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Clingy behaviors in toddlers

It can be nice to feel needed sometimes, but toddlers around Baby’s age often take that feeling all the way to another level. Baby is right at the age when separation anxiety often peaks, but it’s also common for toddlers to go through many ups and downs of clinginess and fear at the thought of being away from parents or caregivers. It can be helpful to know that it’s a perfectly normal stage of development, and not anything to worry about, or a sign of any kind of problem. It’s not always reassuring to learn that it’s a stage that could repeat itself throughout Baby’s childhood in one form or another, but better to be prepared than to be caught off-guard, right?

Why toddlers cling

Toddlers cling to parents or other caregivers when they’re seeking reassurance, but that’s not a sign of a problem with the attachment between parent or caregiver and child. In fact, children with less secure attachments can feel less willing to reach out to parents or caregivers when they’re scared or upset. Insecurity and nervousness are part of life – when toddlers cling in response to those feelings, they’re showing they trust their parents or caregivers to make them feel better.

Still, clinginess isn’t always easy to live with. There’s no real way to cut clinginess off, but there are a few strategies for dealing with it that can be reassuring to toddlers’ insecurities.

  • Accept the cling: Encouraging toddlers to let go, play independently, or play with someone else, often just prompts them to cling harder. Accepting that your toddler is just going to be sticking close for a while, and not making that big of a deal out of it, can help to keep their clinginess from turning into a power struggle.
  • Preemptive strike: Baby wants your attention and your time, so give them what they want – before they think to ask for it. If Baby is in a clingy stage, try showering them with attention and affection from the moment they wake up in the morning. Who knows? They might be the one who needs a little space before too long.
  • Look for patterns: There may be a certain time of day when Baby feels clingiest or fussiest, and it can make life much easier to plan around these times for a little while. The clingy stage will pass on its own eventually, and it’s not spoiling Baby to take their moods and feelings into account as you figure out the shape of your family’s day.
  • Find the work-around: Often, one of the big problems with toddler clinginess is just the practical issue that it’s hard to get things done with a toddler attached to your leg. There are a few different ways to handle this, from breaking out a sling or larger baby carrier (if you’re feeling especially brawny) to setting them up in a playpen nearby, and talking to them through the whole process, so that they are constantly reassured that you’re nearby. In the case of many around-the-house chores, getting Baby involved can be a great way to handle getting them done while letting them cling. Accepting that they're clinging doesn’t mean letting the world revolve around them. The dishes still have to get done, but maybe you can find a stool for them to stand on next to you by the sink, and a cloth they can use to dry the silverware. They might end up dropping most of it, but it’ll get them used to participating in the things that need to get done around the house.
  • Practice your goodbyes: Goodbyes, whether you’re leaving Baby at daycare for the day, or just in the living room while you take a quick shower, can be especially hard if Baby is feeling clingy. It can be tempting to either drag out goodbyes (it’s so hard to leave ripping-off-a-bandage-fast when Baby is turning those tragic eyes on you) or sneak out while they're distracted, but both of these can make toddlers feel more insecure. Consistency in leaving is reassuring, even if Baby isn’t in the mood to thank you for it. Tell them that you’re leaving, and how long you’ll be gone, and then do what you said. Giving them a specific timeframe (like “I’ll be back by the time you wake up from your nap.”) helps to build trust and make Baby feel more secure about your comings and goings.
  • Act as a bridge: If Baby wants to stick close to you during social situations, that’s fine – it gives you the opportunity to act as a bridge between them and other people. If you’re hanging out with other toddlers, then, by extension Baby is, too. If you’re having a nice conversation with another adult, Baby is getting used to that adult’s presence, and maybe starting to relax around them. If you’re playing in the sandbox with Baby and other kids, you’re there to help them navigate sticky situations like sharing and playing together versus playing near each other.

It can be worrying to parents when normally outgoing toddlers start sticking closer to them, but generally, clinginess is a normal phase that passes on its own with parents’ support and encouragement.

  • Meghan Leahy. “Mom of clingy toddler asks: Is it okay to take a break?” The Washington Post. The Washington Post, August 24 2016. Web.
  • Laura Markham. “Is Responsive Parenting Causing Clinginess in 13 month old?” Aha! Parenting. Dr. Laura Markham. Web.
  • Laura Markham. “Playing with Your Child: Games for Connection and Emotional Intelligence.” Aha! Parenting. Dr. Laura Markham. Web.
  • Melinda Wenner Moyer. “‘Caaaarrrryyyyy Meeeeeeeee!’ How to handle a clingy kid.” Slate. The Slate Group, January 10 2014. Web.
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