When Children “Won’t Let You” Put Them Down

I support safe baby wearing for bonding and stimulation of infants. But what happens when older babies and toddlers scream when you put them down?    You can’t cook at a stove safely (I guess you could wear them on your back, but little legs still kick forward near a flame), drive a car, or change a diaper.  Or do the many, many other things that need to get done.  When an older baby or toddler demands to be held all the time, in the face of fun to be had in other places, everybody is upset.  The child first of all, but also the parent who doesn’t want to show rejection but doesn’t wish to or safely cannot hold the child for extended periods.  The issue usually isn’t too much attachment or even too little quality time.  It is that both party’s communication skills aren’t working well.

Children old enough to crawl and walk may still crave being held other than when they are ill or tired.  Who is to say that isn’t a good thing?  But frequently the child that demands to be held isn’t calm once they are picked up; I have seen them immediately go into an aggressive mode, pulling hair or hitting the parent holding them.  Seeing this pattern in their request to be picked up should be the big, big clue here.  These children are asking for a parent’s undivided attention and choose this method to get it.  Here are two strategies to support skill development while also being loving and respectful to your child.

The Happiest Toddler on the Block has a technique called “Patience Stretching” that I really like.  The child wants something that you can and will give him, such as a snack.  It could be a bottle if the child isn’t absolutely famished.  It could be a toy, even your phone.  You use the Fast Food Rule to communicate that you understand their request, and agree to it smiling the whole time.  You start to fulfill the request, then using some dramatic flair, say something like “Oh, wait, Mommy just has to go do _________ and I will be right back to [fulfill the request].”  You disappear for about 3 seconds, you can even talk to them from around the corner, saying you will be right there, then come back and deliver the goods with a smile.  Some younger children or very spirited children may cry, but some don’t even have the time to do so.  The next request gets a slightly longer pause, and it repeated until you have a minute or a few minutes between agreement to fulfill the request and the delivery.  Building patience this way is very kind, develops trust, and is so helpful to busy families that always have to take care of 3 things at once.

Strategy Number Two:  if your child is the kind who gets picked up only to squirm to get down in 30 seconds, you have someone with a habit of attention-getting that is going in the wrong direction.  Try getting down on their level and doing something physical, such as playing patty-cake or holding their hands and swinging.  Then redirect them to a favorite toy for independent play.  Your child may not be able to start some independent play without a little help.  Playing alone is a skill that is learned, not a developmental stage.  It is very important to develop that ability, as it supports creativity and exploration of the environment.  Strong independent play skills can also prevent the “I’m bored” stage later on.  Resist the temptation to say something like “I won’t pick you up but we can play” because your actions are saying that without using words.

By Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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