Toddler years are the first time many parents start to experience a disconnect with their child. It is frustrating for parents trying to establish firm boundaries to face a constant rule-defying child.
Why does this happen?
Well, the problem usually lies in unrealistic expectations from the child.
And the answer lies in setting age-appropriate expectations.
From my personal experience and talking with 100’s of mothers on Instagram and now proved through this survey, I can tell you that most friction between parents and toddlers occurs because of incorrect expectations placed on a child that’s not yet ready.
I am happy to collaborate with my friend and fellow Gentle Parenting mama, Vaishali from Amma Today, and share with you information on how to make your life with your toddler more peaceful with less drama.
Age-appropriate expectations from toddlers
Let us look at some common areas of struggle for parents and understand what is appropriate to expect from a toddler.
Sleep is a big concern for many parents. Parents are fussing over skipping of the day-time nap (that one big break mothers look forward to in the day) and multiple waking’s in the night.
Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest triggers for anger in parents. So, I get your frustration over your toddler’s seemingly erratic sleep patterns. But let me assure you that what you are experiencing is fairly normal for toddlers.
What are the normal expectations for sleep in toddlers?
Toddlers need about 12-13 hours of sleep every 24 hours. This sleep is usually broken down into 10-12 hours at night, followed by a nap of 1-2 hours during the day.
During the toddler years, the child is increasingly aware of his surroundings, the happenings in and around his home environment and more connected to his caregivers. This often means that the child will try to delay bedtime and stay up with the family.
It is okay to establish certain rules around bedtime, but this entire routine will take a while to set and until then you will need to provide a consistent framework.
Less than 5% of two-year-olds wake three or more times at night. (source)
Now with regards to sleeping through the night, I found this fascinating study that suggests that the norms around sleep need to be revised for breastfed toddlers.
It said that the published norms for infant sleep/wake patterns during the first 2 years of life included an increase in the length of maximum sleep bout from four to five to eight to ten hours by 4 months but a little decrease in total sleep in 24 hours from 13 to 15 hours.
The study followed thirty-two breast-fed infants for 2 years and collected data on 24-hour patterns of nursing and sleep.
It found that infants who were breastfed into the second year did not develop sleep/wake patterns in conformance with the norms. Instead of having long unbroken sleep at night, they continued to sleep in short bouts with frequent wakings for feeds. Their total sleep in 24 hours was less than that of weaned infants.
This pattern was most pronounced in infants who both nursed and shared a bed with the mother, common practices in many non-western cultures.
Therefore the sleep/wake development accepted as the physiologic norm may be attributable to the early weaning and separated sleeping practiced in western culture. As prolonged breastfeeding becomes more popular in our society, the norms of sleep/wake patterns in infancy will have to be revised. (source)
Now the second most important parenting concern and cause for much frustration and stress is food intake.
What is considered age-appropriate in terms of eating patterns and behaviors in young children?
Here are 4 points you need to consider as you set your expectations around food
- Growth slows down in the toddler years as compared to baby-hood. This means that toddlers’ food intake will reduce.
- Most toddlers are picky eaters, this goes back to the evolutionary protectionist behavior in toddlers. Toddlers being explorers used to roam free and were exposed to different plants and herbs some of which could be poisonous. This protective instinct helped them from accidentally eating a poisonous plant.
- Another important point to note is that around one year of age they finally begin to understand what they eat and can exert a level of control on how much they can eat. This brings with it a certain level of self-protection and guards against different flavors and textures. They crave sameness and consistency. This mechanism helps them feel safe and protected in a period where they are rapidly developing new skills such as speech, walking, running, climbing, certain new cognitive skills, etc.
- Most toddlers also do not yet possess functional independence, this means they cannot yet eat without making a mess, but they need the opportunity to eat independently and learn how to self-feed. Messy eating is a part of growing up and learning to eat independently, therefore parents who continue to feed their children because they make a mess when they eat are having unrealistic expectations, which in turn robs the child of the opportunity to learn how to eat on his own.
All of this is part of normal growth and development in the toddler years. As parents, you may need to readjust your expectations around the quantity of food consumed per meal (look at this guide here) and allow some messes to be made.
I will add here though, that toddler years are a great time to start working on those table manners and basic mealtime routines. Explain in short sentences and simple words what is expected at the table.
Our son went through a phase of throwing food off the plate;
I had to repeat many times,
“When you don’t like something, keep it on the side of the plate”
When it went on a few more times, I used to lay down a natural consequence.
“We don’t throw food in our house. I will take away your plate if you continue throwing food off the plate.”
And I followed through on my consequence when throwing continued.
In time he got it and stopped the habit.
In the meantime, as we worked on this behavior I also tried my best to understand why throwing was happening.
After a bit of trial and error I figured, when a lot of different foods were placed on his plate, especially in larger quantities, he was overwhelmed. His response was to eat a little and then throw foods off the plate.
Once I understood this, I changed the way I served him food. We started by offering him only one tablespoon of each food on the plate when we served. He could ask for more as he finished. This strategy worked really well.
So the combination of me changing his exposure to bad behavior causing circumstance and applying natural consequences when things got out of hand helped us get through to our son and stop the unwanted behavior.
Toddlers are going through an emotional whirlwind. This is the first time they are experiencing feelings like anger, guilt, shame, frustration, and their tiny brains cannot process these big emotions.
Understanding where your toddler is at emotionally can help parents manage toddler tantrums and unpredictable behaviors.
Offer them age-appropriate choices so they feel a sense of control.
And help them name these new emotions they are going through so they learn to recognize the emotion.
Coach your toddler on how to cope with certain feelings.
The following blog posts will give you exact strategies for handling emotions in toddlers.
Discipline literally means to teach and has nothing to do with punishment. Unfortunately, many parents think of discipline as punishing the child.
In a recent survey, it was found that employees would rather take a pay cut in favor of a better work-life balance. Extrinsic motivators like higher tiles and pay did not lead to more productivity at work. But a work environment that provided employees more control over their lives lead to more intrinsically motivated staff who work better.
This same human psychology works in children.
The more you give your children agency in life, the more settled and cooperative they will be.
Our job as parents is to create freedom within limits.
Our children need safe spaces to move in. And until they can figure it out themselves they need guidance on the subject of safety and how to treat those around them. Guidance, not punishments or shaming. You can call this a period of “hand-holding.”
Children thrive on routines, therefore provide children with a solid routine. A routine adds to sense security and calm.
At the same time understand that any change in routine be it travel, the arrival of a younger sibling, starting school will cause a shift in toddler behavior. Give your child some grace during such periods and with consistency bring them back to the routine.
Instead of time-outs consider a time-in with the parent. Allow the child some space to figure out what went wrong in the heat of the moment. At the same time give him the comfort of knowing that his parents love him regardless of his actions.
Certain situations do warrant a more firm approach and for these situations, parents can use Natural Consequences. To understand how to help your child through the chaos and set natural consequences read, Vaishali’s post here.
SOCIALIZATION AND SHARING
Around age 2, parents start making a lot of effort into helping the child socialize. This may be done through play dates or enrolling the child in playgroup.
But for the large part toddlers are still involved in parallel play and may not yet be ready to engage in cooperative play.
Some toddlers also go through stranger anxiety which can make socialization challenging.
How can parents help?
Well, first off, readjust your expectations on what toddler socialization looks like.
Parallel play is as important as cooperative play. Go to the park and on playdates. Your child is observing how other children play, how they talk and engage with those around. Mixed-age groups are very enriching for toddlers to learn from. So, don’t stop social outings because you feel your child is not engaging with those around.
Many parents also make a big deal out of sharing. Sharing happens when the child wants to engage in cooperative play (you will see this skill develop somewhere around age 4). 2-3-year-olds are not yet ready to share their toys and you should not force them to do the same.
You can, however, teach the child to take turns when playing in a group and practice self-control at home through different games. Games like “stop and go”, “lock and key” are great to get toddlers used to following simple instructions and practice controlling impulse.
At the same time, we don’t want to label our children selfish or punish them for skills that are not yet developed and ones that even when developed take long to be established.
My hope with this post is that parents understand that most of the chaos in our parenting lives is self-created when we lack empathy and have unrealistic expectations from our children.
Understanding toddler’s limitations and setting age-appropriate expectations avoid a lot of frustrations and disappointments. How we talk with our children and the expectations we have from them builds their confidence and makes them emotionally resilient in the long run.
What are some of the challenges you face as a toddler mom? Do these stem from unrealistic expectations?