Attention-seeking behaviour in toddlers is extremely common. We have experienced our fair share of it with our eldest daughter, Lucy but her recent actions have forced us to analyse the behaviour a little more than usual to help us decide our best course of action.
Over the past several months Lucy (3.5years) has had a strong compulsion to revert to her baby self and by baby self I mean a newborn baby. Characterised by actions that look, sound and feel like we have just brought home a brand new baby, this attention-seeking behaviour had us scratching our heads for quite sometime.
At first it was tempting to explain to her that she is no longer a baby and give her a logical, enlightening rationale as to why this is so, but as the behaviour was not really limit testing and remembering RIE Associate, Janet Lansbury’s advice to “Let feelings be!”, I restrained this urge and accepted that the reversion was her way of expressing herself and communicating to us a possible unmet need.
It all began during a period of intense testiness from her younger, newly-turned-two year old sister, Penny. In this phase, Penny began demonstrating a highly-developed sense of assertiveness. As limits were tested and then set, there were many periods of highly charged meltdowns as Penny adjusted to expectations and struggled to make sense of her new found development.
For us, this meant we were required to be present with our normally contented and independent daughter, far more than usual. As she cried frequently throughout the day and sought reassurance from us, her confident leaders, it meant that our divided attention between the girls became momentarily undivided towards Penny.
This was a situation not all that familiar for Lucy and as one who seems to like the limelight and seeks to ensure she is noticed on a regular basis, she seemed to struggle with us needing to help Penny frequently through her emotions.
A 3 year old child is not normally able to express themselves too eloquently about the hard feelings they are having and as such, it is normal for them to develop their own strategies for communicating their thoughts or getting their needs met.
For Lucy, this meant lying on the floor, curled up and crying a newborn cry in an uncannily realistic manner, among other things.
We were only to pick her up in a cradle hold as she frequently asked to be swaddled in her old baby wraps, spoke in baby talk and tried fervently to squeeze herself into her old onesies and baby shoes, crying desperately when they wouldn’t fit.
At the peak of this period she even started regressing in her toilet learning, wetting and soiling her pants for a time, despite being out of nappies for well over a year.
As the phase lingered on, we wondered if we had made an error in judgment supporting her and acknowledging her need to feel like a newborn baby but we eventually determined that her reverting to her baby self was clearly letting us know that she was craving attention. Penny’s daily tantrums were taking their toll on her and her need to be recognised and acknowledged.
So we continued to support her. When she asked to wear a nappy over her clothes to be a baby we happily obliged. “You want to wear a nappy to be like a baby? Ok, lets go and choose one. Oh, you want me to carry you there like a baby? Sure (as I scoop her up). You like being a baby. Babies need a lot of special attention don’t they. Now, lets get this nappy.”
It was no big deal and it was actually kind of nice having extra caregiving moments with my now largely self-sufficient 3 year old.
In fact, it was making more and more sense that as Lucy required less and less from us when it came to caregiving tasks – she can feed herself, wash herself, dress herself, and toilet herself – she would need more connection time outside of those tasks.
We began to schedule in more one-on-one times over the weekend. We spent more time sitting by her, paying attention to her whilst she played and, of course, ensured we were slowing down any caregiving moments wherever possible to satisfy her connection needs.
Slowly, we found we were going through days at a time where ‘Baby Lucy’ began to appear less and less. Then one day she said to me, “Mum, I’m not a baby today. I’m a big sister!” I accepted her announcement as if she were telling me she had had a drink of water – without fuss.
‘Baby Lucy’ still occasionally makes an appearance, usually after bath time when she enjoys being wrapped in her towel and carried in cradle hold to her room. She snuggles in and announces: “I’m a baby” and I hold her tenderly, lay her down gently and cherish every one of these special moments with her before she really does become a big girl and no longer wants us to care for her in this way.
Attention-seeking behaviour is not mis-behaviour, it is simply a form of communication from our children to us. As they grow in their independence from us they are reminding us that we must find time to connect and give them the attention they received when they were younger, just in different ways and forms. By doing this we can help them grow in their confidence to take even bigger steps away from us, spreading their wings, assured of our ongoing love, support and affection.
This speaks to me a lot right now. My 3.5yo is the younger sister, but just lately big brother has started school, we’ve moved house and I’ve started trying to work from home. She’s started using a baby voice, and is also more and more acting out “baby” through her favourite teddy, as well as showing some more challenging behaviours. I think maybe she needs a bit more dedicated attention!
You could be right, Melanie. It sounds like you are all going through some big changes at the moment! Good luck!
This is lovely. So great that you could recognise it was a need and let it play out.
It’s lovely of you to support her in the way you do. Pinned.
You are amazing the way you respond to your girls x
What a wonderful, caring and thoughtful mama you are.
Thank you for sharing this article. My son, also almost 3.5 is going through the “baby” phase, even without another sibling in the house. I’m glad to hear the affirmation to continue to support my son through this phase because part of me sometime think if I’m “spoiling” him by letting him be “a baby” again. I don’t think that my attention has decrease in some way, but I now realize that perhaps he is just going through a phase where he needs some extra attention to grow more confidently.
Definitely not spoiling him, Claire! You’re doing a great job!
Your post has such great timing!! Our little 3 year old is going through a similar phrase so it is great to know we are not the only parents going through this. I like how you put it as being a form of communicating. Just lovely!
Thank you, Suzie!
Little ones need so much support to manage their emotions. These are such great points! Pinned!
Thank you, Anastasia!
My kids are older now but this sort of behaviour (just played out different) can exhibit in older kids, and often in those times, I realise they just need more attention. It so easy as a parent to try and attack the behaviour when the underlying issue might be totally different! Great example here of how looking past the behaviour to what is underneath.
Yes, Kelly, so true! Thank you!
I love that you let her feel these emotions. xx
My little girl (now 5 already) has always enjoyed role playing being a baby, often a baby animal instead of a child baby, and sometimes her performances in these roles are very convincing! I have always thought she loves the imaginative, pretend play aspect of it and I usually go along with her game too. On the flip side she is often very nurturing and caring, playing the mother in her games.
A helpful, thoughtful, caring reflection. Thank you so much for sharing. I’ve got lots to ponder about and this is really helpful. Pinning. xo P