“My five month old feels as though she’s super-glued to me,” says Antoinette. “She screams if anybody else holds her and if I dare leave the room she gets hysterical! She’s my third baby so even though there are days when I just want to run from the room screaming ‘LEAVE ME ALONE!’ I know this will pass. But I’m sick of everyone telling me I’m spoiling her or that I should just let her cry and she’ll get over it.”
If, like Antoinette, you have a ‘Velcro baby’, be reassured – your baby’s clingy behaviour isn’t your fault, as you’ve simply been responding to the baby you have. Although it can be stressful to contend with a highly sensitive baby who wants to be constantly held, especially if she only wants to be held by you, it can help to see things from your baby’s perspective. Paediatrician Dr William Sears says, “In baby’s minds, mother is a part of themselves, and they are part of mother. Mother and baby are one, a complete package. These babies feel right when they feel at one with mother; they feel anxious and frightened when not with mother. These emotions are normal feelings inside a little person who knows that he needs the presence of his mother to thrive and to feel complete.”
Most babies go through clingy phases, and these are often due to developmental changes. For instance, newborns depend on close contact to adapt to the world outside the womb; carrying your baby will not only help him feel secure but will also regulate his immature heartbeat, rhythmic movements and respiration, helping to balance irregular waking, sleeping and feeding rhythms.
Just as babies have physical growth spurts, they also achieve neurological milestones, such as being able to perceive distance, which typically happens at around 25 weeks. This may result in clinginess as your baby realises “Mummy’s moving away from me”. Studies show marked increases in brain development as babies reach these new milestones, which Dutch researcher Professor Frans Plooij calls wonder weeks. Although some babies cope with these stages relatively easily, other babies can be overcome with confusion, frustration and anxiety, making them so unsettled they cling to the only safety and security they know – you!
Around six months (but this can vary with individual babies), is the beginning of an important emotional developmental process known as separation anxiety. This is the time when your baby realises you’re a separate being from her. Because young babies don’t have any concept of constancy – that is, they think that when you move out of their sight you don’t exist – this phase commonly lasts until around the age of two, when they can fully understand that when you disappear, you will come back. Separation anxiety is part of normal childhood development, and shows that your baby has developed a healthy attachment to you.
Think of Velcro babies as children with a healthy survival instinct, who know how to ensure their needs are met
Although this stage can vary in length and how babies react to it, Dr Sears has reassuring words for parents of children who become distraught about separations. He says, “Loud separation protests reveal that these babies have a capacity for forming deep attachments –if they didn't care deeply, they wouldn't fuss so loudly when separated. This capacity is the forerunner of intimacy in adult relationships.”
Or, in the words of Rachel, a mum of two Velcro babies who’ve now outgrown her arms and started school without a backwards glance, says, “I prefer to think of Velcro babies as babies with a healthy survival instinct, who know how to ensure their needs are met.”
Sharing the care
The best way to deal with your clingy baby is to help him feel secure by holding him, carrying him in a sling where he’s protected from poking by strangers, and introducing other people gradually. You can hold him as others interact with him, then, as he gets used to the friend or family member, they can hold him for short periods with you close by, eventually increasing the distance and separations as he feels comfortable.
If you do need to leave your little one, leaving him with an article of your unwashed clothing, such as your dressing gown or a T-shirt, can be comforting. It’s also important to be honest and say goodbye: it’s helpful to have a goodbye ritual and a return greeting so he can learn that although you leave sometimes, you do come back.
It’s normal for babies and toddlers to favour or be comforted more easily by one parent, usually Mummy, if they’re upset or hurt. This isn’t a rejection of the other parent, although it can seem this way.
It’s a good idea to encourage time with the parent who isn’t the primary carer. With small babies this can be done gradually, starting with Dad perhaps carrying the child in a sling when she’s happy, or giving her a massage while Mum holds her. Later, Dad can do an activity that’s solely his domain, such as bathing. This way, fathers can become more confident and have an opportunity to bond deeply with their child, too.
Copping the flak
If you do receive flak about your Velcro baby, keep in mind that your baby’s needs are more important than your critics’ opinions. You’re not spoiling your clingy baby – you’re teaching him to love and, all too soon, this really will pass. In just a few short years, he’ll be too embarrassed to even kiss you goodbye in front of his friends!
As Ali, a mother of a toddler, says, “My son was a Velcro baby right up until he was two years old. Now he’s happy to say goodbye to me. It was demanding and frustrating at times. But now, he’s so well adjusted, so happy, so confident and happy-go-lucky. He’s a wonderful little man. And I know it’s because I just accepted him and went with it.”
Pinky McKay, International Board certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), runs a private practice in Melbourne specialising in gentle parenting techniques. Find Pinky’s four books (including her recent title, Parenting By Heart), parenting resources and free newsletter at www.pinkymckay.com.au.