Q: My 19-month-old has been very clingy with me lately, to the point that he follows me from room to room and whines or cries if I don’t pick him up when he wants to be held. I just can’t sometimes — not because I don’t want to, but because I have things to do. When I can pick him up, should I indulge him and hold him, or am I making the situation worse? Picking him up, comforting him and reassuring him that I love him doesn’t stop the clinginess. He cries when I put him down no matter how long I hold him. Please tell me this is a normal stage.
A: This is a normal stage. You told me to tell you that, so I did.
And I really do believe that this is normal, but please always see your pediatrician with your concerns. With children this young, it is important to also have professionals observe their behavior.
Allow me to begin with a word in your letter that is sticking out to me: “indulge.” At some point, we decided that it is indulgent to pick up our kids when they cry and want us. Whether it’s cry-it-out sleep training or ignoring them when they hang on us, parents have been told that if they respond to their child’s cries, they will “train” their child to cry more. They will spoil them.
This could not be further from the truth.
Developmentally, the younger children are, the closer they need to stay to their parent or caregiver. And I mean this literally. Your son must stay physically close to you almost constantly. His brain is not mature enough to help him make decisions; you are his prefrontal cortex. For the first two years of his life, you are his whole universe. The closer he is to you physically, the safer he feels. The safer he feels, the more his body and mind can mature. Human babies require deep and constant connection, physically and emotionally. They will not mature properly if they do not receive this.
No other species needs as much connection as intensely, and for as long, as humans do.
And for most of the time that humans have walked the Earth, we raised our children in communities. Someone (grandmother, aunt, sister, usually a woman) would pick up a crying child. Mothers have also “worn” their babies, eliminating the need to constantly pick them up. These decisions probably were not made consciously; there was work to get done and other babies to mind. It was practical and common sense.
Even as humans evolved, families largely have stuck together. Whether in small towns, the city or a shared home, it was normal to have your cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents nearby.
In 2016, though, parents are more isolated. Your 19-month-old cannot make good decisions, and he needs you. He will cry for you if he is hungry, lonely, bored, sick, tired, overwhelmed, in need of a diaper change or just away from you. Some toddlers are more sensitive than others, but toddlers who need their parents are normal. You are not indulging your child when you pick him up.
But how can you live like this? You are essentially asking me: “Can I let him cry while I make food? Use the bathroom? Sit for a moment?”
Yes, you can.
Crying, when couched in a healthy and connected relationship, is a way that toddlers adapt to something they cannot change. If you usually meet your son’s need to be picked up, it’s okay to allow him to become frustrated from time to time. The hard part is that this is a dance between parent and child. Allowing your child to cry is beneficial to his resilience and maturity. Allowing your toddler to cry too much builds more neediness and, in some cases, traumatizes him.
How can you find balance and handle these tears?
1. Acknowledge that the tears are normal and not personal. You aren’t a bad mom if he cries while you use the toilet. And you are not a bad mom if you pick him up when he cries for you.
2. Ask for help. Friends, family, paid help, day care, nanny shares and mother’s helpers — there are lots of ways to build your village. Your child can and should be held by other loving people. There is no shame in needing some relief if you have taken all you can of the crying. Even if you just have a teen in the neighborhood come over for a couple of hours some afternoons, you will have more energy to stay positive with your little one.
3. Keep talking to him as you cook, check email, use the toilet, etc. You can narrate what you are doing and say loving things such as, “Mommy is just flipping the eggs, and I promise I will be right back. I am right here, I am coming back.” Yes, he will cry and follow you, but often your voice can soothe him. Stay true to your word, go back and get him, and smile and say: “Mommy is here! You did great. It’s okay.” Try not to act angry or overly frustrated by it.
4. Take note of his fussiest times and plan around them. (This is not spoiling.) Keep in mind that this stage will pass, and don’t feel guilty about holding him. Why will he not become spoiled? Because having needs met does not spoil children, especially at this age. Crying, smiling, laughing, pointing and uttering a few words are the only ways he has to communicate with you. When your toddler cries, he is not manipulating you. He has a real emotion, and you can answer his call. Don’t listen to people who say you are “creating a monster.” When it is time for him to mature and handle a little more time away from you, you will know and feel it. Trust in that.
5. Have faith and confidence that if you stay calm and loving, this stage will pass. If you stay angry, yell at your toddler, keep your body tense and flee from him, he will become needier and needier. Try to stay steady, keep his routine strong and get as much fresh air as you can.
8 Send questions about parenting to email@example.com.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Aug. 31.