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Our Blog: April 8, 2011

Annoying Toddler Behaviors Demystified

By Dr. Heather

Ah, the bliss of babyhood. Tiny ones who snuggle, coo and nap on a regular schedule. Why can’t it stay that way forever? We quickly forget the strain of those early, sleepless nights with baby as we confront the new challenges of TODDLERHOOD.

With this in mind, let’s talk about toddlers. Here, we’ll focus on the weird, wacky (and often annoying) behaviors that toddlers can develop, including:

  • Sudden Fears – of baths, loud noises and Grandma
  • “Buckle-Phobia” — refusing to get in the car seat, stroller or high chair
  • Kooky Self-Soothing — including the blanket fragment stuffed in the nose, the finger in the belly button, and other gross (and embarrassing) behavior
  • Comfort Crutches —  the bottle, binkie, bear and thumb
  • “Hold you, Mama!” — the clinger monkey who won’t let go

Parents often come to me, stumped by these new, strange, and intense behaviors, worried that something must be wrong. But the behaviors actually make a lot of sense to your toddler. He’s learning new skills at a lightning-fast pace, and he’s just hanging on for dear life. He doesn’t care if his simultaneous nose-picking and thumb-sucking grosses you out — his main concern is simply making it through the day while there’s a revolution going on in his body and his mind.

Here’s why: It all starts with crawling. As he crawls away from you, he can find himself in trouble — and not know how to get back to you. So while he wants independence, he’s also terrified and needs your reassurance — which increases his clinginess. But he’s now able to do more self-soothing — so even though it makes you nuts to always see him with his thumb in his mouth, know that it helps him cope a little better on his own. Those wacky self-soothing behaviors are his way of becoming more confident – and more independent. If your child has adopted one of the weirder behaviors, I hate to break it to you, but you’ve got to look away and breathe deeply. You won’t get anywhere by discouraging the behavior – in fact, you risk increasing it by focusing on in. (My own 17-month-old walks around with her finger in her belly button all day, so I sympathize.)

Next, crawling leads to toddling — which leads to falling. Toddlers start to associate the “bang” of falling with other loud sounds. So loud sounds start to be scary to him. And now that your toddler is spending more time away from you, he’s starting to notice “familiar” and “unfamiliar”. It’s likely protective, as he learns what’s safe (and what isn’t). That’s why babies this age tend to freak when they see something that looks slightly out of place – for instance, now they notice that Grandma resembles Mom. But she’s not really Mom. Is she sort-of Mom? YIKES! All of these rapid brain developments are simultaneously exciting — and upsetting.

Panicky resistance to car seats, strollers, changing tables, or high chairs also is common now. Why? Because these “baby jails” remove the element of control from your little one — and CONTROL is what helps to decrease baby’s fears.

Here’s how to cope with those intense and kooky fears in your toddler:

  • Give him as much control as possible (given safety factors, and of course your needs, too). Let your toddler approach (or avoid) scary things (or people) at his own pace. Explain to him a few minutes in advance when it’s time to get into the car seat — and let him try to climb into it himself. (He just might do it, if you give him a minute – with you there to safely “spot” him, of course.)
  • Take the pressure off if he’s feeling shy or fearful. Don’t force your toddler into hugging Grandma if he’s suddenly afraid of her. (Grandma’s chocolate chip cookies have a way of smoothing out that particular fear, anyway.)
  • And most of all: DON’T WORRY. Weird toddler fears usually mean nothing about future psychological adjustment. (And the more YOU freak out about his fears, the more HE’LL freak out about them.)
  • But on the flip side: If he needs to get into the car seat NOW, or if he MUST have a bath tonight — that’s OK, too. Explain it to him. “I know you don’t want a bath, but you have enchiladas in your hair, honey. I promise to make this as fast as possible, then we’ll be all done.” Be supportive and understanding — but shampoo away. You won’t do any psychological harm – even if he screams in panic the whole time. The trick is to give him the general message that, WHEN POSSIBLE, you’ll give him as much control as you can. But sometimes the grown-ups have to be in charge (and that’s a good lesson, too).


Of course, check with your pediatrician to make sure there’s no medical explanation for these weird behaviors. But if you get the “all clear”, know that you’re in very good company – annoying toddler behaviors are super common.

Don’t forget to read my other blog post about tips for taming the Terrible Twos!

About the Author

Dr. Heather Wittenberg

Dr. Wittenberg is a psychologist specializing in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers — and parents. She offers no-hype, practical parenting advice on her blog BabyShrink — rooted in science, and road tested in her own home as the mother of four young children. She has helped thousands of parents over the years and knows that the most common problems with young children — sleep, feeding, potty training and behavior — can be the most difficult ones to solve.