When your kids start to regress

Baby-like behaviour is a common preschooler reaction to big changes such as a new brother or sister.

Photo: Jade and Bertrand Maitre/Getty Images

A five-year-old hops onto his chair during dinner to wiggle about like his brother. This scene could seem like a charming sibling copycat moment, except when it’s your five-year-old copying his two-year-old brother. That’s exactly the case with Oliver,* and his little brother, Simon.*

Oliver has been regressing — slipping in and out of baby mode — since his brother was born, explains his mother, Anna Cohen.

“He would do all the ‘adorable’ things his brother would do — crawl, coo, make the same sounds,” she says. “And while he is, of course, growing and developing, I feel he does regress a lot in his behaviour from time to time. It’s interesting, but so, so frustrating.”

Oliver’s behaviour is not uncommon. Children often regress when a new sibling comes along, or when other big life changes (such as divorce or a family move) occur. Cohen’s family recently moved abroad temporarily, relocating from Vancouver to Denmark.

“Regression is just the child’s way of dealing with change,” explains Calgary parenting educator Anna Lussenburg, who’s known as “Annie the nanny.” Like most of us, children want familiarity when they feel stress — which typically translates into babyhood. And particularly in cases of new siblings, it’s hard not to connect the dots between the baby’s behaviour and all the attention he or she is now getting — attention that used to go to the older sibling.

Lussenburg says that as long as medical concerns have been ruled out (physical changes such as losing potty skills should be discussed with a doctor), parents should take the regressive behaviour in stride and try not to focus on it. Lussenberg calls this “the classic parenting wobble.” If children sense their parents worrying about their behaviour — whether it’s hesitation over how to respond or hushed voices on the phone — it may exacerbate the problem. Lussenberg says that kids need their parents to be calm, decisive and confident; the “wobbling” gives children too much power by showing them that you’re upset.

When Oliver starts his baby routine, Cohen and her husband typically respond by reminding him of all the great things about being a “big kid,” such as going to school, learning to read and playing with friends. “We talk to him as we would to an adult, and show how differently he’s treated when he acts his age.”

This is precisely the type of response Lussenburg encourages, though it’s tricky — she also cautions parents against paying too much attention to the regressive behaviour.

“Talk about the behaviour without focusing on it,” she explains. Instead of a formal, sit-down talk, try bringing it up casually at snacktime or during another “big-kid” activity, such as cooking dinner or sorting laundry together. This tactic allows a conversation to happen in a more comfortable and natural way.

Working an older sibling into family routines such as dinner prep and laundry duties also gives your preschooler a different kind of special role, especially in the case of a cute baby brother or sister who takes up so much time and attention. Children may have to be shown the benefits of being an older sibling.

“Don’t be stressed if they want a bottle for a bit,” Lussenberg says — this is normal. “If it persists, you can show them the fun points about being a baby — like the cuddles. Then, subtly present the other side of the equation, saying things like ‘Poor baby does a lot of sleeping. That’s what babies do and it’s very boring. But you’re big and you can be mommy’s helper.’”

*Names have been changed.

A version of this article appeared in our February 2013 issue with the headline “Kids who regress,” p. 46.

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