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child development

Your Baby’s Regressive Behavior May Be a Sign of Growth

From crying to single word expressions, from needing to be held throughout the day to walking, and from diapers to underwear; these are the most significant and celebrated milestones that occur within the first three years of a child’s life. Infants, however, cannot accomplish these feats alone as moms and dads play an integral role in nurturing language as well as supporting their little ones in the development of strength, balance, and coordination to achieve physical independence.

Language and physical prowess grow at a rapid rate in the early years and both parents and children take joyful pride in the outcomes of their collaborative efforts, but what happens when children with the capacity for language suddenly refuse to use their words and resort back to crying and screaming to communicate ideas, feelings, and needs? What are parents to think when they quickly go from chasing down their tiny track stars in the home and stores to being personal chauffeurs in response to their toddler’s demands to be carried 24/7? And, when a fully potty trained 3-year-old suddenly starts having frequent accidents and insists on wearing a diaper to go poop, what are parents to do?

Regressive behaviors can be confusing and even worrisome for parents as they not only struggle to figure out why there has been a sudden relapse in their child’s progress, but also a certain level of worry that there might be something wrong. It is not uncommon for regressive behaviors to be interpreted as a sign that a child is overwhelmed, confused, and in need of assistance. For example, when a child cries and points to a sippy cup of milk, a parent’s instinct is to give the milk immediately because the child must be thirsty. When a child is wanting to be held frequently, the natural tendency is to provide comfort to soothe the perceived insecurity. When there is a sudden refusal to eliminate in the potty, moms and dads frequently acquiesce and give the child a diaper to wear for fear that their son or daughter is just not ready to continue with the potty-training process.

Today’s generation of moms and dads are highly informed about early childhood milestones, and play a deliberate and active role in ensuring that their offspring are prepared and on course to meet physical and lingual benchmarks within or even before the expected developmental range. Maintaining progress is imperative and parents need not be deterred or feel hesitant about continuing to nurture the growth of their children. Parents need only make a slight adjustment in their interpretation of these perplexing behaviors and then intervene in a manner that assists little ones in feeling capable and confident to move to the next level.

Language: From Crying to Screaming to Using Your Words

Newborns cry and scream as a notification to their primary caregivers that they need food, diaper change, affection, attention, and much more. Adults are obligated to respond to these communications because infants are completely dependent beings. However, at a certain point, screaming becomes a learned behavior when children who have the capacity for even a semblance of language scream, and parents respond by giving them what they want. So, children come to understand that when they scream mom or dad will respond and usually in a positive way.

Parents need to be aware that at the point when a young child begins to make deliberate sounds that are attached to desired objects and people, this is a sign of growth, and parental expectations must follow suit. This meaning that if a child is capable of language, parents should require it because, giving a screaming child more milk when he or she is capable of saying “ma,” “more,” “more milk,” or “I want more milk please takes away from the opportunity to develop more language. To elicit more age-appropriate communications, a parent should calmly and patiently wait for the screams to dissipate then encourage, model, and require language when and wherever possible.  In doing so, not only will children take pride in using their newfound skills to express their needs and feelings, but the relationship between parent and child will go from contentious to harmonious in no time.

Potty-Training: From Diapers to Underwear Forever

The potty-training process can be a long and arduous one, but once achieved parents and children generally feel a sense of relief and freedom. However, it is not uncommon, at a certain point, even after a child is functioning independently on the potty, for part of or the whole process to shift in reverse. Potty training relies on the physical ability to manipulate clothing and muscle control for holding and eliminating at the appropriate times. However, potty training is also an emotional process for young children where they are learning to independently regulate and tend to their very personal needs with minimal to no adult assistance.

Holding poop for extended periods and/or demanding a diaper is a child’s way of attempting to control his or her world and feelings of uncertainty. A parent’s instinct in this situation is often to protect from feelings of emotional discomfort by providing heavy doses of empathy and giving a child a diaper to eliminate in. Unfortunately, though, this type of intervention creates the opposite effect in that the empathetic words and offering of a diaper work to reinforce in the child the very feelings the parent is attempting to eliminate.

The most effective way to solve regression in potty training for frequent accidents and withholding bowel movements is to first ensure that children stay on a schedule by visiting the potty regularly and during established times throughout the day. Most importantly, moms and dads need to exude and express confidence to and in their children that everything is okay and there is nothing to worry about so that the child is convinced that he or she is physically and emotionally capable.

Walking: Create a Loving Connection While on the Move

To a newborn, there is nothing more assuring and loving than being cozied up and held in mommy or daddy arms. The bond between parent and child is enormous during this very dependent period and baby comes to associate love, care, and security with being carried and attended to throughout the day. As the months go by, parents diligently facilitate micro-milestones such as rolling over, sitting up, scooting, crawling, and standing. All of these physical accomplishments lay the foundation for the strength, balance, and coordination needed for a child to walk independently.

Toddlers typically celebrate their walking achievements by sprinting and exploring every aspect of their environment and it is all parents can do to keep pace while ensuring their children stay safe. This period can seem like a never-ending marathon until the day the child decides that walking is no longer a pleasure or a privilege and begins to request, insist, and even demand that he or she be picked up, held, and carried at home and on outings in the community.

The newfound skill of walking creates a blissful excitement and a type of internal and external freedom in the initial stages, however, moving from the comfort and security of a trusting parent’s arms to total autonomy to move about can also have a disconcerting effect on a young child. While it may be a parent’s instinct to want to comfort this insecurity, a more effective way to ease the emotional discomfort is to first continue to require walking when and where appropriate and for mom and dad to learn to connect with their son or daughter when he or she is walking. In this way, children learn a new and satisfying way to bond with mommy or daddy by creating a positive association between walking and receiving love and attention from their parents.

Moving Forward: Nurture and Attend to the Progress Not the Setback

Without question, behavioral regression, on the surface, appears problematic, but when perceived instead as a sign of readiness parents will be able to release worry and concern and replace it with a sense of certainty in the knowledge that what children truly need amid expressions of emotional unease are for behavioral requirements to be raised to match capacity. When parents lift the behavioral bar to age-appropriate levels, young children not only live up to these expectations but also gain a sense of security in the knowledge that mom and dad believe in them and a newfound confidence that they are capable of moving forward.

For additional resources, please check out Kaley Medina’s, a certified baby sleep consultant, article called 5 Tips to Survive Sleep Regressions.

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