items that may go into your kid’s mouth. A 12 to 24-month-old might chomp on carpet, dirt, or even your family pet’s food. NBD. Despite their deserved reputation for being picky eaters, toddlers love exploring things with their mouth.

What's Not?

  1. Rocking her body, banging her head, or doing other repetitive movements all day long.
  2. Eating nonfood items constantly in combination with other red flags, such as delayed language milestones and a lack of connectedness to parents or siblings.

Clinging to Rituals

What's Normal? 

Toddlers, like most adults, thrive on consistency and knowing what’s coming next. So it’s natural for your 1- or 2-year-old to demand that you stick to a particular routine, and for one tiny deviation to cause a major meltdown. Some kids like to line up their toys a particular way and may become unglued if a single piece is moved. This behavior alone is not worrisome—as long as your child does this as part of a pretend play narrative, such as needing to organize his trains at the station to sleep for the night.

What's Not?

  1.  Needing to carry out rituals to the point that it interferes with his eating, sleeping, or daily routine.
  2.  An obsession with lining up toys precisely but showing no interest in playing with them.
  3. Having poor communication skills and seeming to be in his own world.

Body Exploration 

What's Normal?

Let’s be honest: Little kids love to pick their nose. The buried treasure they find is fascinating to them (and a practical way to get rid of bothersome boogers). Encourage your kid to use a tissue. Otherwise, don’t sweat it.

It’s also natural for toddlers to touch their private parts. And because it feels good, they like to repeat the behavior. A girl patient of mine used to enjoy rubbing herself on restaurant high chairs more than she enjoyed the meal itself. Her family ultimately decided to eat at home for the rest of her toddler years. Teach your child that this behavior is perfectly acceptable, but the right place to do it is in the privacy of your home, not in public.

What's Not?

  1.  Being preoccupied with touching her body parts at the expense of reading, playing, and exploring.
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