My five year old is acting like a baby

Q. I have two sons, a five year old and a 16 month old. When the younger was born we were happily surprised at how well our first child took to the new situation. Everything was going well until the baby was maybe five or six months old. However, since then, the five year old has been acting like a baby more and more. He uses baby talk and points to ask for things and gets easily upset if you don’t do what he wants. He says things like he wants to be a baby ,and he gurgles and babbles when he meets other people (which is embarrassing). However, he mostly does it around his father, in the evenings and at weekends. He gets very clingy and won’t go to the toilet or get dressed on his own and won’t let him take the baby out on his own.

At this point, we are finding it quite disruptive and impractical to family life. Not least because my husband and I have had different approaches. My husband tends to indulge the behaviour because it makes life easier and he believes he is feeling insecure, while I want to ignore it or offer rewards for good behaviour and instigate quality time. When you throw in one set of grandparents who indulge it and another set who try to talk him out of it, I feel he is getting very mixed messages about his behaviour and not likely to change.

He has just started school so I am concerned that his normal intelligent, curious self will not come across and that he will be isolated and won’t engage with school in the best way. I am a stay-at-home mother and am still breastfeeding the one year old, if this makes any difference. Have you any suggestions or insights into this phenomenon?

A. Though his “babyish” behaviour did not start until his new brother was five months old, it is probably best understood in the context of his competing with his brother for attention. The arrival of a new sibling has an enormous impact on an older child’s life, which is changed forever. They have to learn to share the world and their parents’ attention with another person and this is not easily achieved.

Frequently, they feel that their younger brother or sister is getting more attention and may judge that their parents favour him or her because he/she is more charming or cuter than them. At an unconscious level, your son might feel that if he copies his younger brother’s behaviour, he might gain your approval or “win you back”.

Once this pattern is reinforced and he gets some attention for it, he is likely to continue to seek you out in this way.

Agreeing expectations with your husband

As you rightly say, a central issue in your situation is the fact that your husband and you have very different ideas as how to respond to your son’s “babyish” behaviour which can lead to conflict between the two of you and a confusing message to your son as to what is expected of him and how he can gain your approval.

It is not simply a case of your husband being wrong or you being right. In fact, there are benefits to both of your approaches. It can be a good idea at times to indulge your son’s “babyish” behaviour (for example, during playtime) as a means of helping him feel secure and connected. Equally, it is important to expect him to behave as a five year old at other times, such as letting him get dressed by himself in the morning or when he meets new people, and so on. The key issue is to agree with your husband as to when babyish behaviour might be acceptable and when it isn’t.

Dealing with babyish behaviour when it is inappropriate

Avoid getting angry or frustrated with him, which can reinforce his behaviour. Instead you can largely ignore his behaviour and instead focus him on the behaviour you want to see – “Let’s hear your five-year-old voice now,” or “I know you can get those socks on.” Work hard to ensure you provide your attention only when he acts appropriately – “I’ll be back, when you have those socks on.

As much as possible give him responsibility and attention for acting his age. For example, at a time when he might act “babyish” such as when you have guests coming, you might prepare him by asking him to help introduce people, or to open the door or to take responsibility for the coats, and so on. Give him lots of praise when he does – for example, “J is such a help when people visit.”

Set up one-to-one time with your son

It is important that your older son has a routine of one-to-one special time with both you and your husband, ideally each day.

During those times it is important to give him lots of attention and to follow his lead as to what he wants to do. It is perfectly appropriate to engage in rough and tumble activities or pretend games where he imagines he is the baby and you are looking after him if that is what he wants.

Such close physical playful games that involve lots of hugs are important in helping him feel close and connected to you both.

Involve him in the care of his brother

To reduce sibling rivalry, take time to show him how to be a big brother by teaching his brother things or by helping you out when you need him (eg getting clothes or distracting his brother when you are busy). You want him to learn the satisfaction of being a great big brother and to see that this is the best way to gain your attention and approval.

There are several other articles on this website related to sibling rivalry and to helping children cope with the arrival of new siblings, either at the time of the birth or later on when problems might emerge.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, September 2013. John writes in the Health Plus Family of the Irish Times every Tuesday.