You planned the gap between your children – as far as nature allowed – so that when your newborn arrived, your toddler would be fully toilet trained, sleep in a big bed and have ditched her dummy and bottle. So it can come as a frustrating and exhausting shock when your toddler suddenly demands to be put back in nappies, climbs into the baby’s cot or wants to be carried all the time.
What is going on?
“Regression is very common in toddlers and young children,” explains Sarah van Olst, a counselling psychologist with a special interest in children. “It is your child’s way of communicating that she needs to be nurtured – it is actually a really helpful sign expressing your child’s specific needs.”
Regression back to babyhood behaviours are mostly seen when a new baby arrives, but there are a number of reasons why your child could one day be really proud to be a “big girl” and the next want to suck her thumb.
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She may have conflicting feelings about growing up and becoming separate from you, or she may be feeling frustrated or overwhelmed by a developmental milestone, such as toilet training. Playgroup teacher Uke Collins says, “I see it all the time, a 2-year-old who has got the hang of using the loo and has a few ‘clean’ weeks, and suddenly has a number of accidents for no apparent reason. This almost always only lasts a couple of weeks before they fully achieve this milestone.”
Regression can also be a reaction to a change or a stressful situation in a toddler’s life, such as the arrival of a new sibling, starting playschool, or any tension at home. “I struggled to get Tayla to take a dummy when she was a baby, she was just not interested,” explains Jo, mom to Tayla (now 5) and Jamie (3). “But when Jamie was born, Tayla discovered the dummy and would not take it out for weeks.”
Why do children regress?
“Many caregivers are often not aware what these signs of regression really mean,” says Sarah. “You may just see that your child is thumb sucking and wanting to climb into the new baby’s cot: this is an indicator that the child needs to feel small again. It’s your toddler’s way of saying 'Hey, please don’t forget about me!'
"Remember that young children don’t think in the sophisticated ways that we sometimes expect them to think. It’s human nature to seek nurturing and love and just because a mother has or is expecting a new baby, it doesn’t mean that your toddler’s desires to be looked after disappear.”
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While it is common, not all children will regress in the face of a stressful situation or new sibling, and may only express it by being more clingy rather than asking to, for example, be breastfed again. As Sarah explains, “The nature of the toddler and the level of attachment the little one has to her mother may influence the level of regression.
“It is certainly not an unnatural thing for a toddler to regress, but it is important to pick up the signs from your toddler and act on them.” The equation is quite simple: once you recognise the signs that your child is asking for some attention, act on it and give her the love she is asking for, in a way that suits both you and your child, and the regressive behaviours will stop.
“It is important not to punish or ignore these behaviours as then you’re teaching your little one that her feelings are unacceptable,” continues Sarah. “Not allowing your toddler to regress will also increase your toddler’s desire to revert back to babyhood. So bring on the baby bottle and allow your child to feel safe in your arms again. Simply communicating that ‘sometimes we need a break from being a big girl’ will allow your child to feel heard and will make feelings of insecurity more acceptable for your toddler.”
The good news is that this really is just a phase and you will not have a big baby on your hands forever. Regression is just your child’s way of saying she needs some extra attention and sensitivity from you, so give her a bottle, ladle on the love, set aside some extra time just for her and she will soon realise that being the big sister is much more fun.
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What can I do to help?
Shower her with love
Show your toddler that she doesn’t have to act like a baby to get your attention. If you have a newborn in the house, set aside one-on-one time with your toddler. Sarah van Olst, a counselling psychologist with a special interest in children, suggests filial therapy or a structured special playtime can also be useful. You could also help make her feel important and useful by asking for her help with the baby (she can hand you nappies or dry tiny fingers after a bath) – but don’t force the issue if she does not want to.
Listen to her
Reassure while letting her know that you both know she’s only pretending. You could say something like: “It’s fun to play baby sometimes, but I’ll always love you even when you don’t act like one.”
Praise "big girl" behaviours
Point out the perks of being bigger, “Your little sister can’t have ice cream, because she’s a baby and babies don’t eat ice cream.” Praise her when she shows maturity and celebrate any big-kid achievements. “Giving positive reinforcement instead of focusing on the regressive behavior will help your child to feel empowered,” explains Sarah.
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Let her be a baby
Let her cling, suck her thumb, or drink from a bottle filled with water. Not letting her regress will only increase her desire to revert to baby-like behaviours and may make the phase last a whole lot longer.
Give her an out
Let your little one know it’s okay to be angry or sad. If she makes a resentful remark about her new sibling, don’t say, “You don’t really mean that.” Instead, encourage her to talk about her feelings: “You can always tell me how you feel. I always feel better when I talk about my feelings.”
Keep things steady
If a change, like a move or new sibling, is the cause of your toddler’s regression, it’s important to keep everything else in her life constant. Stick to her usual routines as much as possible.
Get some help
If none of the above help to ease the situation it may be helpful to chat with a professional. Consulting a parent-infant psychotherapist or a play therapist where both caregiver and child are seen may be beneficial. “Remember that a caregiver and a child (whether the little one is regressing or not) work together as a system and not in isolation so any problems need to be addressed as a unit,” says Sarah.