Just when you feel you’ve mastered looking after a baby, that baby starts walking and talking and, almost overnight, can seem like a completely different person. Welcome to toddlerhood, a time of such rapid development for your child, you’ll marvel over their burgeoning personality and miss those days when you could pop them down somewhere and they stayed still.
For anyone going through the delights and growing pains of the toddler years and those ‘terrible twos’ - tantrums and sleepness nights included - there’s help at hand from child development expert and mum-of-three Dr Rebecca Chicot, whose new book, The Calm And Happy Toddler, explains exactly what’s going on, why and how you as a parent can best deal with it.
It’s packed full of advice, real-life examples and handy questionnaires, so you can work out everything from whether your toddler’s ready to start potty training, to if they might be on the autistic spectrum, all based on Dr Chicot’s parent-toddler approach which empowers parents as the people who know their child best and requires them to provide love and warmth, boundaries and limits, a secure and sensitive base and be consistent and present.
“There is nothing more complicated in the known universe than the human brain and this toddler period is the most intense period of development,” says Dr Chicot, who has a PhD in Parenting and Child Development from Cambridge University and is one of the founders of The Essential Parent Company.
“They start to exert their will on the physical world around them. They can reach for things, walk for things, bring things closer towards them and start to become verbal. So they’re developing a huge amount of new skills and new abilities. At the same time, their brain is trying to develop and learn, and kind of capture everything they’re doing. They are potentially creating thousands of synapses every second.
“That’s why I think that, quite often people start to feel like they’ve got to know their baby and their baby is this settled, little creature that they understand, and then they can be taken quite by surprise at this new paradigm shift in what their child goes through.”
One of the classic, more negative, traits of toddlers are tantrums, when they quite literally lose it - they’re not yet in control of their feelings - and can throw themselves on the ground. The role of parents is to help toddlers regulate their own emotions, says Dr Chicot.
“It’s not about giving in to them, it’s about that moment. Your role is to calm them down. Toddlers tend to tantrum if they’re hungry, or if they’re thirsty, if their routine has really changed and something unexpected is happening, if they’re cold, if they’re hot, if they’re bored.
“So you can anticipate when these things are likely. If you’re going to a great grandparent’s house full of china that they’re not allowed to touch - don’t take them there when they’re absolutely starving and haven’t had a run around for the day. So there are things that you can do to help, as well as regulate their emotions in the moment. You can help to regulate their day and their routine so that they have better and easier expectations and their little brain isn’t put under pressure that can lead to a meltdown.”
That’s not to say they’re never going to have tantrums though.
“We all know what it feels like when you’ve got low blood sugar and you can lash out and be angry when you’re driving. You just have to kind of empathise and think, they don’t even have the ‘hardware’ to be able to bring themselves back to a place of relaxation. A lot of adults don’t have it, that’s why you see so much aggression around. But we can help our toddlers get on an easier track, so that they will be calmer and gentler as they develop.”
Once babies outgrow their cots and move to a toddler bed, all good sleep habits can suddenly go out the window. Fear of the dark can kick in and it can seem as though there’s constantly a third person sleeping in your bed, besides you and your partner.
“The first thing is to try and encourage the bedroom to be a nice place of rest, so that it’s never a place that you are taken to as punishment. Don’t shut the door and lock them in. You want for any person to be able to fall asleep and stay happy in their bed. They have to feel safe and secure.
“I’m a bit of a softy when it comes to bedtime and I really wouldn’t advise sleep training. If the aim is to make a baby or a toddler just stay in bed and not bother you and not cry, it is possible to achieve that, but when you’re doing things like controlled crying, or leaving them to cry, you’re teaching them that you’re not there for them.
“I would try to help them get a good night-time routine, which involves stimulating melatonin [the sleep hormone] and reducing cortisol [the stress hormone]. So two hours before they go to sleep, no iPads or no TV. A simple trick from one of the sleep experts I work with in my company, to stimulate melatonin, is to have a very warm bath and a very short bath, because we associate our bodies cooling down with a sense of sleepiness, which helps us to go off.”
TIME TO TALK
In our busy modern lives, it can often feel as though there’s little time to spend one-to-one with our little people, helping them make sense of the world and staying one step ahead of their developmental needs. But Dr Chicot says children are “very good at knowing what they need to learn”, we just need to talk them through it.
“With the basic things around them they’re almost like little scientists already. What we can provide for them is a lot of conversation. That makes a huge difference - a lot of talking, a lot of chatting time. E ven if you’re doing things like folding the washing, talk to them, include them and wait for a response.
When you’ve got some down-time together, don’t turn the TV on, open a book.
“Sharing books at this age is incredibly important because that’s the time when you’re very much one-to-one,” says Dr Chicot.
“When you’re watching telly with them, it’s not really a shared experience. But when they’re sat on your lap, they know they’ve got your attention when you’ve got a book. That’s one of the simplest things you can do, that really helps their cognitive development so they don’t feel scared by books and words.”