Why Does My Toddler Do That? We've Got Answers! - Baby Chick
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Why Does My Toddler Do That?

A pediatric occupational therapist shares why toddlers climb on everything, stop taking naps even if they're tired, and play with their food.

Updated May 11, 2024

by Aimee Ketchum

Pediatric Occupational Therapist

If only we had a better understanding of why toddlers do what they do! Then, we might better deal with their tantrums and odd little behaviors with much more patience and understanding. So, let’s look at some typical “odd” behaviors and things your toddler might do that make us scratch our heads, including how you can handle these behaviors.

Why Does My Toddler Climb on Everything?

Imagine being contained for a year or more, watching people walk, move, and climb, and observing structures, chairs, and staircases. Then, suddenly, you have the skills to explore and climb. You’d take advantage of that exciting new skill, too! The simple answer is toddlers climb because they can. It’s a new, thrilling way of exerting their independence while exploring their world. Your toddler has no idea they can fall off the back of the sofa.4 It’s just great fun to try to get to the top!

For babies, the first part of the brain to develop is the brainstem, which comprises the hindbrain and part of the midbrain. This is at the base of the skull and controls involuntary responses such as reflexes, breathing, and heart rate.1 The midbrain is the second part of the brain to develop during the first and second year. It consists of the limbic system, which includes the hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus. These parts of the brain are responsible for controlling thirst, hunger, sleep, moods, and stress reactions, as well as perceiving and reacting to emotions and creating new memories.2

The last part of the brain to develop is the forebrain, which is responsible for higher-level thinking, problem-solving, planning, decision-making, logic, and reasoning.3 Without this part of the brain, there’s a lack of planning, decision-making, and reasoning skills. Toddlers only think on an emotional level. It doesn’t help that their physical development is excelling by leaps and bounds, and their thinking ability cannot keep up. So, they’re running (and they have no idea where) and climbing (and they have no idea why). At the same time, toddlers learn by repetition . . . a lot of repetition!5 If climbing onto the countertop was fun once, it will be fun over and over again.

How To Handle This

Keep a close eye on your climbing toddler. Not all toddlers climb, but you need to observe those who do.4 Take the time to teach them how to get down. Demonstrate going down steps backward and showing them where to put their feet and hands when climbing down from something. If you have a “climber,” provide as much outdoor play and safe climbing experiences as possible. After all, they’re learning, exploring, and getting stronger and more coordinated.

Why Did My Toddler Stop Taking Naps Even Though They’re Still Tired?

Most 18-month-olds still need one or two naps daily, as they’re typically very active and need time to rejuvenate.6 But there’s just too much to do! Your toddler’s brain and physical activity are at an all-time high, and they want to go explore and play. They simply don’t have time for sleep. They would much rather play in their bed, sneak out of bed, wander around the house, or play in their room. Your toddler still needs those naps, but they don’t know that!

Usually, when babies can walk and are considered toddlers, they’re on an adult sleeping rhythm, meaning their sleep cycles are getting closer to 90 minutes versus the shorter cycles babies have.7 This transition can be difficult for some children.

How To Handle This

Consistency is key, so try to keep nap time at the same time every day.8 Even if your baby doesn’t sleep, insist that they have some rest time in the middle of the day. Have them lie in their bed and don’t play or talk. Also, give them lots of opportunities to expend their energy during playtime. In other words, tire your toddler out, making them more likely to feel tired at nap time.8 Maybe you even lie down with your toddler. After all, running after a toddler is exhausting work, and you could probably use a little break! It’s also important to ensure your toddler gets enough sleep at night. If they’re getting up too early, try moving their bedtime up an hour. Often. Sleep begets sleep.

Why Does My Toddler Play With Their Food?

The answer is simple — toddlers don’t know it’s food! They know it’s supposed to go in their mouth, but so what? They put everything in their mouths! The bright orange of sweet potatoes, the green of avocados, and the light yellow of bananas are beautiful when smooshed into each other on a highchair tray. Babies are born with a natural sense of curiosity and wonder. They love to explore their world, experiment, and touch everything. And food is the perfect medium!9

Toddlers also love different textures. Exploring textures and how things feel against their skin is a great sensory activity to learn about the world and build important connections (or synapses) between brain cells (or neurons).9 They build meaningful new connections through experiences and are wired to seek out these interesting experiences. When babies are adequately stimulated, their brains triple in weight by their third birthday.10 This is due to so many new connections in their brains! Toddlers are just taking advantage of the materials at their disposal to learn about the world they live in.

How To Handle This

Let them play with their food and try to look past the mess. Maybe put a splat mat on the floor under the high chair and plan bath time after dinner. Allowing them to play and explore is important for their development. Don’t worry; some of it will end up in their mouth. 😉

Even if the behaviors above seem odd, know that they’re normal and that there are ways to handle them. Most of what toddlers do is dictated by their immature reasoning abilities and quest to explore. Our job as parents is to provide experiences and keep them safe!

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A woman with wavy brown hair, wearing a light blue shirt and brown pants, is sitting on the floor with her legs crossed, holding a smiling baby who is wearing a small pink bow and a diaper. They are both looking at the camera against a white background.
Aimee Ketchum Pediatric Occupational Therapist
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Dr. Aimee Ketchum is an Academic Fieldwork Coordinator and Assistant Professor of early child development at Cedar Crest College Occupational Therapy Doctoral Program. She continues practicing her skills as a… Read more

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