elevating child care

My Child is Acting Like a Baby

“I’m a bit lost. My older child is 2 years and 10 months old. For the past week he’s been telling me he’s a baby. I acknowledge his comments by playing pretend that he’s a baby, but I’m concerned about whether I’m doing the right thing. He asks to be fed (when he has been doing it on his own for a year), and he wants to be picked up all the time. I wonder if jealousy finally kicked in (my younger one is now 18 months old and more vocal), and he feels displaced by his sister? I admit there’s been occasions where I don’t play along and tell him in a nice way that he can do it on his own because he’s a big boy. How do you approach this?”  – Ana

Hi Ana,

Yes, I think you nailed it: “I wonder if jealousy finally kicked in (my younger one is now 18 months old and more vocal), and he feels displaced by his sister?”

The emotional process of accepting a new sibling is unique to each child. Some children appear most unnerved during their mother’s pregnancy, perhaps anxious about all the mysterious, impending changes they sense but for which they have no frame of reference.  These children might even feel relieved when the baby finally arrives and becomes a reality for them.

Other children might be only slightly rattled during the pregnancy and far more uncomfortable after the birth when they experience the sudden shift in their parents’ focus. Still others don’t feel the sting of rivalry until their baby sibling hits developmental milestones that make them seem like an actual “person” and a greater threat, like when the baby begins crawling, walking or, as in your case, Ana, talking. Particularly sensitive children feel waves of discomfort throughout all of the above.

Acting like a baby can serve two primary purposes:

  1. Play therapy

Playing out a fantasy of reverting to babyhood is one of the ways children process their feelings around this major life adjustment, and we can help them by accepting and trusting this behavior (rather than being concerned, annoyed, or judgmental about it). It is through play that children explore, understand, heal, and gain a sense of control over their feelings around new and uncomfortable experiences. Play therapy also helps children explore the perspectives of others. Through imitation kids can try on that person’s shoes (or booties, in this case), which helps them to understand and empathize with that person’s experience. This is also why children sometimes imitate the behaviors and personality traits of their peers or characters from books and movies. If this “make believe” behavior gets a nervous, negative or uncomfortable reaction from parents, children might be compelled to continue testing that.

  1. Physical nurturing and unconditional acceptance

Infants get a lot of hands-on care, nurturing, and affection, so it’s understandable that a child who feels unsettled by the addition of a sibling would want to recapture some of that physical love. It’s also common for young children to act out their uncomfortable feelings through impulsive limit pushing behavior that might be directed at the parents, the baby or both. As challenging as it can be for us to empathize with our children in these situations (I share more about that HERE), our harsher reactions tend to intensify their feelings of hurt and rejection. The unconditional love that the baby is receiving looks very attractive in comparison.

But none of this means that parents should feel obliged to heed all our children’s requests to be fed and carried, etc. Children don’t need us to play along with babyish behaviors so much as fully accept and allow them.

Accept

Acceptance stems from trusting that the behavior is serving a healthy purpose for our child and, therefore, not being judgmental about it or worrying that he’s losing his abilities to talk, walk or dress himself, etc. So we don’t try to fix the behavior, nor do we coax or shame him to stop it. And because we don’t perceive it as a demand or need we must fulfill, we don’t let it get on our nerves.

Set clear boundaries and trust the feelings

In  your case, Ana, I would not “tell him in a nice way that he can do it on his own because he’s a big boy.” Instead of trying to talk him out of his request, be clear and comfortable with asserting your boundaries.

“You want me to pick you up. I can’t right now, but in a few minutes I’m going to sit on the sofa and I’d love to have you on my lap.” Then if he continues to ask or becomes upset, you might acknowledge, “You really wanted me to carry you and I said no. That’s upsetting.” Trust him to express his feelings for as long as he needs to in response to your reasonable limits. This is how children heal their pain.

Play along wholeheartedly — or not at all

Children deserve our honesty and clarity. It’s unfair and unloving to begrudgingly give in to please them. Our resentment creates guilt for them and poisons our parent-child relationship. We are the only ones who can prevent this from happening, which is why it’s so important to stay tuned in to own needs, wants, and boundaries. So, if we are fully on board and available to spoon feed, carry or play with our child, we should do it with gusto. If not, we should kindly and clearly say no and not judge or resent our child for asking. We might reply, “I love feeding you, my baby, but I’m going to take this time to eat my own food along with you.”

Pay undivided attention

There’s another reason children behave like babies besides the two I mention above. It’s an attention getter. Unfortunately, the attention it commonly gets from parents is annoyance and impatience, which is not helpful. So, besides perceiving this behavior as healthy and not letting it bother us, we can also help alleviate the urgency for it by fulfilling our children’s attention needs (which are a lot easier to fill than their 24/7 attention wants). One of the best ways to do that is to put aside all our distractions during caregiving activities like dressing, bathing, diapering (or potty help), mealtimes and bedtime rituals and be fully available to our child in those interactions. We won’t be able to do this every time, but we can seize these opportunities as best we can. Our engaged presence while our child plays, putters or just hangs out with us is an added bonus.

Ana, I hope this answers your questions and isn’t way more than you wanted to know.

 

I share more about being confident leaders and setting limits with empathy in

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

 

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8 Responses to “My Child is Acting Like a Baby”

  1. avatar rick ackerly says:

    Yes. and Yes. AND there is another reason: integration. Regression is an essential component of brain development. Parents tend to get anxious in grade school, for instance, when their children go back to reading books that are now too easy for them. DON’T WORRY. Why do we say “too easy?”
    They are integrating. As our brains advance into the world’s challenges of ever increasing complexity, they develop some parts and other parts get left behind. Regressing is one of many natural techniques for reconnecting other parts that have lain fallow during advancement. Dreaming, jogging, meditating are among the many other processes that are necessary in our life-long march toward integrity. If you haven’t done it, yourself, give it a try. You’ll like it.

    • avatar janet says:

      Rick, that’s a brilliant and important point. Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

  2. avatar TM says:

    Rick and Janet your comments are put so beautifully and have given me a lot to think about as this relates to my household.

    My daughter is the exact same age as in this anecdote, and has been playing “baby” with gusto. She doesn’t have a new younger sibling to contend with, and I don’t think that she is doing this for lack of attention, we are lucky to have a very slow household in general, and our caregiving times are very much still focused on bonding.

    I think that maybe this age is just a moment when kids are realizing what it means to grow older, and to understand the fact that they were once babies themselves. It’s crazy if you think about it! My daughter play-acts being a mama and cooks dinner for her “babies” and the next second will want to be a baby herself. She asks me all sorts of questions about what she was like as a baby, and then acts those out.

    To me it seems like an incredibly healthy way to deal with the important existential questions about time passing and growing older. The Dalai Lama himself says that people should meditate on, and practice, death in order to be able to live outside of the shadow of our fear of death. Perhaps kids are just perfectly wise in balancing their own psyches in this way, “I once was a baby but am not anymore…what does that mean??” (and what does it mean!?! the passage of time is so mind-blowing!!).

    Maybe, rather than worry about whether kids’ odd behavior implies that something is wrong, we should look to see what we can learn!

    • avatar P says:

      Amen. Well said! Thank you.

  3. avatar Noemie says:

    TM I loved your comment, thanks!! My son is going through this phase as well and you put nice words to explain the shift-research of identity he is going through, amaxing article and great comments!

  4. avatar Kim says:

    Very well written and helpful.

    I was just wondering about imitating older children. My 3,5 year old son has started imitating his cousins, which are older than him. But he imitates their negative behavior, such as fighting with other children. How should I deal with that? Due to our family’s circumstances it is not possible to avoid all contact.

  5. avatar Kendall Meikenhous says:

    So interesting! I’m expecting in about 6 weeks and my almost 2-year-old has just started doing this. Yesterday we played a game for several minutes where she would stop her play, say “aww, baby cry” and run to my lap for a hug. She’s wanting more help at mealtimes too. I told my husband I thought she was processing the impending arrival, because while she may not know what exactly is coming, she’s a smart girl and has heard us talking about it enough to get an idea.

  6. avatar Sandy says:

    Thank you for another timely read for our family! No new siblings here either, but our 3 year and 1 month old twins are doing plenty of role playing too. At times they’re their older cousins, other times characters from books and (dare I say it) TV and in between they’re babies. I’ve played along with it too so far and asked my daughter (she pretends to be a baby more often than my son) whether she is doing that because she wants more of my attention and she said, “yes”. I’ve had a small nagging concern about it, but this article has put my mind completely at ease. Also, very interesting about the brain development / regression / reconnection: this morning my son was doing a puzzle (only about 8 pieces) and asked him, “isn’t that too easy for you now, my boy?” and he said, “no mom, it’s still fun” … Pretty silly comment on my behalf and regretted it instantly, and now I understand even more,just how foolish I was!

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