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

Mother and child,cute little girl resting on her mother's shoulder in the train station.

by Lori Abosch

Child Behavior Specialist & Author

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From crying to single word expressions. From needing to be held throughout the day to walking. Or from diapers to underwear. These are the most significant and celebrated milestones that occur within the first three years of a child’s life. And when our rapidly developing babies start to show signs of regressive behavior, it can be baffling. Moms and dads play an integral role in nurturing language and developing strength, balance, and coordination to achieve physical independence. Language and physical prowess grow at a rapid rate in the early years. Both parents and children take joyful pride in the outcomes of their collaborative efforts. But what happens when… Read More

From crying to single word expressions. From needing to be held throughout the day to walking. Or from diapers to underwear. These are the most significant and celebrated milestones that occur within the first three years of a child’s life. And when our rapidly developing babies start to show signs of regressive behavior, it can be baffling.

Moms and dads play an integral role in nurturing language and developing strength, balance, and coordination to achieve physical independence. Language and physical prowess grow at a rapid rate in the early years. 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? Suddenly, they resort back to crying and screaming to communicate ideas, feelings, and needs. What are parents to think when they go from chasing down their tiny track stars to being begged 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 May Show Growth

Regressive behaviors can be confusing and even worrisome for parents. Parents can struggle to figure out why there has been a sudden relapse in their child’s progress. There may also be 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 needs 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 wants 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 give in and give the child a diaper.

Today’s generation of moms and dads are highly informed about early childhood milestones. They play a deliberate and active role in ensuring that their kids are prepared. Parents work hard to make sure their child is on course to meet developmental benchmarks. Maintaining progress is imperative. But parents need not 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. Then they can intervene in a manner that assists little ones in feeling confident to move to the next level.

Language Regression

Newborns cry and scream to tell their caregivers that they need something. Adults are obligated to respond to these communications because infants are entirely dependent beings. However, at a certain point, screaming becomes a learned behavior. When parents react to a screaming child by giving them what they want, the child understands that when they scream, mom or dad will respond. And usually in a positive way.

When a young child begins to make deliberate sounds attached to desired objects and people, this is a sign of growth. Parental expectations must follow suit. This means that if a child is capable of language, parents should require it. 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, children take pride in using their newfound skills to express their needs and feelings. And the relationship between parent and child will go from contentious to harmonious in no time.

Potty Training Regression

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. However, potty training is also an emotional process for young children. They learn 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 empathy and giving a child a diaper. Unfortunately, this type of intervention creates the opposite effect. The empathetic words and offering of a diaper reinforce the feeling of uncertainty in the child.

To solve regression in potty training, make sure your child stays on a schedule by visiting the potty regularly throughout the day. Most importantly, moms and dads need to express confidence to and in their children. The need to communicate that everything is okay and there is nothing to worry about. This will help convince the child that he or she is physically and emotionally capable.

Walking Regression

To a newborn, there is nothing more assuring than being held in mommy or daddy arms. The bond between parent and child is enormous during this very dependent period. Baby comes to associate love, care, and security with being carried throughout the day. As the months go by, parents diligently facilitate milestones such as rolling over, sitting up, scooting, crawling, and standing. 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. 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. Suddenly, your toddler begins to demand that he or she be picked up, held, and carried at home and on outings.

The newfound skill of walking creates a blissful excitement and freedom in the initial stages. However, moving from the security of a parent’s arms to total autonomy can also have a troubling effect on a young child. It may be a parent’s instinct to want to comfort this insecurity. But a more effective way to proceed is first to continue to require walking when and where appropriate. Mom and dad then need to learn to connect with their son or daughter when they are walking. In this way, children learn to create a positive association between walking and receiving love and attention from their parents.

Nurture and Attend to the Progress, Not the Regressive Behaviors

Without question, regressive behavior on the surface appears problematic. When parents understand it as a sign of readiness, they will recognize that what children truly need are behavioral requirements to be raised to match capacity. When parents lift the behavioral bar to age-appropriate levels, young children live up to these expectations. They also gain a sense of security, knowing that mom and dad believe in them. And they enjoy newfound confidence that they are capable of moving forward.