Toddler behaviour

Is your toddler too attached?

Some kids need more physical contact than others

Stephen Macdonald, now four, was a happy baby — so long as he was in close contact with his mom. “I pretty much carried him for 14 months. Once he was walking, if I put him down on the floor, he’d hang off my legs and bawl,” says his mother, Anita.

Stephen was nicknamed the “cling-on” by one of his aunts. And there were other comments: “He’s gonna be a mama’s boy.” “He needs to learn to be on his own a bit more.”

Can a baby be too attached?

But Macdonald and her husband, Jim, figured that Stephen just really needed physical contact. She says, “There’s a camp that values early independence, but I’m the opposite. I believe kids need to depend on you and know you’ll be there. I saw it as my job to provide that security.”

Can a baby be too attached? “Very few babies can become too attached,” says Carol Crill Russell, senior research associate at Invest in Kids in Toronto. While “attachment” is often used to describe the quality of the bond between a child and his caregiver, in this instance, think of it as the amount of physical closeness a child needs in order to grow and develop to his potential, says Crill Russell. “There’s a tremendous range in how much individual children want or need; those who have a shy or high-need temperament are often the ones who seem to need more closeness.”

While Stephen’s behaviour may have been well within the range of normal, Macdonald admits that it was frustrating at times because she couldn’t go anywhere — even the bathroom — on her own. “I was exhausted sometimes and we didn’t go out much during those months,” she admits.

Not all parents are comfortable providing their kids with so much physical contact. Problems can arise when there’s a mismatch between parent and child, or when circumstances (such as a return to work) necessitate sustained periods of separation.

Gluey attachment

Kids with what Crill Russell calls a “gluey attachment” won’t easily be pried out of your arms. But it is possible to facilitate a gentle separation, she says. The strongly attached child needs time to become familiar with new situations and will feel more secure when routines are predictable, whether you’re trying to move him into his own bed or prepare him for the transition to full-time care.

“You have to take baby steps,” says Crill Russell. If your child will be starting daycare, begin with short visits two or three months in advance. Stay only a short time at first. Show your enthusiasm for the caregiver, and get some routines going. As he becomes a bit more comfortable with the caregiver, let him know that you’re going to leave for five minutes and then come back (something you will have planned with his caregiver). Gradually build up the length of your absence.

Stephen’s mom says patience and the resolve to meet his need for physical closeness paid off. These days, he says goodbye to his mom when she drops him off at his junior kindergarten classroom with a smile and a hug. “Stephen still needs lots of physical contact; he always starts his morning with some time on my lap. After that, he’s ready to face the day.”