What is Toddler Regression?
You may notice that your little one is growing bigger and older, and wants expression of their own independence - i.e., they fervently want to do things on their own terms. But all of a sudden we may see them regress into a little insecure baby, sometimes labelled as "acting like a baby". Commonly seen during the "Terrible Two's" period of development in toddlerhood, sometimes it's unsettling and we're unsure what to do.
E.g., Sometimes when they're confident, we hear "No, I don't want this.....(or that), I want you to sit here, and do that", and they can be seen jumping from high places and seemingly undaunted. But all of a sudden they feel like they need a cuddle, and come to you seeking safety and urge you to cradle them like an infant.
Do not fret! This is perfectly developmentally appropriate. I have a 2.5 year-old pint sized wildling, who's always keen on showing me the definition of confidence, but in a wink of an eye, I'm summoned...."Daddyyyy!", and I'm wondering what's up. And I'm requested to cradle her like a baby.
It is good to know that it is normal, and a significant part of their development that they are always seeking reassurance and they are not constantly confident. Those things we heard about them being "little adults" may not be very useful, especially since it connotes that they are more capable than we observe. Rather, they're going to need us to guide them when necessary and step away to allow them the opportunity to make mistakes and pick themselves up so they learn. All at the same time, us being confident that we're not being a "helicopter" or disconnected parent.
However, if you start noticing that there's more regression than normal, let's talk.
Understand the context.
There may be many reasons why our little squids become insecure - we might have to turn up our attunement volume and listen out for the signs of what may potentially cause that. They are more sensitive than we are, and as they say, like sponges - picking things up where we might not even realise it.
He or she may have conflicting feelings about growing up and becoming separate from you, or he may be feeling frustrated or overwhelmed by a developmental milestone. Regression can also be a reaction to a change or a stressful situation in his life, such as the arrival of a new sibling, starting preschool, or tension at home.
What they are really telling us.
"Mum and Dad, I need some extra attention and sensitivity from you..." - this helps us understand what they really need from us when we may be clueless what they're on about.
Remember, they need us to help them navigate and we are the first two individuals that they will base their life's template on. So support their growth by meeting their needs than querying if it makes them rely on you - but shouldn't they? Children are just unable to be independent (the way we understand adult independence) because their brains are still developing, even up till early adulthood, about 18yo!
What to do about it.
Go ahead and baby your child. Let him/her cling, suck their thumb, or drink from a bottle (but fill it only with water). Not letting him slide back will only increase his desire to revert to babyhood and may prolong the phase.
Heap on the love. Show him that he/she doesn't have to act like a baby to get your attention. If you have a newborn in the house, set aside one-on-one time with your toddler. You might also appeal to his/her sense of importance. Enlist his/her help with the baby (he/her can hand you diapers or dry tiny toes after a bath).
Hold the criticism. Instead, be reassuring while letting him/her know that you both know he's only pretending. ("It's fun to play baby sometimes, but I'll always love you even when you don't act like one.")
Celebrate grown-up actions. Point out the perks of being bigger. ("Too bad your little sister can't have ice cream, but she's a baby and babies don't eat ice cream.") Praise him/her when he displays maturity and applaud his/her big-kid achievements (like using a spoon or solving a puzzle).
Provide a release valve. Let your little one know it's okay to be angry or sad. If he/she makes a resentful remark about the new sibling, don't say, "You don't really mean that." Instead, encourage them to talk about their feelings. ("You can always tell me how you feel. I always feel better when I talk about my feelings.")
Don't rock the boat. If a change (like a new sibling) is at the root of your toddler's regression, it's especially important to reduce other changes in his life. Stick to his/her usual schedule and routines as much as possible.
Recommended Easy Reference:
I highly recommend this next book published by the creators of the Circle of Security, Raising a Secure Child (2017), as an excellent resource for parents keen on nurturing their child's attachment, emotional resilience, and freedom to explore.