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Weathering the Storms of Toddlerhood

Elizabeth Field Bauchner
NY USA and
Patty Jacobs
GA USA
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 19 No. 1, January-February 2002, p. 4

When our children are babies, meeting their needs for breastfeeding and holding comforts them and us-we can be confident in knowing that their wants and needs are the same. As they move toward toddlerhood, however, that's not necessarily so.

Karla, an LLL Leader and mother of four from Missouri, USA, says that she always knew when what her babies' wanted had gone beyond what they needed for survival and comfort: The crawling babies started wanting to play with the electrical outlets or sockets. That's only one of the baby and toddler "wants" that can be downright harmful. Toddlers' pranks and explorations show healthy curiosity, but they may be dangerous, destructive, or inconvenient to the parents.

It's the parents' job to set limits that still allow for growth and the learning of independence and self-reliance. How that happens depends on the age of the child. Here are some suggestions for guiding children at different ages and stages.

Babying the Baby

When you think about disciplining children, it's the older ones who come to mind. But the foundation of discipline is actually laid during infancy. Parents can learn to communicate with their baby and read his cues by accepting his needs and working to meet those needs. These crucial skills, developed over time from the baby's infancy, set the stage for a better understanding of your child that can last a lifetime.

In order to learn to read babies' cues, close contact is crucial; breastfeeding helps with that. Many newborn babies need to be held almost all of the time or they will cry; sometimes they'll cry even when they are held constantly. Adjusting to life outside the uterus can be a strain, as babies must make the transition from a place where they were comfortable and never felt the sensation of hunger.

Culture, however, also tells parents not to hold babies too much because they will "get spoiled." Some people will tell new parents that it's important to let babies cry if the infants are still crying after a nursing or diaper change. "That baby's manipulating you," a not-so-helpful adviser might say, attributing hostile motivations to the infant. Babies, however, only know what they need. They are not aware that their demands have the potential to exhaust parents. Babies cry for many, many reasons and it is best for the baby (and parents) to find out what is wrong and to take care of his needs promptly.

As Dorothy Corkille Briggs writes in her classic book, Your Child's Self-Esteem, "Most infants, although not all, experience their needs as intense and immediate; they have little tolerance for frustration....Gentle respect for the infant's ways and quiet friendliness build trust." By taking care of an infant's intense and immediate needs, parents teach baby that he has some control over his environment, which is important for the child's later development.

A baby whose cries are not responded to soon learns that it doesn't matter if he is troubled, crying doesn't help-nothing helps. A parenting style that teaches that life is a futile journey does not encourage good behavior as a child grows. Using a sling or other soft baby carrier is one way to meet a baby's need for closeness and motion. There are many options to choose from, and the hands-free style of a carrier allows parents to go about their day while letting the little one ride along. Babies get their need to be held met while also learning about the world in which they live, and mother and father can get their chores done, take a walk, or engage in some other activity.

Of course, no parent can hold a baby all the time. By staying available and close to baby, it can be easier to learn to read his cues. Each baby is different, so an important step in learning your baby's cues is not to do just what a book says, but what you can see and feel is right for your baby. Some babies prefer to nap alone, away from distractions, while other babies like to be held during naps.

Toddlers: Babies on the Go

Babies' needs change as they begin to explore their environment. They need to be held less, and they need freedom to roam. In order to meet the needs of growing toddlers, it is necessary to baby-proof the home if you want to avoid saying "no" all the time.

Even with the best of planning, toddlers are innately curious about their world and will push all of your buttons. One 15-month-old would look coyly at his parents before turning off the computer or pressing his face against the oven glass. He loved the reaction he'd get from the parents, but he was too young to understand why they were getting worked up when he did things the parents didn't want him to do.

In time, with patience and with repeated explanations, toddlers will come to understand words like "danger," "hot," and "sharp." They will learn what it means to be careful. In the meantime, a firm, quick response to keep your toddler from danger sends him the message that you are serious.

Parenting authors William and Martha Sears also advocate showing genuine fear when toddlers do something dangerous. This way, the toddlers can better appreciate the seriousness of the situation. A scream of fear as the child approaches the street has more of an impact than an angry lecture. From a toddler's perspective, parents are always limiting fun things for no apparent reason-when little ones sense real fear, they know the situation is serious even if they still don't understand the reason why.

Redirecting curious toddlers is one possibility for handling situations where they want to explore something fragile or dangerous. Distracting them, or getting them interested in something else, may work.

Another strategy is to let the child touch the dangerous object under your guidance. Show them how it is used and when, perhaps let them try it with your help (and depending on your comfort level), or let them hold the fragile object, explaining how it could break. Often, this appeases their curiosity, and then they will gladly play with something else.

The important thing to remember is that toddlers don't frustrate their parents on purpose. They are learning, and deserve to learn all they can about their environment. If parents put "no-no's" in their child's reach and become angry when the child wants to touch them, maybe the parents need to consider storing their treasures until their toddler can resist the urge to pick everything up (usually around the age of three or older).

When parents' knickknacks are out of reach, it helps to have a few interesting, stimulating toys available for toddlers to play with. Rotating toys can keep toddlers busy exploring a child-friendly environment. Toddlers will seem disinterested in a toy after a while, then forget about it if it's placed out of their sight for a few weeks or months. Then, they'll happily play with it again when it replaces toys they are currently bored with. For a toddler, though, adult objects often have the most appeal. Plastic containers, boxes, spoons, pots, and pans all make interesting toddler toys.

In The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, one mother suggests, "It makes good practical sense to baby-proof your house as much as possible, because otherwise you'll spend your entire day battling with your child." She continues, "Most likely you have already given up at least one lower cupboard to your toddler anyway. Be sure to fill it with real utensils such as an old coffee pot, plastic bowls, and spatulas."

Challenging Toddler Behaviors: The Twos and Beyond

Normal toddler behavior can include aggressive actions such as hitting, biting, hair pulling, head-butting, pushing, and scratching. The infamous temper tantrum may also be common. Toddlers also have a tendency to throw food and drinks down on the floor, scream when they don't get their way, not listen to their parents, and fight off sleep.

When these things happen, it is hard to take a positive approach, especially if your toddler repeats them day in and out. Don't take it personally, but do redirect their behavior. Even toddlers from very loving homes will pull hair or bite at times, usually out of curiosity about the reaction from others. It is important not to respond to aggressive behavior with aggressive behavior. In time, children come to understand what you mean when you say, "That hurts! Please don't bite me!" In the meantime, reinforce appropriate behavior when inappropriate behavior happens. "Son, you can bite this teething toy but not people." "Son, be gentle. It hurts when you pull hair or hit others." Then figure out what the child needs and redirect him to a toy or activity. Sometimes the toddler simply needs reassurance from you that they are still loved. Try to be consistent, and over time you will see positive results.

Offering to nurse a toddler who is showing the beginning signs of aggressive behavior often works well to calm both mother and child. Toddlers who seem aggressive may have some anxieties. Did he start daycare recently? Was he recently weaned? Are one or both parents gone more than usual? Is a new sibling receiving lots of parents' attention? All of these issues (and more subtle ones, too) can create aggressions in toddlers, since they do not know how to verbalize their feelings or meet their own needs. They need understanding, caring, and empathetic parents to help them deal with these growing pains.

When one family moved across the US, the two-year-old started pushing other children down. At first, the mother thought is was because he was feeling crowded, but he soon started walking across rooms just to push other children over! Eventually, the wise mother linked his actions to his insecurities about their move. After all, every day for almost a whole month he had seen many new faces. It was overwhelming, even for the mother, so she decided to cut back on activities and stay together as a family for a while. After about one week of seeing only his immediate family, he seemed to feel secure again and the pushing stopped altogether.

Some annoying toddler behaviors, such as throwing food, do go away as the child grows, especially if the parent doesn't turn it into a power struggle. Phases like this are often short-lived. Of course, removing the food from the toddler or the toddler from the food will end the behavior and give the child a lesson in the consequences of his or her actions. Redirection comes in handy at these times, too. For toddlers who like to throw things, make sure you have an assortment of throwable items, such as soft balls and toys. And then offer an appropriate place to throw.

Parenting challenges remain with us always, but we can consistently show our love for our children by respecting them as individuals and learning what is typical behavior for their ages. Having realistic expectations helps a lot. Just as a three-month-old is not expected to walk, a two-year-old should not be expected to sit through a formal dinner. Respecting children as individuals with their own ideas and motivations also helps them to develop their own sense of self. The psychological concept of "locus of control" comes into play, which refers to whether or not an individual is motivated from within. (See sidebar: The Principles of Loving Guidance.)

La Leche League has been promoting positive discipline or loving guidance for years as a form of guiding children that shows respect and love. As children get even older, this foundation of positive discipline can help ride out the storms of older children and the frequently challenging teenager.

Recommended Reading

Positive discipline promotes self-esteem and provides structure and appropriate limits. Here are some specific book recommendations for different situations from Diane Beckman, chairman of the LLL Book Evaluation Committee.

What are developmentally appropriate expectations?

William and Martha Sears: The Discipline Book
Elizabeth Crary: Without Spanking or Spoiling
Norma Jane Bumgarner: Mothering Your Nursing Toddler

What are temperamentally appropriate expectations?

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka: Raising Your Spirited Child
Paul Tieger and Barbara Barron-Tieger: Nurture by Nature
Gary Chapman & Ross Campbell: The Five Love Languages of Children
Dawn Markova: How Your Child Is Smart

What books also encourage sensitivity to children's feelings?

Elizabeth Crary: Children's Problem Solving Series; Dealing With Feelings Series
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka: Kids, Parents and Power Struggles
Faber and Mazlish: How to Talk So Kids will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk

What about the parent's feelings?

Ilene Val-Essen: Bring Out the Best in Your Child and Yourself
Eda Leshan: When Your Child Drives You Crazy
Nancy Samalin: Love and Anger

Family Dynamics? Sibling issues?

Linda Budd: Living with the Active Alert Child
Tine Thevenin: Mothering and Fathering
Faber & Mazlish: Siblings Without Rivalry
Elizabeth Crary: Help! The Kids Are At It Again

For help setting limits:

Elizabeth Pantley: Kid Cooperation
Nancy Samalin: Loving Your Child Is Not Enough
Cynthia Whitman: Winning the Whining War & Other Skirmishes


The Principles of Loving Guidance

By Patty Jacobs

Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of meeting the needs of the baby. This is the first concept statement or basic principle that La Leche League uses when giving information to mothers about breastfeeding. Do you sometimes wish that other aspects of parenting were as obviously natural and effective? The issues surrounding discipline in our modern world are often complex and controversial. Where do we turn for guidance? To our parents and family members, neighbors, trusted friends or to the latest books? And if you go to the books, how do you know which ones will really help you become the parents your children need and deserve? I chose to turn to the experienced mothers of La Leche League and to the recommended books that were available in the Group library or in the LLLI Catalogue. There seemed to be a wealth of information at my fingertips and most of it was aligned with my heart. I learned to read with a critical eye, taking what sounded right for my family and leaving the rest behind.

In La Leche League we believe that from infancy on, children need loving guidance, which reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings. This principle, written in very positive language, is the barometer by which I measure my discipline decisions as well as judge the value of parenting books. So often society tends to view discipline as the way negative behavior is addressed. Spanking, time-outs, restrictions, and various forms of punishment come to mind. Because discipline means to teach and guide in the truest sense of the word, it makes sense to include both positive behavior that you wish to instill or reinforce as well as the consequences of negative behavior, under the same umbrella. This is what loving guidance is all about.

We begin our parenting journey meeting the needs of our baby while mothering through breastfeeding and during this time we take assurance that his wants and needs are indistinguishable. This is not necessarily so for a toddler. In fact, some toddler "wants" would be downright harmful! A toddler's pranks and explorations are to him just innocent fun or healthy curiosity. They may be dangerous, destructive, or just inconvenient, but it's our job to teach him, to discipline him, and set limits for him. Limits give a child a sense of security. Consistency with limit setting adds to a parent's predictability and the child's trust of the parent.

Within the confines of our limits the secure child can explore in safety and we can guide him lovingly. And as we set limits we must also teach and reinforce the behavior we wish him to practice. The limit setting continues as the child grows, but limits must change as the child's capabilities advance. Reevaluating these limits allows the child to continue learning independence, self-reliance, and responsibility through the choices he makes within the confines of your limits.

We lovingly guide our children to help them do the right things for the right reasons. They must experience the satisfaction of behaving right; not merely the negative consequences for wrong behavior-to help them move gradually from dependence to independence. Many experts on child behavior are moving away from what some call "behavior modification." It's the use of punishments and rewards to manipulate the child with the premise that he will want to avoid punishments and actively seek rewards and praise. And if both are doled out in quantity and with regularity, negative behavior is reduced.

Behavior modification is often a negative form of discipline. It contributes to and often sets up an external locus of control in a child. On the other hand positive discipline encourages the child to use an internal locus of control. A person's "locus of control" refers to whether one is externally or internally motivated. Dr. Arnold Rincover writes "Children who have an internal locus of control think that they are responsible for their successes and failures. They believe that if they succeed it is because they try hard and have the ability to succeed. Other children may feel they do not have control over what happens to them. If good things happen it is due to luck, circumstances, or other people. These children have an external locus of control. Many children will fall between these two extremes and possess characteristics of each type." He continues with "A child's locus of control begins to develop at infancy. Infants are clearly happier if they feel they have control over the world around them. The more a child's crying is ignored during the first years, the more likely a child will feel powerless." As a child grows we can encourage his internal locus of control by allowing independence and responsibility to move along at a natural pace. Children who experience life's natural consequences, both positive and negative, tend to develop a more internal locus of control.

As the parents of two teenagers, my husband and I are sometimes faced with difficult decisions that we are not always prepared to make. Teens, like toddlers, are full of surprises! It was this principle of loving guidance that helped us see that it's not only what we don't do-spanking, giving time-outs, and making threats or ultimatums-but what we actually do to and for our children that counts as well. As our parenting journey continues, as our children grow and change, our methods need to be adjusted to match their capabilities as well as be sensitive to issues of importance to them today.


Last updated 11/16/06 by jlm.
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