IT’S a classic scenario: You are in the middle of your grocery shopping, when all of a sudden the child who was clinging to your leg two seconds ago is now screaming and crying on the floor.
You are exhausted because you were up three times with your toddler overnight and then lost a trying battle at breakfast because they didn’t want to eat.
Do not pull your hair out in frustration. This is completely normal toddler behaviour and it should pass.
Lia Spencer sat down with Cathie Arndt, co-ordinator of Maternal and Child Health at the City of Casey to discuss what is and is not normal toddler behaviour, and how to seek help for ongoing problems.
The problem: They aren’t counting sheep
Should toddlers be sleeping all night? Not necessarily. Just like adults’ sleep patterns can differ from evening to evening, so do children. Some adults are heavily sleepers, some wake at a drop of the hat. Same with children.
Ms Arndt said parents should be careful not to compare their children to other children.
“Sleep varies from child to child, and it is important that you consider what is normal for your child, so you can then work out when something is different and why,” Ms Arndt said.
“It can depend a lot on activity levels, changes in environment or whether they have been thrown out of their normal routine. Sometimes sleep can be disrupted if the child has gone somewhere new that day, seen something new, didn’t have their morning sleep or are getting teeth. There is no easy answer.”
It is important to get your child in a sleeping routine from birth, Ms Arndt said, but if the sleeping problem begins, or persists as they get older, try to pin-point what may have caused it.
“If you can figure out what has changed in their life, you can usually give it a few days and things will settle. If it persists, then you can seek assistance, because if you get exhausted and are not sleeping, it usually throws the whole house into disarray. It’s sometimes easy to sit down with someone else and worth things out.”
Ms Arndt said there are a number of free child and maternal health programs to assist with sleeping issues. Check with your local council or speak to our maternal and child health nurse.
The problem: They hate eating anything green, or orange, or anything that tastes remotely healthy
How do they know that broccoli is good for you and why do they refuse to eat it? Ms Arndt said food is needed to pack on weight and height up until children at 12 months old, after that, their growth slows and they aren’t as hungry. The fussy-eating stage usually comes when children are aged 18 months to about two years.
“Toddlers realise that they can make decisions about their own lives, so they often decided that they aren’t going to eat a particular thing. If they don’t want to eat something, they often get a reaction from their parents and they continue to build on that. It’s normal and healthy behaviour and shows that they have independence,” Ms Arndt said.
“Many parents worry that their children will suffer nutritionally, but they generally won’t. They aren’t going to starve themselves. They are busy or pre-occupied and just don’t want to eat.”
“I heard a quote that says, ‘It’s a parent’s role to decide what food to offer children, when to offer it and where to offer it. It’s a child’s role to decide whether they will eat it and how much they will eat’,” Ms Arndt said. “You can’t force-feed your kids.”
Ms Arndt said parents should tell their children when playtime is and when meal time is, and let them be involved by setting the table or getting certain items from the fridge to give to you.
If they aren’t eating at meal time, Ms Arndt suggests saving night time meals for lunch the next day, and giving them something light to eat instead. She also said grating vegies and hiding them in meals is a great way to ensure they are getting nutrients.
Ms Arndt said it’s important to give your toddler healthy snacks throughout the day such as making chips out of vegies “zucchini chips, pumpkin chips, sweet potato chips, eggplant chips or carrot chips,” she said. “Use a bit of cooking spray and cook them in the oven so they aren’t deep fried.”
She also suggested using yogurt or cheese as a dip for fruit or vegies.
Sugary snacks are also okay to be used in moderation.
“The less sugary snacks kids are exposed to, the better – but they can be a sometimes food,” she said. “To develop a good healthy attitude to food is to know when you can eat something most of the time, and something else sometimes.”
The problem: A good old case of the terrible twos.
Ah, yes … screaming, crying, throwing, biting and all the rest of the fun that comes with toddler tantrums. It can be embarrassing, tiring and frustrating – but you can breathe a little sigh of relief too, this behaviour is completely normal.
“It’s a toddler’s way of communicating,” Ms Arndt said.
“Rather than using words they don’t know, if they don’t like something they will throw it, or if you tell them no and they aren’t happy, they will throw themselves on the floor. They want attention from you. Same with biting and hair pulling – it’s a way of trying to get what they want or getting a reaction.”
Awareness, distraction and decision-making are all key points in helping you conquer the tantrums. Ms Arndt said if your toddler was hungry or tired, they may be more susceptible to tantrums. She also suggested that if you know what things will set your toddler into a tailspin, to distract them before they get to that point. Making them feel a sense of empowerment may also help.
“Tantrums are also about being in control, so let them make decisions throughout the day. If you are giving them food, give them a choice between two different things – let them be part of the decision to make them feel a bit more in control.”
It is also important to reinforce that biting and hair-pulling is wrong and not allowed.
Ms Aarnt said if the tantrums are consistent or affect the ability to enjoy their life, they you should speak to a health nurse about those concerns. She also suggested reading material on raisingchildrennetwork.com.au, but avoid taking advice from bloggers without qualifications.
The problem: You can’t go anywhere without your toddler clinging to you or bursting into tears
Separation anxiety is very common. Ms Arndt said that based on research, most children do not realise they are a separate identity from their mother for a long time, and when they begin to realise, they go through anxiety. However, some children are clingier than others.
“There are some children are more confident and will adapt quicker, and others are very clingy and find it harder to adapt to you being away,” she said. “It’s just their personality – the way they are made up.”
Have a good connection with your child and communicate with them.
“Your child needs to learn to be without you. So when you need to leave to work, or go somewhere, explain to them why you are leaving, that you are leaving them with someone who loves or cares for them, and that you will be back,” Ms Arndt said. “Some people think toddlers are too young to understand, but they understand a lot more than we give them credit for.”
Ms Arndt said it was important for parents to occasionally have that separation from their child, despite their anxiety.
“It’s beneficial to both a child and parent to have that separation. Parents go from being fairly independent people who look after only themselves 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to looking after someone else. For your own health and well-being, you need that time away.
“I also think it gives you more appreciation of your child when you have that time away and they get back to them. It also prepares your child for things like kinder or school. They learn to adapt to other people’s expectations and to be comfortable in different situations. It’s a skill they will take with them from childhood to adulthood.”
*Speak to your local maternal and child health nurse to discuss any concerns you have with your toddler’s behaviour.*