Our five-year-old has started acting babyish

girl crawlingQUESTION
My five-year-old daughter has become really babyish and is pretending to be much younger than she is. She has always been quite an advanced child who learned things quickly, such as dressing herself. But recently she has been refusing to do this and wants me to help her. She pretends she can’t put on her clothes, when clearly she can. This can be really difficult in the morning when we are all under pressure to get out the door. If I push her, she can throw a tantrum or have a meltdown, which makes everything worse.

She also puts on this babyish voice which is really annoying and she stops speaking correctly. She sometimes does this in front of people when we are out, which is a little embarrassing. She started school this year and this seems to be all fine; I don’t think she is doing the baby thing in the classroom.

Being the youngest of three she has to fight for her spot with her older brother and sister which meant she was more capable at an earlier age and now she has taken a step back. It was particularly bad getting back to school after the new year. What should I do when she is acting babyish like this? Do I just ignore it all?

Many young children go through phases of being “babyish” and appearing to be unable to do things that they are perfectly capable of. There can be lots of different specific reasons for this but at its heart it usually represents the child seeking some extra attention and care from their parent.

In my experience, it is common for this to happen with youngest children – when they are born they follow the lead of their older siblings and quickly want to be grown up like them. Like your daughter, they might appear to be more independent and go through their development steps sooner but they also miss out on individual attention that their older siblings might have got at the same time.

It is understandable therefore that at times the child might want to take a step back from being “independent” and to have their parent attend to them. Of course in a busy family this is not always possible and certainly seeking extra attention in the pressure of the morning routine just is not possible.

I’m not surprised also that your daughter’s regression has worsened at the start back to school in the new year. I think many families go into a sort of hibernation over the Christmas period and re-establishing the school routine with tired parents and tired children is hard work for everyone.

Morning routine
As getting ready for school is a particular flashpoint with your daughter, it is worth taking time to re-establish the morning routine. At the moment it sounds like she is getting your negative attention for “not dressing herself” or “slowing down” and this can, of course, escalate into tantrums.

The goal is to switch this around so she gets your positive attention for “trying to dress herself” and for “speeding up”.

To achieve this, a good idea is to set up a reward chart with your daughter and all the children. Sit down and explain in advance to them that you are all going to work as a team to get the morning back on track and happy for everyone. Break down the morning steps for your daughter with a picture for each on a chart (getting up, getting dressed, breakfast, packing her bag, etc) and allow her to get a star for each of these. You might employ a timer whereby she gets a star if she gets dressed in 10 minutes when you lay out her clothes for her.

As you implement this, be around to give lots of support and encouragement, for example, popping back when she is dressing and praising her – “Oh look you have your top on, nearly dressed now, etc”. The goal is to restart the morning routine so your daughter gets lots of positive attention for her independence.

Enjoy her being a ‘baby’
At times it can be helpful to play along with your daughter pretending to be a baby. For example, if during the day when you have time, she puts on babyish voice or appears to be looking for extra support, you can respond to this in a playful way. You might say, “You are pretending to be a baby, come on over here my little baby and I will give you a hug”. Then you can follow her lead and play the game of looking after her in whatever way she wants.

Joining in the pretend game is an opportunity to give your daughter physical affection and really good attention and can be a great way helping her feeling really secure and connected to you. It can also be an enjoyable moment for you as a parent – your daughter will be grown up soon and it is only a short window of time when she will need you in this way.

Calling it a game also allows you to ask her not to play it at times when it is inappropriate. For example, in the morning you might say: “We are not playing the baby game now, let’s get ready for school”. If you are out in public and she uses her babyish voice, you can simply remind her, “Let’s hear your proper voice now”. Explain to her that the baby game is something special between the two of you and best only played at home during playtime.

John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2016. John writes in the Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.
For information on John’s courses for parents see www.solutiontalk.ie