Weird toddler self-soothing habits: When to worry

Toddlers do some pretty weird things to comfort themselves. Here’s what’s going on, what you can do to help and when to be concerned.

Photo: iStockphoto

My three-year-old daughter fiddles with her belly button. She has been doing it since she was two and a half. It would happen randomly—she would reach for her navel, just casually poking around, while she was getting dressed, playing or chatting. While it’s not quite as gross as, say, nose picking or hair chewing, I began to worry that it was becoming a habit and some kind of response to stress or discomfort.

Turns out, there’s no shortage of other bothersome self-soothing habits among toddlers and young kids. Thumb sucking and nail biting are biggies, of course, along with skin picking, hair pulling, teeth grinding and chewing on just about anything.

So, what’s going on?

Most of the time, these repetitive behaviours are a perfectly normal developmental phase and arise from a need to self-regulate. “They’re very common because kids at this age don’t understand what emotions are and try to do anything they can to soothe themselves,” says Jennifer Kolari, a child and family therapist and author of Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid.

Sometimes it’s obvious why a child might have picked up a new self-soothing technique. Looking back at my daughter’s belly button quirk, I realized that it began around the same time that she started potty training and transitioning to a new preschool room at daycare. Though she didn’t seem stressed by either event, it’s possible that this helped her deal with these new situations.

The origin of a particular habit itself may also be traceable. Kolari says many kids (including her own daughter when she was younger) touch their eyebrows obsessively, sometimes to the point of rubbing off the edges completely because it reminds them of stroking the hair on their mother’s arm when they were being fed as babies.

Miranda, a mother of three, has a four-year-old son who, as a toddler, used to like putting his hand in her armpit. It reminded him of that cozy skin-to-skin contact when he was a baby.

“The brain likes comfort and associates comfortable things with whatever was happening in the moment,” says Kolari. Toddlers look for comforting sensations that were familiar to them as babies—sucking, touching, skin-to-skin contact—and find a way to repeat them. Kolari explains that these behaviours repeat themselves as a result of forming neural pathways. “A habit is basically formed when you’ve laid down enough track, or neural hardware, and then you just can’t help it,” she says.

How should parents handle self-soothing?

little girl with finger up her nose Why toddlers put stuff up their nose“Don’t shame your kids when you notice these behaviours,” says Kolari. “Distraction is probably better.” You can also try casually redirecting a habit to a more socially acceptable behaviour. Kolari recommended that I try putting some Play-Doh in a thimble or small container for my daughter. “Find something that feels the same but is one step removed from what she is doing,” she says. “You can change that, and eventually it will just go away. Be casual about it by saying something like ‘Hey, let’s not bug your belly button today and try this instead.’”

For behaviours that may cause harm, such as hair pulling, try gently redirecting their hands. If they’re older, use a reduction technique or a substitute, such as a doll. “They can pull at the doll’s hair and then slowly change that,” says Kolari. “Usually, it’s about giving them something else that’s almost as satisfying but not as detrimental.”

The CALM technique

Kolari teaches parents the “CALM technique” to deal with a range of behavioural issues, including signs of anxiety. CALM is an acronym: C is for connecting by dropping whatever you’re doing, such as putting down your phone, and using your face and body to show your child that you are fully engaged with them; A is for affect matching by matching the look on your face to the expression on theirs when they’re reacting to something; L is for listening by paraphrasing, summarizing, clarifying and wondering out loud with your child about why they might be feeling the way they do; and M is for mirroring by showing your child that you’re feeling what they’re feeling in that moment. You’re empathizing and not trying to fix it.

Baby play

Kolari highly recommends upping the baby play and told me to try it with my daughter. For 10 to 20 minutes a day, she suggested declaring “Who cares if you’re three?” and wrapping my daughter up in a blanket, giving her a bottle of water, rubbing her nose and just letting her be a baby. “She is three, so at this age she is becoming aware that she isn’t a baby anymore and it’s a bigger world out there,” says Kolari. “It’s not unusual at two, three and certainly four to feel an increase in anxiety, which can sometimes come out in little behaviours.”

“Ignoring the behaviour can work, too,” says Kolari, “because it may just go away.”

When should you get it checked?

If you’re starting to worry about your kid, talk to a doctor or child therapist. Jenny, a mom of two, was concerned about her four-year-old son’s habit of pulling his top lip and stroking his Cupid’s bow. “After several months of him doing it at least five times a day, we began to wonder whether this habit might be related to a learning or developmental issue that we should explore further with his paediatrician,” she says.

Jenny was worried about the possibility of autism. While most weird toddler behaviours are nothing to worry about, occasionally these habits can be a sign of something bigger going on neurodevelopmentally. “We would look at autism if your child has poor social interaction, language delays and those repetitive behaviours tied together,” says Joanne Vaughan, a paediatrician in Toronto. “It’s not just the repetitive behaviours or self-soothing; it’s in the context of other things, particularly the social piece. For kids with milder autism, their language may not be affected, but the social piece, like talking back and forth, is. They can talk, but they might be talking about something that isn’t what you’re asking them about.” For Jenny’s son, both his teachers and paediatrician didn’t notice anything concerning about his behaviour, which put her more at ease with the habit. “As he grows, he is developing other, less visible self-soothing techniques and becoming more comfortable and confident in situations that previously made him anxious or nervous,” she says.

When will they grow out them?

Kids usually grow out of these behaviours by age four or five, when they become more aware of their emotions and don’t need these physical crutches anymore, says Kolari. “Young kids are repetitive and have many bizarre little rituals,” she says. “There are some adults who walk around with weird behaviours, but most people don’t do the things they did as babies anymore.”

My daughter was amused by my attempts to divert her belly button habit by giving her a thimbleful of Play-Doh or an extra-squishy squeeze ball as a substitute, but I think what’s had the biggest impact on her behaviour is the extra babying. For a few minutes a day, if she wants to sit on my lap while I spoon-feed her breakfast, I’m game, and then she’s more willing to let go and be a “big girl” when we’re all done. She is even giving her cute little belly button a break.

Read more:
How to get kids to stop biting their nails
Look at my bum!: Toddlers and their private parts

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