Child Devlopment: How To Play Your Young Toddler (12-18 Months)

Those of you long-time BabyShrink readers know that my Baby #4 is now officially a toddler. She's toddling, lurching, and careening around the house like she owns the joint. And now that she's officially past her "baby" days, her brain is going through a big burst that allows her to tackle more organized and complicated projects. It's why she now enjoys "working on" toys, as opposed to just chewing on them, or looking at them.

Your young toddler can remember more now, stay focused for longer, and is eager to try out her rapidly improving motor skills. She's also getting interested in trying to imitate you. She can't "play pretend" yet -- when she picks up the play phone and jabbers on it she's not pretending to talk to grandma (yet) -- but she's imitating YOU. It's an important step towards creative play -- which is the watershed development that leads to the ability to think and work creatively all her life.

You have the opportunity to make the most of this incredible time of development. Don't make yourself nuts by thinking you have to provide a ton of educational "stuff": simple things (and not too many of them) work best. Make yourself available to play with her, when she's receptive -- strike a balance between staying out of her play, and overwhelming her with your own play agenda. Follow her lead. When she picks up the dinosaur and looks to you questioningly, use it's name -- and offer a play option. "That's a dinosaur. Do you want to put him on top of your block tower?" Acknowledge her interest, and suggest a creative direction. It's called scaffolding -- letting her set the pace, but giving her a "boost" to build up to the next level of complexity in play. But don't push it -- you're there as a benevolent observer, and part-time participant.

Be ready to add these elements to your young toddler's playtime:

* Add another character, so that the play becomes about people and relationships.

* Add another object so that things can function in relation to each other. Think prepositions -- put something On Top Of, Underneath, or Inside.

* Modify the pace of play, based on her energy level. If she's getting too wound up, introduce some slower action. If she's not interested, try something new.

And most importantly, have fun!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Spending Holidays with Young Children: Keeping It Simple


Preserving the meaning of the holidays is tricky with so much pressure -- pressure to BUY, pressure to TRAVEL, and pressure to JUGGLE HOLIDAY EVENTS. The obligations start to pile up, and pretty soon we can't wait until it's all over.

Here in Hawaii, we've learned something about simplicity: Simple is better. Not always easier -- but better. As we're being bombarded with impossible holiday expectations, keep this in mind -- babies and young children don't have ANY expectations for the holidays. Everything is new to them -- even more reason to keep it simple. They can only absorb so much before they go into overload and meltdown. Admiring decorations, singing songs, and extra time with family are all it takes to make a great holiday for a young child -- and make it easier on us, too. Because kids -- especially young kids -- take their cues directly from us. So a successful holiday is mainly about OUR mood, and how it affects our kids. If we're stressed about travel schedules, dreading family reunions, and scrambling to get "the best" presents, our kids will absorb THOSE feelings about the holidays. On the other hand, if we can relax and enjoy the time off -- cooking, playing, and having fun with holiday rituals -- our kids will absorb THOSE feelings. Which sounds better?

Consider These Simpler Holiday Options:

* Fewer presents -- more thoughtfully written (and decorated) cards * Fewer "junk" holiday treats -- more time cooking real meals together * Less money spent on toys -- more time volunteering for those in need * Fewer holiday parties -- more family "cocooning" time

Aloha and Happy Holidays,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Aloha, Honolulu Advertiser Readers!

Can I brag for a minute, folks? I'm being featured in today's Honolulu Advertiser, in the Family Section. Zenaida Serrano was kind enough to use BabyShrink in her story about "Playing with Newborns". Our good friend and nanny Keri Duke is a professional artist and photographer (and my own professional lifesaver), and took this photo of our new baby and I having a fun time together. smallsashaandheathergood

If you're new to BabyShrink, welcome! I'm a Maui mom of four young children, and a licensed psychologist specializing in babies and young children. I've been answering reader questions here for two years now, so take a look around the site, and hit "Ask Dr. Heather" if you can't find an answer to your parenting dilemma. I'm happy to help!

And for those of you not lucky enough to live in Hawaii, here's a link to the Advertiser story.

Much mahalos, Zenaida!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

How to Talk to Kids: A Great Book

Our 6-year-old is in the throes of a really anxious phase. He often needs to be reassured about where we are, even if we're all just in the house. He's afraid to go to sleep at night. And he's terrified of "ET", a classic we allowed the babysitter to show the kids one night. You'd think my shrink-training would help in these situations, but often it doesn't. You know how it goes: When it comes to your own kids, rational knowledge goes out the window. Intellectually, I remind myself that 6-year-olds aren't rational creatures yet. They can't hang on to the logical reassurances we give them. They haven't reached the stage where logic "sticks" in their minds. In many ways, they're still like preschoolers; apt to live in the "magical world" of fantasy, imagination, and fears.

But when he's scared out of his wits, part of me wants to scream, "Snap out of it! We're not leaving you, we never have, and we never will! Enough, already, and go to sleep!"

So I'm calling in reinforcements. I've pulled an awesome book off my shelf and am reminded why I think this is one of the world's best parenting guides. If you haven't seen it, go spend 10 bucks on Amazon for the paperback version, or check it out of your library. You'll refer to it again and again (and I promise, I get no "cut" from promoting anything here). It's called "Between Parent and Child", by Dr. Haim Ginott. It was first published a million years ago, but it couldn't be more appropriate today. His sensitivity and approach to dealing with children simply can't be matched. Reading Ginott again has lifted a weight from my shoulders and reminded me that all will be well with our son, soon enough. It's also given me lots of good ideas for how to approach this phase-specific anxiety he's going through.

I hope you enjoy it!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: Do We Overprotect Our Kids?

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a daycare question about my 7-year-old twins; they go there on school breaks. My question is whether we are overprotecting them. How do you balance between teaching kids to stand up for themselves -- and protecting them?

Their provider's eight-year-old son is very big and plays rough. Without tormenting or actually bullying them, he sometimes holds them longer than they would like, or accidentally hits them. They say it's not on purpose, and trust me, my son is a tattle-tale, so I'd know. They don't seem at all afraid of him, but they get angry (understandably). His mother's response is to spank the boy after the fact. I would rather have it prevented than punished. On the other hand, I want them to learn to say no if they don't want to play with him, or if he gets rough. We could take them out of this daycare, role- play standing up for themselves and talk with the provider, or leave things as they are if we are over reacting. Both my husband and I were teased and I was bullied as a child, so I can't tell if I'm over or under-reacting to this situation.

I also wonder about playing alone outside. They need to be able to play outside sometimes without close supervision at this age, I feel. Is this wrong, and I'm expecting too much for their maturity level? It seems like in the 70s I was riding my bike around the neighborhood and playing unsupervised at their age.

I would love your advice! Mary H, Grand Rapids MI

Hi Mary,

It's a very complex question you ask: How much do we push our children to stand up for themselves -- and when is the right moment to jump in and protect them?

And you're right -- it is a different time we're in now. Most of us (of a certain age...ahem) remember riding bikes until dark (without helmets, of course), exploring uncharted neighborhood territories with only our pals along with us, and riding without seat belts, in the front seat of the car (in my case, I remember riding in the front-seat FOOTWELL of our VW Bug!)

Our parents think we're nuts about all this safety stuff. We all somehow lived...isn't it good enough for OUR kids? And to a certain degree, they're right. Our society does place an inordinate amount of scrutiny on the moment-to-moment activities of our children. They're not able to run free and just PLAY, and have unstructured "down-time". Free play, just for the sake of PLAY, is really important to the development of children. We schedule them like mad, and then wonder why they have ever-increasing rates of emotional and academic problems. There's just too much pressure to perform, every minute of the day. So you're right to wonder about letting them tackle their own problems, and having some room to grow.

But it is a different time -- we're more sophisticated today about safety issues, and we also understand that bullying can be really damaging to kids. So there is more than a kernel of truth in the approach that says we'd better watch our kids carefully, and intervene when necessary.

So how do you strike that balance?

That depends on your unique kids. Each one will have different needs for supervision, at different ages. Some may need a lot of coaching for how to negotiate complex social situations, like the one you describe. Other kids will have more of a knack for handling themselves. Similarly, their need for constant supervision will vary from kid to kid.

So this means you need to KNOW YOUR KID. What are their strengths and weaknesses, in social situations? What is their judgment like? Are they likely to cave in to peer pressure, or can they hold their ground? Are they leaders, or followers? Impulsive, or analytic? Constantly evaluating your kids in this way will help you know what they CAN handle, and what they still need your help in tackling. And don't worry if they DO still need your oversight; social situations are one of the most complicated things our brains process, and they are mostly handled in the outer cortex of the brain; the last to develop in humans. In fact, it looks like these brain areas are still a work-in-progress until the early 20's. So don't hesitate to step in and help your kids think through these things.

The other issue for you, Mary, is that your kids are in a daycare. Your daycare provider is being paid to keep your kids safe -- and so she'd better be watching them closely. Just for the sake of liability, she must provide them with an inordinate amount of structured, safe care. So SHE may be overreacting to her son's acting out. But I certainly think it would be fine to approach her with your observations about your kids, and let her know that you're fine with letting the kids hammer it out themselves in most cases.

And your idea about role-playing with your kids is terrific. I think that's something every parent should do, starting at about the age of 4 or 5; play-act tricky social situations with your kids. Take examples from scenes you have witnessed with them. Wait until everyone is feeling good and you all have some time. Then talk to them about how they might handle a tricky situation. "Let's play pretend. I want us all to practice what happens when a friend wants to play tag, but you'd rather go on the swings. What can you say to them?" I find kids really get into it, and even start suggesting wrinkles in the scenario. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to hear them echo the lessons they've learned with you -- when they're out on the playground.

As for so many of the issues we struggle with here at BabyShrink, this is not a "One Size Fits All" solution. But by following your own knowledge about your own kids, you'll find that balance over time.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

PS If you're interested in learning more about the importance of PLAY in childhood development, read this great article in the New York Times.

Parenting Tips: Getting a 2-Year-Old To Talk Nicely -- Is It Possible?

I love 2-year-olds. I really do. It's amazing to see how much they have learned in their very short time on this planet -- and some of that includes finding exactly what bugs their parents. I mean, think of the cognition involved in this process. First, they have to be able to understand the complexities of language. Then, they must remember key phrases that upset others. Then, they must be able to replicate those phrases at just the "right" moment, socially. All of this intricate ability is the reason that humans have such huge brains; the outer cortex is necessary in order for your 2-year-old to be able to insult you in public. In fact, when I evaluate a 2-year-old in my practice, I worry when I don't see signs of oppositional behavior. It's developmentally appropriate for him to be challenging things. Not exactly reassuring to parents, but I do try to point it out as a strong sign of healthy cognitive development. But wait, you want GOOD MANNERS, too?? BabyShrink reader Carmen does. Here's her question:

Dear Dr. Heather,

I guess “negative talk” is the best way to describe what has been going on with my 2 ½ yr. old boy. His favorite phrase is “I hate you,” followed by “na, na, na, na” with the occasional “you’re stupid” or “go away” thrown in. We also have a 5-year-old who no doubt has contributed to him learning these phrases, along with daycare kids, and Disney movies. My husband and I continually try ignoring, telling him “I don’t like that talk, please talk nicely,” “I know you do, but I loooove you,” “You can go to your room and come out when you are ready to use kind words.” He continues whenever he doesn’t get his way or is generally in a grumpy mood. It’s really embarrassing when we are over at grandparents, out to dinner, or with other kids and he starts this. What else can I do to end this?

Carmen from Seattle

Dear Carmen,

One thing to remember is that your 2-year-old doesn't really understand what he's saying, but he's loving the reaction he's getting to it. So you want to change the reaction he gets, in order to shape his behavior.

Your little guy is picking up that kind of language from the sources you mention -- older brother, daycare, Disney movies -- and has seen that it makes a big impact when he talks that way. So you actually have a couple of ways to tackle the problem.

First and foremost, reward and praise nice talking. Make it a family rule that "nice talking" gets rewarded, praised and acknowledged. Include both kids in the plan. Make a big deal out of "catching" them speaking nicely. Make up a sticker chart or find another way of rewarding them, whenever they're doing it.

Next, try to cut out the "negative talk" input he's getting. Talk to his daycare provider about instituting the same kind of program at school; rewarding nice language. And cut out the movies and TV he's watching with that kind of "negative talk". I know it's pervasive, but there really is a selection of better shows out there. (And just because it's Disney doesn't mean it's automatically appropriate for every age. There are very few Disney movies that I show our kids yet.) Make a point of watching what the adults say around them, too.

And when you're out and about, make a point about having nice manners -- and that includes How We Talk. Give them a little speech ahead of time. "Now, when we are in the restaurant, we use our inside voices, and talk nicely. Anyone who "talks mean" has to sit outside with me. Who wants to talk nicely? Who wants to eat inside the restaurant? Who can get sticker points for sitting nicely and talking nicely at dinner?" Then you have to be prepared to set the example for them; if one of them goes off on a negative talk tangent, calmly lead him outside and remind him of the rule. "Only boys who talk nicely are allowed to eat in the restaurant. We can sit out here until you can talk nicely."

It might take awhile for the kids to get the hang of it, but if all the adults are on the same page, it should work. Let us know!

Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

And: Is your toddler a screamer? Check out my post on that topic here.

Parenting Tips: How DO You "Play" With A Newborn Baby, Anyway?

Katie J. had some great questions last time: How much does she need to “play” with her new baby? Should we call out the Mommy Police if a new baby is left to coo and gurgle on her own, once in awhile?

Now that I’ve (hopefully) dispelled the guilt that Katie J. felt for not “maximizing” every possible play opportunity, I wanted to answer another related question….How DO you “play” with a tiny baby, anyway?

Easy. Hold her facing you, propped up at an angle on your legs, so her face is no more than 1-2 feet from yours. Babies’ eyes don’t focus well at longer distances. (And babies’ brains are hard-wired to look for and be interested in the human face…especially their parents').  Or let her stay in her bouncy seat, and sit on the floor in front of her. See what she seems to like best.

When you catch her gaze, smile and talk to her, in short, simple sentences. While she won’t “respond” in words, she will respond by using her body. Try to figure out what her body seems to be “saying” to you. Tell her what you think she’s “saying”, even if it’s just a guess. “Answer” her. Be silly. Sing to her. Experiment with the tone and volume of your voice, and with the way you move your body and face. See what she responds to best, and do more of that.

After awhile (for many babies, just a few minutes), she will have had “enough”. The direct interaction is intense for a baby that age. She needs it, but often can only tolerate it in short bursts. When she gets fussy, starts to look away, cough, drool and otherwise get “disorganized” with her body movements, you know you need to make a change. Perhaps she’d like to be held now? Maybe facing away from you, to cut down on the direct stimulation of your body and face? Or perhaps she prefers being “slung” over your shoulder, to get a nice, calming back rub? Or maybe she just wants some “alone time” now for a bit in her bouncy seat or swing, so she can try to make sense of the intense interaction with you she just had? Experiment with your baby. Find her rhythm. It’s there, it just takes your parent detective powers to figure out the ebb and flow of her cycle.

Your baby is most receptive to direct interaction with you when she is alert and calm. These periods come regularly throughout the day, in a cyclical pattern. Start to take notice of your baby’s unique (and often, predictable) rhythms. Very young babies like yours go through fairly rapid sleep/wake activity cycles throughout the day. These cycles consist of 3-4 hour cycles throughout the day that are usually fairly consistent, from baby to baby. For instance, here is a typical pattern for a very young baby:

  • Sleep (1-2 hours), transitioning to:
  • Happy/awake alertness --“play time” (the shortest of the phases, sometimes as short as just a few minutes), transitioning to:
  • Fussing/overstimulated/hungry, needing to be fed, held, soothed, transitioning back to:
  • Sleep, and so on, throughout the day.

Each baby is a little different; our first baby tended to go straight from sleep to fussy/hungry, then had her happy/alert “play” time after her tummy was full. But her younger brother could wait awhile after waking up and liked to “play” before he got hungry.

Start to observe your baby’s sleep/wake/alertness patterns. Jot down her activity level and the time of day. After a few days, you’ll start to see her pattern emerge. You can then target your play time for when she’s most receptive.

Have Fun!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

PS If you're interested in learning more, you must watch The Baby Human series. It's fascinating, and demonstrates exactly what I'm talking about here, and more. It also showcases current infant research in a really exciting way (I promise)!

Parenting Tips: How Much Time Should You Spend Playing With Your Baby?

Dear BabyShrink, I’m having trouble figuring out when to put my two-month-old daughter down, and when to pick her up and play with her. I've heard many ways of encouraging her development, but I feel guilty when I place her in her chair to get things done. She sleeps well at night, but I often spend a lot of time holding her and rocking her to sleep in the daytime. When I put her down in her bassinet she frequently wakes up crying, so I end up holding her while she naps. A big part of my problem is that I really don't want to be like my mom, who I feel was pretty neglectful. Sometimes when I put her down, I feel like I'm being like my mom. So, my question is, how much do I need to play and interact with my baby? How much is it okay to sit and let her play by herself?

Katie J.

Dear Katie J.,

Good questions: Is it OK to let a happy, alert baby sit alone in her baby seat while you get something done? And if so, how much, before there is “neglect” and developmental damage?

Trying to Improve our Parenting with Every Generation You say you want to change the pattern in your family of origin; and you want to pay more attention to your baby than what you experienced. Let me say this: The fact that you are conscious and aware of the issue tells me you are already most of the way there. It’s hard (but critically important) to be aware of the psychological baggage we bring to our parenting. If we’re not aware, we’re likely to do one of two things: Repeat the same negative patterns as the generations before us, OR overreact in the opposite direction in an attempt to “correct” the wrongs of our parents. So if you were neglected as a baby, you might find yourself either automatically leaving the baby alone too much…or being a “helicopter parent”; hovering every second, not allowing the baby any room to be alone. Conscious awareness of our ingrained tendencies makes it possible to move past them.

Once you’re aware of your tendencies, you can react less to your own inner demons, and respond more to the unique baby in front of you. What does she seem to need, today? What are the patterns you notice in her temperament? When is she most responsive to interaction and “play”? When is she content to be left on her own for a bit while you get something done around the house? There is no magical formula that tells us how many minutes per hour or day that will be optimal for her development. She will “tell” you, through her behavior. Babies are all different. You’re best off trying to “read” yours from moment to moment.

How Do I Know What My Baby Really Needs? When you observe your baby’s behavior over time, you will notice she has unique rhythms and patterns. Sometimes, she will have better control over her body, and be nice and alert. Other times, she will be disorganized in her movements, overwhelmed, irritable, tired or hungry. These patterns follow a fairly predictable cycle throughout the day. Your baby is most receptive to interaction and “play” when she is in the quiet, observant, alert phase of her sleep/wake/activity cycle. Other times, she will prefer to sit on her own, observing her environment, trying to make sense of it all. At two months, she is working so hard to try to focus her eyes, move her head (and feet and hands) purposefully, get used to her digestion and other internal sensations, and make sense of all that information. So giving her some time alone to “take it all in” while she’s in her bouncy seat (or crib, or bassinet) is perfectly fine. READ HER CUES. A well-developing baby will thrive on both her intimate, intense “play times” with you, and also be able to tolerate some time just watching the world go by.

A Mother’s Guilt: Never in Short Supply But it’s OK if you can’t play with her at each and every opportunity... I give you permission! Perhaps you have other things to do…Oh, I don’t know, like make dinner? Do laundry? Take care of other kids? Or, even lie down on the couch and relax for a bit (what a concept)? You need to balance her needs, and the needs of the family; that includes YOU too. You need to re-fuel yourself so that you can be your best with your baby. A tired, overwhelmed Mom doesn’t read anyone’s cues very well.

You can find practical solutions to some of the challenges in your baby’s early months, too. I hear you when you say your daughter is awake and fussy more in the daytime. You want to give her attention, but you also need to balance the needs of the rest of the household and the family. My second baby wanted to be held more than the others and didn’t nap well, but he slept well at night like your baby. So while we did play together during the day, when he was fussy and tired (but not willing to sleep) I schlepped him around in a front-carrier so that he could get the physical contact he craved, but I could still get something done around the house. Find solutions that are workable not only for your baby, but for you too.

Experiment with these ideas and let us know how it goes.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Next time, I’ll tackle a related issue: How DO you “play” with a tiny baby, anyway?