Why does my toddler squeeze my face?

Q: From the time my baby was born, she would squeeze and pull at my face. Now, she is almost 2 and it hasn't stopped. Whenever I lay down with her or if she is on my lap, she is squeezing my cheeks, nose, mouth. . . anything she can grab. It hurts! How can I get her to stop. I'll move her hands away and tell her that it hurts mommy, but she won't stop. I assume this is a comforting mechanism. She does not do this with my husband. Is this normal? Please help! Sore cheeks

A: Dear Elissa Bird:

All babies touch Mommy's face, but your daughter seems to have formed a more ingrained habit of grabbing you--and of course, now that she is bigger her hands are much stronger than they used to be. Grabbing and squeezing everything is simply a natural response that 2 year olds display towards whatever catches their attention. For some reason, your daughter has latched onto squeezing your face as a particular way of "connecting" with you. You could think of it as a comforting mechanism or a way of saying hello or her way to convince herself that someone she loves can't turn away and pay attention to something else. Children of two are especially prone to try to dominate and control people that they love, since they have become old enough now to realize that they are actually pretty small in a big world where they really don't control very much.

So her behavior is really innocent and harmless. She will outgrow this, even if you do nothing.

However, you have to protect yourself so that you don't get hurt in the process. Without making a big deal about it, you should definitely put something as a barrier (a rolled up blanket?) between your face and her hands. You can also get more focused on evading her hands when she reaches out to grab you. Learn to dodge! Her ability to understand language and body-English is growing every day, so continuing to say "No no--no grabbing!" will help. But try to remember that your goal is only to keep out of the way of those grabby hands so that your cheeks aren't hurt. You aren't really going to "teach her a lesson." Time will fix her habit of grabbing, but meantime you can get more skillful about staying safe. And also, your daughter has been grabbing you for her whole life--so be satisfied with slow progress in terms of her relinquishing this habit.

Elizabeth Berger MD

Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger

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