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"Babyish Behavior":
Is Regression Normal for a Preschooler?

QUESTION: My daughter will be three years old soon. She seems to have regressed lately. She has become clingy and fearful. How can we discourage this babyish behavior and help her to be the happy, daring, outgoing big girl she seemed to be growing into a few months ago when she was potty trained and gave up her bottle?

ANSWER: You clearly have a preference for seeing your daughter as more outgoing and daring than she apparently is right now. While controlling her bodily functions was a big step in her development, simultaneously relinquishing her bottle may have put her over the edge.

When children take a large developmental step, such as becoming toilet trained, they often initially need more soothing in other areas. Giving up the bottle, which is a self-soothing mechanism cuts off her ability to comfort herself at a time when she has challenged herself the most.

Regression is natural and serves to help a child adjust to a new level of growth. For example, a four year old will temporarily enjoy a bottle for a few weeks when a new baby arrives. Or a child that has just mastered reading will want to return to an earlier mastered activity, such as riding a tricycle. Some classrooms are based on this concept, allowing a child to be challenged in the morning and return to tasks already mastered in the afternoon.

Your daughter is clearly giving you the message to slow down the push toward being a "big girl." Reflect on your own values for autonomy. Are you critical of dependency needs your child shows, or are you overly anxious for her to be more grown up than she is ready to be?

If you find you place a premium on being independent, you are not alone! Our culture values autonomy, often at the cost of ignoring essential emotional needs. But our society's emphasis on autonomy also results in an abundance of both anxiety and depressive disorders. These disorders, in part, stem from early shame and disapproval of our "babyish" needs for help and reassurance. Yet, these are needs we never entirely outgrow.

Consider indulging, rather than criticizing your child's dependency needs. Your daughter is not being babyish: She is being two. Allow her to use a bottle if she wants to and even play at being a baby for 10 or 15 minutes each day. Hold her in your lap, rock her and make it into a game she can choose to play if she wants. All of us love to be taken care of and your daughter is no different. If you give her the opportunity to pretend to be a baby, she will let go of these behaviors when she is ready. You may be amazed at how much a three year old can enjoy this game, because you are making room for all of the conflicting feelings. Find ways to sanction her dependency and you will likely see her confidence and independence return in the activities she once enjoyed.


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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